Author: Kyra Dols
According to the European Union Common Principles, integration of status holders is a two-way process, demanding “the participation not only of immigrants and their descendants, but of every resident” (European Commission 2017). On the one hand, refugees are expected to adapt to the rights and responsibilities intrinsic to the host community. On the other hand, this receiving society should create a landscape of opportunities for the incoming refugees, that allow for political, social, economic, and cultural participation. EU member states are expected to shape their integration policies accordingly, as a way towards successful and sustainable integration, whilst clearly conveying the mutual rights and responsibilities (EU Commission 2017).
The Role of Education and Employment
Traditionally, education and employment have been treated as the most effective pathways to sustainable integration (UN Refugee Agency 2021). Education allows status holders to expand their knowledge, whilst becoming increasingly exposed to the cultural and linguistic diversity of the Netherlands. For refugees, access to education in the Netherlands is limited however; they are not entitled to financial study aid from the Dutch government. When education is provided by the AZC, this is often compromised in quality, or too generic to be useful for future careers (Dutch Council for Refugees 2020).
Employment on the other hand is treated as the ultimate milestone for integration in the Netherlands: when a refugee is able to engage in paid work, they are successfully integrated (Bevelander and Lundh 2007). Paid employment, however, is often infeasible due to language requirements. Above all, they are mainly based on the efforts of the status holder to adapt to Dutch norms and standards, and do thus not fully comply with the two-way integration principle.
A Potential Solution: Volunteering
Volunteering does comply with this principle. And it is precisely because of this that volunteering for refugees as pathway to civic integration is on the rise. This is not surprising considering its many mutual advantages. Intrinsically, volunteering opportunities are created by Dutch citizens, and increasingly fulfilled by status holders who, through the volunteering activity, learn about, and adapt to, Dutch rights and responsibilities (European Commission 2017). This two-way participation allows status holders to build a network outside of the AZCs. These bridging connections with Dutch nationals or people sharing similar values as the Dutch, are highly beneficial to the futures of status holders (Xin 2018). An expanded network, combined with a set of improved professional, social and language skills, and a curriculum vitae enriched with work experience, opens up employment opportunities.
Besides all these direct benefits for status holders, indirect side-effects are just as valuable. Not only do status holders feel they can give back to the Dutch society, it also distracts them from traumatic experiences or worries: volunteering allows status holders to feel “happier, freer, and better” (Bakker et. al. 2018). In addition to the mental health benefits, it indirectly contributes to the creation of a broader platform of support within the host society; questionnaires completed by stakeholders and status-holders show that both have created more understanding and empathy towards the other (Bakker et. al. 2018). This is potentially rooted in the aforementioned determination of status holders to give back to society, which is cited as the number one reason for status holders to engage in volunteering activities. As summarised by Samer from Iraq, “after the asylum procedure, financial benefit, and integration course, I want to do something in return. I want to become a Dutch citizen, and be good man” (Bakker et. al. 2018). Volunteering hence carries valuable benefits, both direct and indirect, to the integration process of status holders, and seamlessly complies with the two-way integration goal set out in the EU Common Principles.
Volunteering with Aan De Slag
A promising national example is Aan De Slag, a new initiative, aiming to connect Dutch citizens with status holders through volunteering opportunities within municipalities (Pharos 2019). Aan De Slag facilitates cooperation between various stakeholders, including status holders, social protection providers, municipal civil servants and civic initiative representatives, and has done so successfully in 22 municipalities (Pharos 2019). Today, 602 local organisations are collaborating with Aan De Slag, and have provided volunteering opportunities to 22.235 status holders (SER 2020). Structuring and stabilising the activation and participation of refugees within the local municipalities is their strength, and is done through, amongst others, elderly care, gardening, and event management (Pharos 2019).
Bakri Maskoun, a status holder from Utrecht, recommends every status holder to engage in volunteering via Aan De Slag: “you learn about the Dutch culture, you get to know new people, you can practice your Dutch, and form life-long friendships” (Pharos 2019). The Councillor of Utrecht seems to be equally positive about the initiative, and states that the it produces mutual benefits: not only for the status holder, but also for the local Dutch community (SER 2020). Aan De Slag is thus prime example of two-way integration, and therefore continues to advocate for the importance of volunteering as path towards integration.
Although one should be careful with undeclared work, employment-related abuse, and misunderstanding about the nature of volunteering, the potential of volunteering as path towards integration, or rather as something that can catalyse integration, is evident. Bringing it back to the two-way integration principle, shouldn’t we be asking ourselves, what are we doing to integrate?
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