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Digitalising migrant integration services during the COVID-19 pandemic: adaptation, funding and accessibility

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Introduction

The COVID-19 pandemic has underlined the enormous contributions migrants make to their communities across the world, as well as the need for cohesive integration support for the promotion of migrants’ own health and well-being. In many societies, representing a significant portion of the ‘frontline’ workforce, migrants have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic – both physically and in terms of access to information and services. The adaptation of systems to allow for online service provision has been a key focus for service providers during this global health crisis, but for many migrants – and other vulnerable groups – accessing such online support can be difficult.

The European Commission’s EU action plan on integration and inclusion 2021-2027 highlights particular concerns around lack of internet connection, language barriers, lack of e-ID and lack of digital skills on the part of third-country nationals (TCNs) across Europe. Accordingly, this EWSI analysis focuses on the adaptation of migrant integration support services across EU countries, by examining whether existing services have been digitalised or not, whether and where new online services have been launched, and what barriers, if any, exist for TCNs in accessing these digitalised services.

The analysis does not present a comprehensive mapping of digitalised services across the EU, rather it identifies good practices in the digitalisation of relevant services and patterns in such initiatives and their funding.

Key findings

  • Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19 in early 2020, online services for TCNs existed in 24 of 27 EU countries.
  • The COVID-19 outbreak and ensuing restrictions led to the digitalisation of existing services – to either a limited or comprehensive extent - or the creation of new digital services supporting TCNs in all 27 EU countries.
  • Education services - particularly language courses - were the most likely type of service to be moved online across all countries.
  • 14 of 27 EU countries adapted healthcare services for online delivery to a limited extent, including through the online provision of COVID-19 prevention information - such as videos and tutorials - in languages relevant to migrant populations, and online consultations with general practitioners and an accompanying interpreter.
  • For some civil-society-led initiatives supporting TCNs, the switch to online delivery led to increased availability of volunteers (working remotely) and a decrease in project costs.
  • Other civil-society-led initiatives were forced to close due to COVID-19-related funding cuts or were unable to provide beneficiaries with the technology they needed to access newly digitalised services.
  • Digital access remains particularly difficult for recently arrived TCNs and other more vulnerable migrant groups, and the global health crisis has served to compound this.
  • More effort is needed on the part of most EU countries to promote digital inclusion alongside digitalisation.

Methodology

EWSI country coordinators provided information via a questionnaire created by the EWSI Editorial Team to assess the state of digitalisation of integration support in their respective countries. The EWSI team then collated the information provided in order to identify good practices in the digitalisation of relevant services and patterns in practices and their funding.

A service is understood to have been ‘digitalised’ if it has adapted its offline activities for delivery in an online context.

The three focus areas of the research were 1) the adaptation of existing services, 2) the creation of new online services and 3) digital accessibility for migrants in relation to these services.

All questions on services differentiated between state- and civil-society-led initiatives and were further separated into those initiatives delivered locally and those delivered at the national level. The questionnaire provided a breakdown of service sector ‘types’ to allow for cross-sectoral comparison and better understanding of the types of service that are more commonly adapted to online delivery. The specified types are as follows:

  • Social services (such as disability and homelessness support; care services; child protection)
  • Healthcare services
  • Employment support
  • Education
  • Vocational training
  • Youth-only services
  • Cultural activities
  • Other service type

Where new services were the focus the questionnaire asked if public funding has been made available for their implementation, in order to compare the extent to which new COVID-19 services are publicly or privately funded across EU countries.

Two questions addressed digital access. This was in order to determine the most common barriers that exist for migrants in accessing online services, and the extent to which service providers can deliver additional support to help users in overcoming these barriers.

Adaptation of existing services for third-country nationals

The COVID-19 pandemic has served as a stark reminder of the need for social connection in the promotion of individual wellbeing and social cohesion. It has also revealed that opportunities for such connection are more readily available to some than to others, due to varying levels of digital connectivity.

Public support services at both the local and national level are being adapted for online delivery across the EU, as service providers work to address – among other issues - the loneliness and isolation brought about by coronavirus measures. In many cases, this has been relatively simple to achieve. Many EU governments were already in the process of digitalising their services in general, and for some international organisations online delivery has been a feature of the support they offer for some time. For other governments and smaller organisations, the coronavirus outbreak constituted a push to start making the change to online service provision. Others still do not have the resources to digitalise.

