Immigrants underperform relative to the native population across many economic and social outcomes—a fact that has been documented in many EU member states. A lower employment rate and lower civic participation, as well as lower educational attainment of immigrant children all point to a lack of integration in host countries. This is a social concern and calls for policy action.
While many policies relevant for immigrant integration are decided at national level, namely inclusion in the welfare system, labour market regulations, access to education, residency or citizenship requirements, integration essentially happens locally. Local authorities and stakeholders can implement national policies in different ways and design their own programmes. Moreover, the local economy and demographic profiles of the local area strongly influence the type of incoming migrants and shape their subsequent integration paths. As a result, immigrants living in the same country and thus facing the same overall institutional and regulatory framework can still perform very differently, depending on local factors.
The European Commission announced its ‘New Pact on Migration and Asylum’ on 23 September 2020, with explicit emphasis on supporting integration into local communities. The pact indicates that successful integration benefits newcomers and local communities and shows how Europe can manage migration, build open and resilient societies and set a positive example. To achieve this goal, it is crucial to look into existing integration policies at the local level and to benefit from the lessons learned across Europe’s local communities.
This paper aims to understand the drivers of immigrant integration at the local level: why are some areas more successful at integrating immigrants? To what extent can observable local economic and demographic characteristics, or the concentration and diversity of immigrants, explain within-country differences in integration outcomes? What is the scope and role of local migration governance?
The setting for our analysis is Belgium, due to its multilevel governance system and high degree of autonomy at the regional and municipal levels.3 These factors lead to variation in the migration policies within the country. As of 2018, 16.8% (or 1.9 million) of the Belgian population came from a foreign country, among which more than one million were non-EU citizens.4 Over 2009-18, Belgium issued an average of 54,000 first residence permits per year. Among them, about 50% were for the purpose of family reunification, 11% for education, and 9% for work; the remaining permits were issued for other reasons, with international protection being among them.