“Which forms of policy contribute to the participation of refugees?”

Dr Meta van der Linden is a postdoctoral researcher affiliated with the Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences who is conducting a study on recently arrived refugees living in Rotterdam. The study, which involves 1,200 Rotterdam-based refugees, was commissioned by foundation de Verre Bergen.

“The Netherlands requires immigrants to attend civic integration courses for 22 years now. That policy has also been revised more than twenty times. The question we need to answer is, which forms of policy actually work for the intended target group?”

What exactly are you researching?

“We are trying to determine what kinds of strategies actually help refugees achieve a higher level of social participation. The Netherlands requires immigrants to attend civic integration courses for 22 years now. That policy has also been revised more than twenty times. The question we need to answer is, which forms of policy actually work for the intended target group? No one in Rotterdam has ever looked into that matter on this scale before. This is the question we are trying to answer in the EUR Bridge Project, by means of a panel survey, focus group discussions, and other methods.

Here in Rotterdam, we have a unique context, as we have two different integration programmes going on at the same time. The first was designed by the Rotterdam municipality in collaboration with the Dutch Council for Refugees. The second is a new, privately funded initiative by foundation Nieuw Thuis Rotterdam (the ‘New Home in Rotterdam Foundation’, a.k.a. SNTR). Among other things, they have 200 homes in the city, their own Dutch language school and offer frequent guidance by professionals. So the question we seek to answer is, is the latter approach more effective?”

I’d say it probably is... 

“Well, that’s the question we’re hoping to answer. For instance, receiving professional, personal guidance offers refugees assistance with navigating their lives in Rotterdam, but will it also help refugees to become self-reliant after this type of guidance ends? And to give you another example: SNTR puts great emphasis on learning Dutch, thus deferring the moment refugees actually enter the job market. Does this investment pay off in the end, or is it just causing refugees to fall behind in the race for a job? We don’t expect to obtain a one-size-fits-all answer, but rather different answers for different sub-groups, depending on their background and the experiences they have had in their country of origin and in the Netherlands.”

"What is interesting about this project is that we can discuss our findings with SNTR and policymakers on the municipal and national level."

Your study is funded by foundation De Verre Bergen. Does that have any bearing on the way in which the study is being conducted, or on the study results?

“The independence of the EUR Bridge project is governed by contractual agreement, and all our publications are publicly available. In addition, an advisory committee was established to monitor the scientific quality of our research. What is interesting about this project is that we can discuss our findings with SNTR and policymakers on the municipal and national level. Basically, we are working towards a practical implementation of our findings allowing us to have a stronger societal impact.”

Will your study results influence national policy?
“This type of research is quite unique, so our findings will be interesting to policymakers. In December 2019 we published two reports based on our Bridge panel survey and several focus group discussions. In those reports, we provide detailed information on who the refugees in Rotterdam are, how they are doing, what they think about integration, and what their experiences are with SNTR and Rotterdam integration policy. For instance, we’ve found that refugees feel at home and safe in the Netherlands. But we’ve also found that they are having difficulty learning Dutch and finding jobs. Nearly all refugees would like to have more social contacts, and some of them report feeling lonely. These reports determine a baseline, in the next few studies we will examine how refugees continue to fare in SNTR’s programme and in Rotterdam.”

The refugees themselves play a vital part in this project. Do they enjoy participating in the study?

“We are getting a remarkably high response rate of 85 per cent in our Bridge panel survey. Yes, it’s obvious to me that these people wish to have their opinions heard. That’s also obvious from the focus group discussions we organise, where they are very open and honest about their personal experiences.”

Integration policy can be a sensitive political issue. Is that affecting you in any way?

“Integration and integration policy are highly politicised subjects. That’s why this study is so important: it will allow for drawing up policies on the basis of scientific research, rather than on the basis of emotions or political agendas. The current integration policy assumes a high level of self-reliance: If you don’t pass your citizenship test within three years, you may be fined. This policy is based on the assumption that refugees must be encouraged to participate. However, what we’re seeing is a group of highly motivated people who would like to build up their lives in the Netherlands as soon as possible. So now we need to determine what type of policy works best for this group. I hope to be able to tell you more about that during the course of the study.”

Researcher