Services targeting and accessible to TCNs have been adapted to varying extents across the EU. In this section of the questionnaire country coordinators were asked to specify which integration service types were available online prior to the outbreak of COVID-19 in early 2020, and which existing types had been adapted for online delivery after the outbreak. In 24 of 27 EU countries, integration services were available online to some extent before the outbreak. Within these 24 countries, 20 state-run and 15 civil-society-run online integration services were identified by country coordinators. Further, 20 countries had more than one service available online. Only three coordinators (in Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia) said that there were no integration services available online in their country before the onset of COVID-19. 20 coordinators said that existing integration services in their country had been digitalised – either completely or to a limited extent - for online delivery following the outbreak of COVID-19.

For the most part, Western, Northern and Mediterranean countries such as France, Portugal, Sweden, Denmark and Malta tend to have a higher level of online service provision for TCNs than those in Eastern and Central Europe such as Slovakia, Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria. This was the case prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and was not found to have changed to any large extent as a result of it. Those services that were already delivered partially online (which were more often state- rather than civil-society-run) were found to have made the switch to full online delivery in many cases, but those running fully offline prior to the pandemic were more likely to have been paused, moved online only partially or temporarily, or entirely discontinued.

In the Czech Republic, social and legal counselling provided by the Refugee Facilities Administration of the Ministry of the Interior (SUZ - operator of the country’s regional integration centres) was moved online temporarily during national lockdowns but returned to offline delivery as soon as possible, as beneficiaries found the online sessions to be impersonal and unsatisfying.

In Slovakia there were no integration services available online to TCNs before the pandemic, but following the outbreak social, health, youth-only, cultural and employment services, as well as education activities, were either fully or partially adapted for online delivery. By contrast, in Estonia - which has several state-run, national services accessible to TCNs (including in social services, healthcare services, employment support, education, youth-only services and cultural activities) - there was little adaptation for online delivery needed, because almost all services were available both online and offline before the pandemic and have continued to be so throughout it.

By the end of September 2021, all 27 EU countries had at least two digital services targeting TCNs. These include services for which TCNs are one of several target groups, rather than the sole target group. Initiatives at both the local and national level were found to have been adapted for online delivery to a similar extent, while state-run initiatives were more likely to have been adapted than those run by civil society (many of the latter were forced to close entirely). This might indicate fewer available resources for digitalisation on the part of civil-society-run initiatives.

Featured practices:

The following practices provide a selection of notable examples identified in EU countries:

Available before the COVID-19 pandemic

  • The state-run Integration Foundation in Estonia offers free language training to those that attend integration counselling online. Also notable is state initiative Teevitt, a useful youth information portal. Although not directly targeted at TCNs, it shares essential information relating to education, employment, relationships, health and society that young migrants can access.
  • In Germany, national non-profit platform Integreat provides migrants with local integration support in several languages. It shares comprehensive information and resources on a variety of topics, including social services, healthcare services, education, employment support, youth-only services, cultural activities and more.
  • In Sweden, where many integration services are already run online or in a hybrid online-offline format, the Swedish National Agency for Education provides a digital tool for the assessment of vocational training needs in five different languages. Migrants can use this tool to develop a clearer understanding of which of their skills are needed in Sweden, which areas they might want to secure further education in and where they might be able to integrate quickly into the Swedish labour market.
  • In Italy, the state-run ‘Individualised Exit Pathways from Exploitation’ project offers an interinstitutional online help desk providing information and access to integration and administrative services for migrants.
  • In Portugal, migrants can learn Portuguese for free through an online platform run by the country’s High Commissioner for Migration (ACM).

Adapted for online delivery in response to the COVID-19 pandemic

  • The Estonian Refugee Council now delivers several of its services online, including counselling for people with a refugee background in their mother tongue. 
  • Start with a Friend’ in Germany, a civil society initiative bringing together native locals and migrants, is offering tandem learning online and online community activities to keep people connected throughout the pandemic.
  • In Greece, NGO Metadrasi has been running its informal education programme ‘Step2School’ entirely online since the beginning of the pandemic.
  • The Municipality of Foligno in Italy moved its free integration advice services - dealing with residence permits, family reunification applications, job seeking and more - online as a result of the pandemic. TCNs can use WhatsApp and email to communicate with advisors.
  • In Belgium, the Association for the Right of Foreigners (ADDE) offers online consultations with a social worker via its social support helpline, with special measures added for victims of domestic violence during the pandemic. Also in Belgium, the inclusive Ras El Hanout theatre company ran workshops and screened performances online during the national lockdowns.

