Tech Skills: A Solution for Economic Integration of Refugees?
by Jack Bevacqua
The migrant crisis is Europe’s greatest challenge today. No other issue facing the continent constitutes a more urgent humanitarian emergency or meaningful referendum on its liberal democratic principles. No other question of public policy encompasses as many complex geopolitical conflicts and sensitive domestic debates or provokes as visceral moral reactions. And in the absence of a firm solution, perhaps no other will more profoundly shape the continent’s future.
The immensity of the challenge and millions of lives at its stake demands a comprehensive, multi-tiered response. To live up to its democratic ideals, promote lasting regional security, and advance human dignity, Europe must work tirelessly and strategically to alleviate the plight of migrants. Although access to basic needs and relief such as food, shelter, and healthcare should be the most immediate concern, a critical element of the continent’s long-term plan must include paths to socioeconomic integration.
Yet European governments are ill-equipped to carry out this duty alone. They must find ready and willing partners across civil society whom they can rely on to tackle integration at the grassroots, interpersonal level. In recent years, some of the most innovative and impactful solutions have emerged from the continent’s growing tech industry. As linchpins of the modern economy and hotbeds of socially-minded talent, tech startup and social entrepreneurship ventures are uniquely positioned to lead the way on this issue. By partnering with tech, European governments can advance integration-driven solutions that offer sincere benefits to migrants and their countries.
The Crisis and its Costs
Part of Europe’s difficulty in developing an effective course of action has been the sheer magnitude of the crisis. In 2015 and 2016 alone, more than 1.3 million migrants from across the Middle East, Africa, and Eastern Europe arrived in the EU while over 2.5 million applied for asylum. Although arrival rates have fallen by almost half since then, nearly 1 million migrants remain trapped in asylum limbo and thousands more in Mediterranean states such as Libya with hopes of reaching the continent.
These migration levels and the perilous nature of the migration paths have created a humanitarian crisis that European officials have failed to manage, and often exacerbated. The journey to Europe is treacherous: most migrants travel by foot and sea, where they face threats of human trafficking, rape, and forced labor in addition to disease and famine. Since 2014, over 15,000 deaths and drownings have been reported from crossing the Mediterranean—the most common path—while thousands more have been reported missing, including 10,000 unaccounted for minors. A near-absence of solidarity or common action between European Union member states has further aggravated this profound tragedy.
Upon arriving in Europe, the gap between migrants’ hopes and realities has been immense. Rather than protection, liberty, equality, or opportunity, they have been met with opposition, neglect, and deprivation. Makeshift tents on city sidewalks, mostly in peripheral neighborhoods, are pervasive. Access to food, shelter, and clean water is scarce and provided largely by NGOs or volunteer groups. The majority of migrants face unemployment or job discrimination, including those with college degrees and years of professional experience.This treatment stands in direct contradiction to European government and society’s humanitarian principles.
The continent’s mangled public response has inflamed the regional politics, crippling opportunities for meaningful policy action and posing critical threats to the EU. Far-right populist parties threatening to dismantle the continent’s order and halt immigration continue to gain power across the EU. Cultural and political fault-lines between Western and Eastern Europe have reopened while officials in countries such as Hungary and Poland proudly tout ethnic nationalism and political illiberalism. The present and potential consequences of these developments cannot be underestimated. Without a moderate and well-coordinated political system based on common principles of solidarity, the crisis will worsen, Europe’s internal problems will multiply, and migrants will continue to suffer.
Clearly, the status quo is not working. European officials must look to new strategies, including better and more intensive engagement with on-the-ground actors. Overburdened and limited in scope, government alone cannot relieve migrants’ burden. Partnerships with civil society groups that work with migrants at the grassroots, human-to-human level can better position European governments to provide relief, direction, and opportunity to these people’s lives.
Some of the most engaged and innovative of these groups have emerged from the continent’s rapidly growing tech and social entrepreneurship sectors. Working directly with refugees at each step of their settlement and integration process, groups such as Konexio, Techfugees and Refugees on Rails have fought to improve living conditions and barriers to opportunity through language training, job and educational placement, cultural integration strategies, and digital learning. As a uniquely dynamic, education-focused, and human connection-driven industry that has attracted talent from across the globe and received record investments in recent years, tech is uniquely positioned to help governments better strategize and implement solutions for relief and integration.
Tech skills are among the most critical in empowering people personally and socio-economically. Yet many refugees arrive without basic computer skills, let alone knowledge of how to apply for jobs or navigate bureaucratic online processes. For refugees with advanced educational or professional backgrounds, many lack language skills or paths to finding education or entering the job market. Professional development and skills training programs offered by organizations such as Hack Your Future and Refugees Code are equipping migrants with the skills and resources necessary to thrive.
Through my work with Konexio, one of the growing leaders of this movement, I have had the fortune of seeing first-hand these how these strategies can change human lives. Welcoming over 100 students from more than 22 countries, Konexio provides innovative courses in digital literacy, coding, teamwork and communications, and French and English for France-based refugees, as well as a supportive network. The educational, professional, social, and cultural opportunities that we offer have helped realize tech’s goal of fostering human connection, belonging, and well-being. Such strategies can help refugees integrate today and will benefit Europe in the future.
Image of coding students courtesy of Konexio
About the Author
Jack Bevacqua is the community engagement manager at Konexio in Paris and a graduate of American University’s School of Public Affairs.