Don't let the Syrians become the Moroccans and Turks of the 1960s


Picture of Sammy Mahdi
Sammy Mahdi

Secretary of State for Asylum and Migration and 2018 European Young Leader (EYL40)

Sammy Mahdi is Chairman of the youth wing of the Flemish CD&V party and European Young Leader (EYL40)

The approach to integration in Western European countries has been a mess for decades. Indeed, if Houston had a problem, Brussels has a major issue: the difference between school performance between students with and without an immigrant background is unparalleled in almost every country when compared to Belgium. And this does not even out post-graduation, as the same trend goes for the unemployment rates.

Based on these statistics, the future of Syrian refugees or migrants from East African countries does not seem bright. With the growth of extreme-right and populist parties, we can only hope that most European leaders understand the need for a thought-out integration policy. In a globalised world, diversity is no longer an option but a reality, whether we like it or not. And if this isn’t the case in some countries yet, it will only be a matter of years before it happens.

In a globalised world, diversity is no longer an option but a reality, whether we like it or not

Sixty years after the guest workers from Turkey and North Africa came to Western Europe, the mountain to climb is higher and steeper than ever. If the past has taught us something, it is that integration is not a naturally proceeding process but requires constant effort in order to create a common future, despite former possible differences. The positive is that as intercontinental migration is still a very recent phenomenon in Europe, the mistakes from the past are not irreversible. The most important thing is to change our perspective: migration or migrants are not a temporary phenomenon. Whether they are guest workers, refugees or migrants, many of them are here to stay.

The unwritten social contract of the 1960s between guest workers from Turkey and Morocco and the rest of the society still has a great negative effect, at a personal and societal level. I still get asked where I learned to speak Dutch fluently – it is my native language. I still get asked when I arrived to Belgium – I was born in Brussels. And I still get asked if someday I want to go back to my country – I have never even been to Iraq, from where my father fled to Europe. When children of guest workers in Belgium went to school, their educational itinerary was perceived as a temporary ‘bus stop’ rather than a fertile ground where the European talents of tomorrow were growing. As a result, none felt at home and many felt alienated from the local population.

With escalating geopolitical tensions and changing climates, migrants will keep coming and going, and the social contract citizens have with each other will be put under pressure. While the European Union will have to ensure a legal framework to reassure its own citizens on the number and distribution of refugees, the integration of new citizens is a responsibility of nation states and local authorities.

This starts by involving and educating all citizens. Learning about our different history and giving it a place in our educational and cultural policies is necessary for all generations to understand why we can have a multi-layered identity in which the shared national and local identities perfectly fit.

On the various elements of identity and integration, religion tends to be the most fragile and debated one

There are several reasons why this still is not the case. Integration is a matter of interaction, and to ensure effortless interaction, we need a common language. Mandatory language courses wouldn’t have drastically decreased the number of daily compliments I received for speaking Dutch, but they would have made a great difference in increasing the opportunities for migrants on the labour markets. Language alone is not enough for increasing interaction, however, as it is essentially a matter of bumping into each other in everyday situations. There maybe once were reasons to create ‘ghettos’ for guest workers, but now there is no reason why cities and nations should facilitate homogeneous groups of migrants living together in isolation.

On the various elements of identity and integration, religion tends to be the most fragile and debated one: headscarves and halal food sometimes generate bigger discussions than the problematic debt of several EU countries. But the religious layer of an identity only becomes problematic when practising faith is organised from foreign countries with a different political agenda, for example having a mosque being the property of a different country, as is the case of Brussels’ Great Mosque. To ensure integration, the solution is not to prohibit the construction of mosques but ensure that foreign leaders don’t gain access to destabilise our shared identity.

With no signs of the refugee crisis coming to an end, Europe needs to prove that its values can overcome superficial differences. This does not mean that we could and should not ensure that our European values and cultural identities remains alive and well. But the biggest difficulty is not how to enforce a strict integration policy; it is having faith in our shared values despite all the superficial differences we might have.

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