Creation and funding of new online services

New online services for TCNs have been developed across Europe since the coronavirus outbreak, at the same time as others have been forced to close. Many new services - usually provided by civil society - focus on education, particularly language training (such as in Lithuania, Spain and Greece), social services (such as in the Netherlands, France and Denmark) and healthcare services (in 13 countries, with notable examples in Italy, Spain, Germany, Sweden and Luxembourg). Education at the national level, to which most TCNs have access in most EU countries, was moved online temporarily in almost all countries.

New online services created since the outbreak of COVID-19 could be identified in 21 countries. According to EWSI’s analysis, no new services targeting TCNs have been created in Austria, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Estonia, Romania, or Slovenia since the outbreak.

For some civil society initiatives, switching to online service delivery means increased opportunity to recruit support from people able to volunteer virtually. This can be beneficial in that it can reduce the need for travel expenses, for both volunteers and service beneficiaries. It could also mean that more volunteers are available, as online sessions are less time consuming and therefore more appealing to professionals with busy schedules. Looking forward, as many in secure employment continue to work from home after lockdown periods - and to seek out worthwhile ways to fill their free time - it could be that this increase in volunteering will continue among those for whom remote working remains a possibility.

At the beginning of this global health crisis, availability of COVID-19 healthcare information for migrants was limited. Information in migrant groups’ own languages was even more so. While some governments noticed this and created special COVID-19 information services for TCNs - such as official translations of COVID-19 resources in Portugal and Finland -, in other EU countries this effort was left to civil society. In Denmark, for example, the Danish Refugee Council set up a COVID-19 hotline in 25 different languages, now used by the Danish Health Department to share essential information. In Malta, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) produced a range of online COVID-19 materials in languages commonly spoken by migrants in the country. Similarly, in Bulgaria, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Bulgaria and the Bulgarian Red Cross set up their own COVID-19 information initiatives to facilitate migrants’ access to essential information.

As far as public funding is concerned, 13 EU countries have made funding available for digitalisation since the COVID-19 outbreak. With regard to service area, most funding was made available in education (nine countries), employment (five countries) and healthcare (five countries). Malta made funding available in eight service areas, and Estonia in seven.

While these online developments are essential, EU countries and relevant organisations and institutions should also promote digital inclusion as they digitalise. Many migrant groups in Europe cannot regularly or reliably access the internet, and a full switch to online service delivery could therefore further their isolation rather than their integration.

Featured practices:

New online services for third country nationals

  • Since the outbreak of the pandemic the University of Zagreb and the Croatian Heritage Foundation have been offering (free) online language courses for non-native speakers and beginner speakers of the Croatian language.
  • In Lithuania, arts agency Artscape, partly funded by the Lithuanian Council of Culture, launched virtual platform STREAM. The initiative addresses the negative social consequences of local and national lockdowns (such as isolation and loneliness) by delivering targeted, culturally sensitive learning content to refugees and asylum seekers. Content includes online workshops related to language learning, vocational training, direct assistance, and artist-led creative activities.
  • As a response to the closure of migrant integration centres in Poland at the beginning of the pandemic, NGO Stowarzyszenie dla Ziemi organised free online tutoring for refugee children in cooperation with volunteers from the Pedagogical University of Cracow.
  • Portugal’s state-run National Support Centre for the Integration of Migrants (CNAIM) moved some of its integration support services online in response to the pandemic and ensuing lockdowns. Migrants can now speak to advisors via email and arrange online appointments.
  • Migrants in Latvia can now access online courses via the Latvian state’s e-Portal, providing training in such areas as job-seeking, e-commerce, project management, MS Excel, data analysis and visualisation, 3D printing technologies, IT security and personal data management.

