High-Level Conference on Integration of Beneficiaries of International Protection: Press conference remarks


Press conference remarks by Angel Gurría

Secretary-General, OECD

Paris, 28 January 2016

(As prepared for delivery)



Ladies and Gentlemen,


It is a great pleasure to welcome the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Mr. Filippo Grandi, to this high-level conference. As far as our records show, this is the first time that the UNHCR and the OECD have worked together so closely.


And what a timely collaboration this is. These are challenging days, when so many people are in need of international protection, stranded by violence, paralyzed by fear, driven out into the unknown, and not always met with understanding, or compassion. So I am proud to stand here with you, Commissioner, and call for stronger action to support the effective integration of refugees and their children.


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In 2015, more than 1 million people crossed the Mediterranean Sea in search of international protection. 1.5 million claimed asylum in OECD countries. This is almost twice the number recorded in 2014. At the same time, they represent only about 0.1% of the total OECD population, and, even in Europe, they represent less than 0.3% of the total EU population. Europe has the capacity and the experience to deal with this inflow.


Since the 1st of January this year more than 46,000 people have landed in Greece and Italy, almost 2,000 people a day. This is less than in October and November last year, which saw peaks of 10,000 thousand per day, but the humanitarian migration crisis remains at critical levels. Despite the sensitivity of public opinion on migration issues, European leaders cannot opt-out of this crisis. We need a bold, comprehensive and collective policy response. We praise the efforts of the Interior Ministers that gathered this week in Amsterdam to address concerns surrounding the migration crisis. We urge them to protect the Schengen area.



The humanitarian crisis is about people


This crisis is not just about numbers. This crisis is about people, it’s about lives.


About the lives of Bouchra, Elham or Zeyad from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Some of the individuals that you see photographed upstairs.


These three countries alone accounted for almost half of all asylum applications in OECD countries in 2015, with around 10% coming originally from Sub-Saharan Africa. Although men are still overrepresented among refugees, in 2015, more than one in four asylum seekers were women. There are now as many women and children on the boats as men.


So this crisis is also about children: About Ibrahim, Wali or Abdallah, pictured in our exhibition. Sometimes they travel with family, but more and more often, children are arriving alone. In Europe, arrivals of unaccompanied minors have reached unprecedented levels with probably as many as 86,000 unaccompanied children in 2015. This poses enormous challenges for welcoming services and communities.


This crisis is about Samer, Nawar or Hanaa; doctors, students and teachers. The latest available data for Sweden shows that about 40% of recently arrived Syrians have at least an upper secondary diploma; 15% have a tertiary diploma. But whatever the skill level of refugees, we need to recognise and further develop their skills to facilitate integration into our labour markets.


Take a look at the impressive pictures just outside this room, taken by Anne A-R. They show the human face of this crisis.



An asset, not a burden


Some would paint these refugees in a hostile light, fearing the burden they might impose on taxpayers, or the impact on local values or culture. Yet the evidence shows that these fears do not hold up to scrutiny.


The message from OECD’s work is clear: well-managed migration can play a positive role in the economy. Immigrants are generally not a burden to the public purse; they pay taxes and social security contributions, receiving in many cases less in benefits. They also contribute to innovation and economic growth.


Of course, for receiving countries, the reception and integration of large numbers of refugees can pose considerable challenges. Recent tragic events in Cologne and elsewhere in Germany remind us of the need to better assess these challenges and the importance of integration programmes.


Integration can be complicated by the trauma refugees have suffered, their poor language skills and often by a lack of certification for their competences or qualifications. Countries will need substantial short-term investment to help refugees settle and develop their skills.


Evidence shows that it may take 5-6 years, or more, until the majority of refugees are employed. But if countries can shorten this time and harness the skills of refugees, the rewards are significant.



The OECD can support better integration for better lives


Immediate policy responses have to deal with saving lives at sea; providing emergency support; reinforcing controls at external EU borders; improving burden-sharing and coordination mechanisms.


But we need to focus also on the medium- and longer-term. We need active measures to foster the integration of refugees. In Europe, many countries have longstanding introduction programmes for refugees. They may need to be scaled up and made available throughout the country. They need to be adaptable to rising and diverse refugee flows.  


The OECD has a detailed set of integration indicators and recommendations to offer countries the best advice in this vital area.


The OECD publication we release today, Making Integration Work for Humanitarian Migrants, offers examples of good practices from Members, along with comparative overviews of the legal system for integration. There are three main messages:

  • 1) Focus on early intervention – Ensure potential refugees have early access to the labour market and support measures like language courses and skills recognition.
  • 2) There is no “one-size-fits-all” - Take into account the diversity of humanitarian migrants and provide adequate support to the most vulnerable groups (including granting access to school for children).
  • And 3) Ensure a fair access to support services throughout the country, working with local authorities and non-state actors; and help humanitarian migrants to settle where jobs are, not just where housing is cheaper or more easily available.


Several OECD countries are already developing innovative approaches, like Sweden’s “Fast track programme for skill’s recognition”; the online tools for skills assessment in Germany; or Norway’s streamed language courses. You will find these alongside other examples of good practices in our publication.


Today, with the OECD UNHCR High Level Conference on Integration, we are bringing together high-level officials from over 30 OECD and non-OECD countries to share their experience in hosting, welcoming and integrating refugees and discuss new approaches.


We hope this will be a step towards much needed ambitious, proactive and coordinated integration policies. Which is also a step on the way to stronger and more inclusive growth.


Commissioner, Ladies and Gentlemen,


We have not just a moral duty, but a clear economic incentive to help the millions of refugees living in OECD countries to develop the skills they need to work productively, safely and happily in the jobs of tomorrow.


The successful integration of migrants and refugees is becoming a key pillar of our work at the OECD. It feeds into our inclusive growth agenda, it feeds into our skills agenda, into our social agenda, and into our productivity agenda. We will continue working closely with our Members, and with UNHCR, to design, deliver and implement better integration policies for better lives. Better lives for the refugees you see on the walls outside this room.


Thank you.