In Mechelen, refugee integration begins from day one


Picture of Bart Somers
Bart Somers

Bart Somers is Mayor of Mechelen

When refugees arrive in our country, ensuring the quick processing of their asylum applications and fulfilling a smooth integration process is enormously important. Some refugees have been through horrifying and traumatising experiences in their own country and never want to go back. Others want to return as soon as things have cooled down. But we cannot know when that will be, so we have to assume that applicants are here to stay.

The Belgian Minister of Social Affairs and Health, Maggie De Block, has shortened our country’s asylum application procedure from 12 to 6 months over the last few years. Personally, I think the process is still unacceptably long, and I would see it shortened to 4 months or less. I realise, though, that this would be tremendously challenging, especially when you consider the 2,500 asylum applications Belgium needs to process on a monthly basis. Nonetheless, the current procedure often requires people to stay in improvised crisis shelters while they wait. Organisations like the Belgian Red Cross do their best to create humane living conditions, but in the end, these crisis shelters are built for temporary use, they are not places that anyone could call home.

Shortening the asylum procedure not only benefits those in desperate need but also rejected applicants

Even worse is that the lives of asylum-seekers have to be put on hold. It is of crucial importance that people claiming the right to protection under Belgian law know where they stand as soon as possible. This way, they can start to build a new and decent life here. It is of equal priority that those who travel to Belgium without the legal right to asylum know what lies ahead for them. Shortening the asylum procedure not only benefits those in desperate need but also rejected applicants, who can then go back to their country of origin and rebuild their life sooner. Regardless of why a person has travelled to seek asylum in Belgium, we’re dealing with real human beings; keeping them in suspense for an unreasonably long time is an inhumane and unacceptable norm.

In our city of Mechelen, we start integration even before processing the applications. In some places in Belgium, it can take 60 days for children to get into a school. But in Mechelen, we set up a new class within 3 weeks of the first refugee arrivals. Children are not the only beneficiaries of our programmes, as we also have classes for adults. Dutch lessons tend to be organised from day one, which is a challenge but we are glad to put in the extra money and effort – for integration to be successful, learning the local language is essential.

We would like to see integration classes put more emphasis on our democratic values

In Belgium, each regional government is directly responsible for the integration of immigrants, with the first step being to organise integration classes and intensive personal guidance. But in Mechelen, we believe the local authority has a vital role to play too. For example, several years ago there was too much demand for Dutch classes, so in response we invested more money into creating new classes. As a result, even since the arrival of refugees last year, waiting lists are non-existent in Mechelen. In the future, we would like to see integration classes put more emphasis on our democratic values, such as equality rights and freedom of speech. We feel that the current classes lack such subject matter. Our city therefore aims to be a pioneer in introducing courses that focus on these values of substantial importance to our society.

Integration must enable refugees to feel at home and live harmoniously among the local inhabitants. A lacklustre integration process can often cause tensions and create serious issues, as we have seen in the past. We therefore need the native population to remain supportive of providing asylum. New residents need to find a permanent place to live, to work, to school their children, to spend their free time in a meaningful way, and so on. All this puts an enormous amount of pressure on local the housing and labour markets. This is why we in Mechelen have created “M-power”, a policy that involves new arrivals to Mechelen but also gives special attention to those who have been living here all their lives.

A programme has also been introduced that allows workers to learn Dutch ‘on the job

Concerning housing, our policy focuses on the bottom of the market, where demand for the cheapest properties has increased heavily due to the refugee crisis. To alleviate the issue, we firstly increased the capacity of our social rentals office, which tries to find private home owners who are prepared to rent at a lower social rate but with guaranteed rental income. Following this, we created a strict policy against ‘slumlords’ by finding landlords who abuse and take advantage of asylum-seekers’ desperation for housing, and taking firm legal action.

Work is the real key to a successful integration, personal emancipation and upward social mobility. In Mechelen, we have created 60 social workplaces to provide new people with working experience that helps them to compete in the labour market. Contracts have been agreed with employers in local neighbourhoods to engage with newcomers accompanied by intensive guidance from us at the local authority. A programme has also been introduced that allows workers to learn Dutch ‘on the job’, whereas in the past the only option was to have mastered the language beforehand.

Above all else, we count on the solidarity of Mechelen’s inhabitants. Last summer, when the refugee crisis reached its peak, many of our residents spontaneously offered their help. To organise all these individual efforts, we created a central platform to ensure that voluntary work is done in the most effective and efficient way possible. We want Mechelen to be recognised as a warm city that welcomes people in need. I believe that this is the most important condition for us to live harmoniously together in a diverse society, the fact that we create a warm society together, side-by-side.

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