The refugee crisis: Challenges and responses for social investment


CEB-OECD High-Level Seminar

Remarks by Angel Gurría,

Secretary-General, OECD 

Paris, 17 May 2016

(As prepared for delivery)



Dear Governor Wenzel, Deputy Mayor Versini, Ladies and Gentlemen:


It is a great pleasure to open today’s joint high-level conference on the refugee crisis with the Council of Europe Development Bank (CEB). The OECD and CEB have led global work on migration for decades: the OECD has contributed analysis, data, knowledge, and tools to inform dialogue and shape policy; and CEB has worked on the frontlines, financing social projects for migrants, refugees, displaced persons, and other vulnerable groups. Given the complementarities between our work, the potential synergies from co-operation are clear.


We look forward to bringing together our knowledge, expertise ─ and mutual commitment to supporting better lives ─ to harness the benefits of migration and open up new opportunities for economic and social growth at local, regional, national and international levels.


The current context


The latest statistics suggest refugee flows to host countries are growing – in 2015, a record‑high 1.3 million people sought asylum in the EU. And countries that neighbour conflict zones host even larger numbers of vulnerable men, women and children. For example, Turkey alone is providing temporary protection to more than 2.7 million Syrians.


In assessing the impact of these flows, critics tend to focus on the upfront costs for host countries, while ignoring the economic dividend. And this is a mistake! The OECD estimates that in 2016 and 2017, additional public spending on processing asylum applications and welcoming refugees could boost aggregate demand in the European economy by about 0.1‑0.2% of GDP.

Designing and delivering effective integration policies 


I’d like to focus my comments today on the importance of effective integration policies.


There is no doubt that alleviating pressures on reception and transit centres in host countries is an immediate priority, reflected in CEB’s timely establishment of its Migrant and Refugee Fund. But we must not forget to look beyond the emergency aspects of the crisis. Migrant integration in the labour market and public life will be critical for ensuring social cohesion in the host country and empowering migrants to function as autonomous, productive, and successful, self‑realised citizens.


Flagship OECD publications such as our annual International Migration Outlook, Settling In, and Making Integration Work offer a comprehensive set of integration indicators and recommendations to navigate these challenges.


First, we must facilitate the active participation of migrants in the labour market, by making early and intensive efforts to improve literacy and language proficiency, strengthen adult education and vocational training, and streamline the assessment and recognition of foreign qualifications and skills. Many of those fleeing conflict zones have intermediate or higher diplomas: for example, the latest available data for Sweden shows that about 40% of recently arrived Syrians have at least an upper secondary education, and 15% have a tertiary diploma. Our economies cannot afford to waste this talent. 


Second, integration policies should reflect the diverse origins, profiles and motivations of refugees, and provide adequate support for the most vulnerable groups. In Europe, arrivals of unaccompanied minors have reached unprecedented levels, with as many as 86,000 unaccompanied children in 2015. Education and the provision of safe, stable surroundings are the top priorities for this cohort.


Third, migrants must have adequate access to social support systems, particularly health services. Many humanitarian migrants have experienced traumatic events prior to their arrival, and suffer associated psychological and mental health issues. Host countries should systematically supply migrants with information about local health care services to improve awareness, build trust, and increase health system utilisation.


Finally, successful integration requires well-functioning and inclusive cities that provide essential public services, including housing, and social infrastructure. Indeed, subnational governments are in charge of 40% of public spending on average in OECD countries and 60% of public investment. National governments must work hand-in-hand with regional and local authorities to design and deliver the appropriate services and infrastructure to achieve meaningful and long-lasting integration outcomes.


Harnessing the benefits of integration


Let me be clear: integration will require significant upfront investment. It will not be cheap, and the payoffs will not be immediate. But there are payoffs! Migrants pay taxes, make social security contributions, and in many cases receive fewer benefits. They also contribute to innovation and economic growth.


On Friday, we launched Working Together, a new OECD series on skills and labour market integration of immigrants and their children. Our inaugural study of Sweden ─ in which 16% of the population is foreign-born ─ shows that while the labour market outcomes of recently‑arrived refugees are lacklustre, there has been progress over time. And the children of immigrants are generally well‑integrated, despite the challenges faced by their parents. Sweden’s integration policies are working. But its experience shows that we must be patient.


Ladies and Gentlemen:


Effective integration policies are the key to unlocking the hidden social and economic dividends from the refugee crisis. The OECD looks forward to today’s discussions ─ and enhanced co-operation with CEB ─ in pursuit of better integration policies to deliver stronger, more inclusive societies, for better lives.


Thank you.


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