“If there is something that defines the human being, it is diversity” 

20 July 2023

To discover the diversity of the population in Madrid, all you have to do is walk through the city. You will come across various accents, colours and traditions that will enrich your local experience. 

550,000 of the three million inhabitants of the capital of Spain have a foreign origin. Madrid has been “a diverse city” since “many years ago,” says Angel Luis Maroto, Head of the Coexistence and Integration Department at Madrid City Council. Until the 90s, people came to the Spanish capital from rural areas. “Nowadays, migration comes from all over the world,” he adds. 

An example is the geometric progression of migrant minors that arrived in the city. In 2022, Madrid welcomed 600 children; in the first half of 2023, 2,500 have already arrived in the Spanish capital. Those youngsters soon find themselves in vulnerable situations when, after turning 18, they are no longer covered under the childhood protection system and can lose their residence permits, Maroto explains. 

Cities will continue to be more and more diverse 

But the Spanish capital is not the only city experiencing a progressive change in the nationality of its residents. According to the general coordinator, urban environments will continue to be more and more diverse due to political situations and humanitarian disasters that will cause people to seek to improve their living conditions and quality of life in cities. 

Maroto presenting data. Photo by Madrid Employment Agency

For Maroto, it is vital not to stigmatise the migrant population. Instead, he advocates for promoting diverse social services that adapt to new arrivals. Also, it is necessary to spot those elements of reception and social services that are not matching the needs of the migrant population once they need those services, when being beneficiaries, and also when they no longer need them. “Transversality must be ensured. This is what future policies have to focus on,” he claims. 

Paola Alvarez, Senior Regional Thematic Specialist at the IOM’s labour mobility and social inclusion, stresses that “integration is not a standalone intervention, but access and participation in the community.” 

Indeed, young and adult migrants continue to face challenges regardless of the city they end up living. To name a few, resident permits, recognitions of qualifications, obstacles to participation in society, discrimination, and so on. 

To strengthen the participation of migrants in cities, she says, two elements are essential: improving the coordination between the institutions and stakeholders, and fostering the co-design of migration services at the city level. An example of co-design is UNITES, an AMIF-funded project led by Eurocities that trains and accompanies eight European cities to co-design integration strategies with other stakeholders and migrants. 

Welcoming, social integration, social harmony and participation are to be ensured, according to Maroto. Therefore, the Madrid Forum for Dialogue and Coexistence was created to advise the council on intercultural social coexistence, diversity and migration. Because, Maroto concludes, “if there is something that defines the human being, it is diversity.” 

Can cities fight against racism? 

According to the OECD study ‘Indicators of Immigrant Integration 2023,’ the perception of discrimination has increased over the past decade in many countries, notably in Europe. 

The Spanish Observatory of Racism and Xenophobia (OBERAXE), part of the Ministry of Inclusion, Social Security and Migrations, offers capacity-building programmes for municipalities under European funds such as CERV, Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020 to those city officials with direct and frequent contact with the migrant population. Some examples of these projects are LEARN, CLARA, CISDO or SCORE. 

Rodriguez presenting OBERAXE’s work. Photo by Madrid Employment Agency

Luis Rodriguez Calles, Tragsatec Technical Assistant at OBERAXE, explains that local entities can carry out many types of interventions, projects and activities to address racism, xenophobia and other associated forms of intolerance.  

For example, having strategies for coexistence and prevention of racism and xenophobia. Municipalities can also develop guides, programmes and awareness-raising and prevention campaigs aimed at the general public, Rodriguez adds, but also at professionals and other personnel in direct attention to citizens. For care and reparation for victims of hate crimes, establishing offices in the city and designing guides can be suitable local measures.  

He adds that municipalities can also disseminate studies, reports and results of projects to provide trustworthy information and context for a correct understanding of the problem. Dissemination could also target local media. 

“With the private sector, we must work on awareness,” points Rodriguez. 

Gaps of labour integration  

Ensuring integration into the labour market is essential to welcoming migrants into society. While the foreign-born population in Spain has grown by almost 4.2 million, the working-age population born there has decreased by more than one million since 2002. And although the percentage of migrants in the country is about 15%, they account for more than 62% of the new working-age population. 

Those numbers come from OBERAXE. Studies authored by professors Ramón Mahía and Eva Medina (Madrid Autonomous University) and supported by the observatory show that the population with a migrant background in Spain is concentrated in the metropolitan areas of the largest cities, such as Madrid and Barcelona, as usual in modern societies. People also establish in agricultural enclaves and tourism hot spots around the Mediterranean corridor.  

View of Madrid. Photo by Florian Wehde on Unsplash

This is due to “the high demand for labour in productive sectors such as hospitality and other activities related to tourism, services and commercial agriculture, with a very intensive seasonal demand,” says Rodriguez. “And, generally, in conditions of low wages, long working hours, and little job stability. 

People with migrant backgrounds are more likely than native-born to have more challenging jobs, temporary contracts, and part-time positions and are usually overqualified, says Rodriguez. “The results and data presented reveal a remarkable lack of integration due to inequality and discrimination that must be considered essential to explain the lack of integration,” Rodriguez says. 

According to the OECD, in 2020, 50% of displaced people who had arrived in the OECD in the past five years were tertiary educated, compared with 35% ten years earlier. “Migrants are more likely to be overqualified for their job,” agrees Etienne de Perier, Senior Expert on Migration Management Response at DG Migration and Home Affairs at the European Commission 

The expert explains that the EU’s legal framework is being reviewed and updated with comprehensive regulations to make Europe a more attractive place to work for third-country nationals, and make migration easier for employment seekers.  