The digital disadvantage

Although the adaptation of systems to allow for online service provision has been a priority during this global health crisis, many TCNs and other vulnerable groups struggle to access digital services. Many already marginalised individuals are finding themselves increasingly isolated with the continuation of coronavirus-related restrictions, as many in-person support services have been forced to close or have moved exclusively online. Those previously reliant on the computers and internet connection at their local libraries, for example, or on staff at their local community centre for help with navigating online services, have found themselves suddenly isolated with no means of digital assistance due to the closure of these public spaces.

Digital disadvantage often coincides with other forms of social and economic disadvantage, meaning that those individuals who could potentially benefit most from being socially connected - such as TCNs - are at greater risk of being left behind. Key obstacles for TCNs in accessing online support services include lack of internet connection, lack of technology, language barriers, lack of e-IDs, lack of digital skills (including familiarity with particular types of technology), and lack of time and space at home. Country coordinators were asked to identify which barriers to online participation most affect TCNs in their countries, and to specify the extent to which service providers have been able to offer additional support to overcome these barriers during the pandemic.

The majority of country coordinators surveyed – 21 of 27 - identified lack of necessary technology as one of the biggest obstacles TCNs face in accessing online services. In addition, coordinators in 23 countries said that lack of time and space at home was another major obstacle, while coordinators in 20 identified a lack of digital skills as a key problem facing TCNs.

Although digital service providers are sometimes able to source materials to overcome these obstacles and facilitate online access for TCNs, many civil society actors do not have the resources to do so. Moreover, even when they do have a reliable internet connection and the appropriate technology, many TCNs do not have the space or time to participate in online classes or to attend an online meeting, appointment or interview. Many find it difficult to secure a quiet or safe location at home from which to log on, and others – often TCN women, in particular - are overwhelmed with the additional family and childcare duties that come with ‘stay-at-home’ requirements.

Featured practices:

  • In late 2020, following strict lockdowns in France, the Unis-Cité project was launched - in conjunction with state authorities - to accelerate the social and professional integration of refugees through digital technology. The project runs workshops promoting the development of digital skills and teaching participants how to navigate national administrative procedures that facilitate their integration.
  • Also in France, the Emmaus Connect association partnered with internet service provider SDF to secure thousands of mobile phones, computers and credit top-ups for migrants and other isolated groups during the first wave of the pandemic.
  • In Austria, (migrant) students that needed them were loaned laptops and tablets by the ministry of education while remote learning was being enforced nationally.
  • Portugal has adjusted its online medical services to allow access for individuals without a registration number/e-ID, including migrants waiting for or without legal status in the country. This has been particularly useful in promoting vaccination. Also in Portugal, both state and civil society initiatives provided computers to (migrant) students for remote learning.
  • A network of independent associations in Ireland raised funds to provide laptops for people living in asylum-seeker accommodation and needing to access education services remotely during the national lockdowns.

Conclusions

The COVID-19 pandemic led to the digitalisation of integration support services across the EU. For the wider public, as well as for many third-country nationals, the adaptation of systems to allow for online service provision has led to increased access to essential support, more timely sharing of information and a greater sense of connectivity. This analysis found that COVID-19 restrictions have led to the digitalisation of existing services – to either a limited or comprehensive extent - or the creation of new digital services supporting TCNs in all 27 EU countries. Education services were the type of service most often digitalised across all EU countries, and for some civil-society-led initiatives supporting TCNs the switch to online delivery led to increased availability of volunteers (working remotely). At the same time, civil-society-led initiatives in several countries were forced to close due to pandemic-related funding cuts or were unable to provide beneficiaries with the technology they needed to access newly digitalised services.

The capacity of digital services to bring people together and to offer remote support to those that need it has been truly accentuated by this health crisis. The pandemic has also made it very clear, however, that there are vulnerable, isolated groups across the EU - and across the world - for whom online access remains difficult if not impossible, and that therefore greater, concerted effort is needed to achieve full digital inclusion. This could involve investing in digital skills and language training for third-country nationals, facilitating their access to digital infrastructure by providing subsidies for the purchase of internet connections, smartphones and laptops, and creating community-driven forums and programmes wherein digitalisation can be promoted in an inclusive and culturally sensitive fashion.

Help to keep the EWSI archive of good practices up to date! Submit examples of practices relating to COVID-19 and digitalisation here, or email us with any queries via ec-ewsi@ec.europa.eu.

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