The growing impact of the refugee crisis on public social services was one of the issues discussed at a conference organised by the European Commission’s Home Affairs Directorate on 29th March. The meeting was intended to raise awareness of the needs on the ground, and how future European funds may address these needs while taking account of the challenges faced by local stakeholders in accessing and implementing EU funds.

From security to social inclusion

Participants argued for a change in the narrative from an overreliance on security to a social inclusion focus. Wermer Keschbaum, from Austria’s Red Cross, called for brave politicians who support migrant integration from a social inclusion perspective. Andreas Schönstrom, Deputy Mayor of Malmö, a point of entry for the many asylum seekers who head for Sweden, argued for a change in the way EU funds are distributed. Mr Schönstrom explained that cities across Europe would like to take responsibility for welcoming and supporting refugees but cannot do so because the money is given to national governments, who he said, do not fulfil their commitment under the European relocation scheme, nor allow cities or regions to welcome refugees. 

Migrant crisis impact on social services

I was invited to speak at a session on the future of EU funding with representatives from Eurocities, the city of Amsterdam and the European Commission’s unit responsible for EU funds. I highlighted the key challenges faced by public social services, which ESN discusses in the briefing on the refugee crisis. These included housing provision, language immersion, information and training on asylum for social service practitioners, and specialist support for unaccompanied children. Housing came up as a high priority, particularly in cities and municipalities with already overstretched housing markets. This was a point highlighted by Sabine Kekic from Amsterdam City Council. She insisted that the shortage of affordable housing and accommodation for migrants and refugees was a problem.

I also highlighted some of the key challenges outlined by ESN members on accessing and implementing EU funds. The complexity of the daily management of EU funds was emphasised by panellists and participants. As recognised by ESN members who answered a questionnaire launched in December 2016, the complexity of EU funding may result in losing sight of the end goal, which is supporting vulnerable people to improve their quality of life. At a time when the EU has been called into question against the backdrop of populism, the refugee and migrant crisis, and increased inequalities, this is certainly detrimental to local practice, and for advancing the EU project more generally.

EU funds – making them fit for purpose

Moving onto EU funding’s future, I argued for a wider remit for the European Social Fund beyond employability to address social inclusion more broadly. This would allow for increasing flexibility to support innovation, experimental projects and best practice. It will also be beneficial for the functioning and relevance of EU funding to shift focus towards outcomes and end goals, rather than outputs and procedures. Strengthening local social services will be important, and this is where the EU funds can be of significant added value by supporting training, capacity building and cross-border professional exchange.

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