The current EU action plan on integration and inclusion 2021-27 focuses on four sectoral priorities: education, employment, health and housing, and five horizontal priorities: building solid partnerships, increasing EU funding for integration, fostering participation in host societies, enhancing the use of digital tools for integration/inclusion and monitoring progress. 

However, migrants still face extra challenges, such as language barriers, recognition of qualifications and gender gaps. 

What about gender? 

In the study, OBERAXE analyses factors when measuring the labour market integration of foreign populations, such as origin, territory, gender, education, and many more. Data shows additional integration penalties for foreign women and those working in the Southern regions of Spain. 

“Women face lower labour outcomes across Europe and need personalised support,” agrees Michela Meghnagi, Policy Analyst at the local employment, skills and social innovation division of the OECD. “With migrants, the gender gap is even worse. Women have skills not supported by diplomas. Many European projects focused on empowering women and helping them understand their skills and their added value to the labour market.” 

Vienna is an example of the quick integration of Ukrainian women. The objective is to help those in the care sector obtain a quick validation of their diploma, as there are labour shortages in the city. Their labour market integration was supported by offering language courses, internship opportunities and childcare facilities when needed.

Additionally, the Austrian organisation ABZ has developed a competence fast-track check for female migrants and refugees to identify informal skills and experiences, and facilitate the quick validation of diplomas, internships and training programmes to situate them in the labour market better.

Meghnagi participates in an OECD project that analyses Amsterdam’s policies concerning employment and skills. The city identified two areas to focus: youth and migrants, and how to improve labour market integration and development of skills of these two groups.  

Meghnagi highlights a few recommendations from the project: develop job-related language training, create targeted programmes for women, adapt services for young people facing multiple challenges and avoid school dropouts, tackle discrimination in hiring processes, and strengthen the collaboration between the municipality and the employers as “together, they can build opportunities for both young people and adults.” 

She states those recommendations can be applicable outside the Dutch city, and insists on the language gap. “People who do not speak the language have more challenges getting a job, as well as explaining what they can do,” she says. Speaking the language increases participation, but also motivation.  

Permit and recognition 

One of the most prominent obstacles people face when migrating to another country has to do with resident and work permits, and recognition of qualifications. Rodriguez explains there is a correlation between activity rate, employment rate and residence permits.  

“Obtaining nationality and regularising the administrative situation does show a positive correlation with a better position in the labour market,” states Rodriguez. “However, data from the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights still points to a high prevalence of discrimination against people of foreign origin when looking for work or in the workplace,” he reminds. 

“For so long, the focus has been on diplomas and certifications, validation of those skills,” says Niels Tubbing, Senior Advisor to the Mayor and Deputy Mayors on European & International Social Affairs and Chair of Eurocities Working Group Migration and Integration, “but this often excludes migrants.”  

Niels Tubbing. Photo by Madrid Employment Agency

Recognising the qualifications of foreigners is a long process that does not adapt to their experience and qualifications, Tubbing claims. He maintains that this population sector is excluded from the labour market, which has psychological consequences for them. 

Obstacles in their labour integration only worsen the significant shortages in some cities’ labour markets. “We need migrants to work in these economics,” Tubbing states. Therefore, upskilling and reskilling have been on the EU agenda for a while now. According to Tiina Polo, Policy Officer from DG employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion at the European Commission, one of three EU funds are invested in skills.

Meghnagi and de Perier speaking, and Polo and Alvarez participating online in the mutual learning event. Photo by Madrid Employment Agency

The European Year of Skills was adopted on 11 May to raise awareness of the benefits that upskilling and reskilling have for the economy and the people, focusing on the needs of the labour market, Polo adds. 

Employees, employers and employment agencies 

European cities, says de Perier, are undergoing an unprecedented skills shortage, resulting in more vacancies than ever. “USA, Australia and Canada are doing better to attract talent,” he admits. 

In the labour market integration, “it’s also useful to involve employers, who can really see what they can do,” Meghnagi adds. The city of Berlin developed a programme for people with migration backgrounds that focuses on teaching the language, encouraging technical skills, and mentoring throughout the process. 

“Migrant agency employment may be able to involve those difficult to reach,” de Perier says. That’s precisely what the Madrid Employment Agency does in the city. 

Miguel Ángel Alemany Haro, Department Director of Active Employment Policies, explains the agency does not create new jobs, but connects skills with opportunities. He states that the agency tries to get to know the 50,000 people that move to Madrid every year, “the companies and what positions they demand and the training offer, what type of qualifications are needed. Those three elements must be interconnected.”

Alemany at the mutual learning event. Photo by Madrid Employment Agency

 The agency’s main objective is to reduce the time between searching for a job and finding one. That also means saving social welfare funds. “We have to be experts in identifying, measuring and developing competencies,” Alemany says. The agency has developed professional paths based on qualifications and experience that count on tailored and in-person follow-up. 

Cities have a crucial role in migrant integration 

If cities are increasingly receiving migrants in the following decades, they must be ready to ensure migrant integration into the labour market and society in a harmonious way. 

“It’s at the city level where we are confronted with pragmatic solutions,” says Alvarez. It’s needed to “mainstream the concept of diversity and tailoring the services to different sectors of the population,” she adds. 

Meghnagi states that “cities do a lot. We encourage cities to do more.” What is clear is that, as Tubbing said, “every time we have a meeting like this, we show that cities are important.”  

Indeed, the Mutual Learning “My skills, our city” was full of insightful discussions, presentations and exchanges about the labour integration of migrants at the local level. Madrid hosted the event from 27-29 June 2023. One more time, cities proved that they are at the forefront of welcoming migrants and working to ensure their integration and participation. 


Marta Buces Eurocities Writer