Social Capital: The Solution to Refugee Integration

In light of the current Syrian refugee crisis, the European Union has found itself in a precarious position, its internal unity threatened as member states remain divided over the initiatives proposed to relocate Syrian refugees across the continent. The ethical dilemma encapsulating this lack of consensus presents itself in the form of the question as to whether or not EU member states should have to bear the burden of accommodating the wave of refugees fleeing Syria. A humanitarian-based response to the question posed would find that it is a universal and moral obligation of profound importance to recognize the nature of human dignity and vulnerability, and thus accept those whom current events have rendered particularly susceptible to harm, whatever the costs may be. The fact that some sates remain opposed to welcoming Syrian refugees reflects the collective failure to move away from pervasive indifference towards employing an ethical approach based on compassion and human well-being rather than political interests. Though much is left to be done in terms of devising a comprehensive and structural solution that solely addresses the needs of the refugees, recent events indicate a marginal shift in the global attitudes surrounding this crisis. Renewed efforts at refugee redistribution and resettlement have followed the European Commission’s proposal for a compulsory quota system, in an effort to relieve some of the strain that has been placed on front- line countries such as Italy, Greece and Hungary. While many Eastern European states have taken a firm stance against this program, evidence supports the idea that successful integration of refugees is predicted to positively impact Europe’s economic performance in the long-run. The stated projection hinges almost entirely on the ability of Syrian refugees to overcome the restrictions and barriers associated with resettlement.

By encouraging their accumulation of social capital, it allows for Syrian refugees to expand their capabilities and ultimately become active drivers of substantial economic growth. It is necessary to emphasize the pivotal role played by social capital within the context of the refugee resettlement process as the main method by which refugees can overcome structural constraints and acquire access to capabilities (and thus, sustained economic well-being).

In order to establish the importance of the relationship between social capital, capabilities and the attainment of permanent self-sufficiency, it is beneficial to identify some of the barriers that Syrian refugees would potentially have to face throughout the resettlement process. From the perspective of a refugee, it is safe to assume that the fundamental priority would be to gain a strong foothold in the unfamiliar host society, and ensure their stability by gaining access to employment, education, health and housing. The process of integration has proven to be exceedingly difficult for a number of reasons, but the inability of refugees to communicate due to the presence of a language barrier, and hence their limited access to necessary information, is the critical factor that lays the basis for the little adaptation that generally occurs during the initial phases of resettlement. Combined with the fact that the skills and professional qualifications of the refugees may not necessarily be compatible with those required by the labor force, this inability to communicate severely hinders the prospects of those resettled to penetrate the market and obtain legal employment or even higher education. The discrepancy between the cultural values of the host society and those of the refugees will also further diminish the likelihood of successful integration, and may permeate negative associations and attitudes surrounding the refugee community, leading to the marginalization and social exclusion of an already vulnerable group of people.

While it is important to recognize the fact that EU member states oftentimes have diverging policies and approaches in terms of refugee integration, there are some common feature characteristic to the state that could make the transitional process more difficult. The state’s welfare system with regards to asylum seekers and refugees plays a prominent role in setting the parameters for refugee integration. Countries that recognize the plight of refugees may offer assistance in the form of substantial welfare benefits, the provision of public housing, and other material needs. However, it would be prudent to recognize the fact that over- compensation in the form of social welfare may ultimately facilitate the image of the refugee as being overly reliant on the state’s welfare system. In addition to the institutionalized discrimination present within aspects related to housing, education, training and employment that assumes the refugee as being inferior, the bureaucratic processes which systematically place refugees in a position of perpetual dependency only serve to augment any negative perceptions surrounding the refugee community. The initial reluctance of states to accommodate refugees due to concerns over fiscal costs may also translate into increased difficulties should the refugees find that they are unable to find appropriate employment. Furthermore, the state’s inability to find an effective solution for the issue of housing may translate into the formation of highly isolated neighborhoods or “ghettos”, which may facilitate the perception of refugees as belonging to the socially excluded within the host society.

Provided that refugees continue to be stigmatized, isolated and marginalized, it is unlikely that they will be able to overcome the aforementioned structural constraints associated with resettlement and integration, and thus, they will remain incapable of attaining that state of self-reliance, which is expected to generate positive economic growth throughout Europe.

Discourse surrounding the idea of “social exclusion” tends to define it in terms of unemployment, low educational attainment and poverty.While these factors are indeed relevant to the concept of social exclusion, they are merely outwardly manifestations of a more problematic issue. To draw upon Amartya Sen’s conceptual framework of human well being, exclusion deals more with the extent to which people are deprived access of their full set of capabilities. With respect to the refugees, their ability to realize self-actualization is compromised by their incapacity to access resources and the institutions that may potentially aid in the expansion of their set of capabilities. In order to find a solution to the question of how refugees can ultimately broaden their prospects by overcoming the problem of social exclusion, it is important to explore the connection that social capital has with regards to capabilities. Social capital can be understood to be the collective benefits and intangible resources that are inextricably linked with the interpersonal relationships present within a social network. Being a part of such a network (which is also a “capability” in and of itself) creates value for the people involved and generates benefits in the form of information and access to resources, which may have been available exclusively to members. This raises the argument that the attainment of new capabilities is actually enhanced by the possession of adequate social capital. Thus, being a part of the incumbent social network allows individuals to gain more capabilities, which will in turn, allow for the accruement of even more social capital, until the point has been reached by which the individual has complete access to their capabilities

The central issue underlying the premise of this argument is the fact that, by virtue of being in the process of resettlement, refugees do not have enough of that initial endowment of social capital to be able to generate such an expansion of capabilities. Their isolation from the society makes it increasingly difficult to better their socioeconomic position, and they will continue to be a fiscal burden on the state so long as they remain constricted in terms of their ability to develop capabilities that are deemed valuable within the society and the economy. Hence “development” within the context of this crisis should primarily focus on encouraging refugees to accumulate social capital, in order for them to become active components of the society. This approach would involve providing adequate language and vocational training (to empower refugees to seek higher education, employment and to integrate into society) alongside workshops centered around familiarizing refugees with the social and cultural norms present within the society. The state should also call upon the community to recognize the plight of the Syrian refugees in an attempt to elicit compassion, while also encouraging them to take part in the joint-participation “project” of making the refugees feel welcome, in the hopes that the broad-based norms of reciprocity and trust characteristic to social capital may be developed. Organizations responsible for ensuring that refugees attempt to integrate themselves into the society must take into account refugee feedback, and alter their strategies to fit the needs of the refugees themselves. Only by allowing the Syrian refugees to feel empowered and safe will they be able to successfully integrate into the society and establish themselves as individuals capable of having a life worth living for.

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