Successful refugee integration begins with community outreach

#CriticalThinking

At the height of last summer’s refugee crisis, people across Europe took many personal actions to help. They donated food, blankets and sanitary products to those in need on our doorsteps. Uber drivers, for instance, offered to pick up items for free through UberGiving. Such was the goodwill that aid charities in Brussels even asked people to stop donating clothes, as they could not be sorted fast enough.

Since then, the conflation between economic migrants and refugees has raised questions about how public services can cope, how housing can be found, and how people fleeing to Europe can be better integrated into our communities. There are of course some actions that the state can take, but far more effective will be the thousands of initiatives taken at the community level. If we want individuals and communities to reach out, though, governments should begin by restoring some of the confidence and trust that has been lost.

I fear that many people across the EU have grown more sceptical of refugees following the Paris attacks in November and the crimes that took place in places like Cologne on New Year’s Eve. It is sadly inevitable that the acts of a small number of people are seriously harming the perception of the majority of refugees. In addition, a failure to properly process asylum applications to distinguish between genuine refugees who deserve our help and economic migrants who should be returned to apply through legal migration channels is leading us to struggle. If we can restore trust in the system, so that the people coming to Europe are bona fide refugees, and not a free-for-all of anyone prepared to risk their life, then I believe individuals and communities will want to do more to help.

Impassioned individuals and grassroots charities are often far better able to understand local problems than top-down state programmes

I have long been a passionate believer in non-state solutions to poverty. Impassioned individuals and grassroots charities are often far better able to understand local problems than top-down state programmes. In helping to solve some of the big challenges created by the refugee crisis, there has been a lot of talk about grand integration schemes or skills programmes, yet politicians often fail to see the good work already being carried out by charities who might just need a helping hand.

 

Take housing as an example. The International Federation for Housing and Planning has highlighted that many EU states face housing shortages, especially in the social and affordable sectors of the market. European governments in many cases are too financially stretched to afford to build houses. In addition, we must avoid the ‘ghettoisation’ that resulted from previous state programmes to build mass housing estates. While there may be vacant properties away from population centres, accommodating newcomers in remote areas does not help integration and may lead to stigmatisation.

Non-state solutions, though, are emerging readily. In a number of countries, we find that platforms similar to AirBnB are being used to connect refugees with people offering a home. In Germany and Austria, the platform called ‘Refugees Welcome’ has helped to place refugees in people’s spare rooms, giving them a host family. Of course, there are also good cases of the state providing assistance, such as the local authority of Solna, north of Stockholm, which has an initiative connecting minors with foster homes. Businesses have also helped. Nordic Choice Hotels, one of the largest chains in Scandinavia, have offered 5,000 free nights to refugees. Not a permanent solution perhaps, but it is a far better solution than the alternative of spending a night without any accommodation.

We must avoid the ‘ghettoisation’ that resulted from previous state programmes to build mass housing estates

Refugees may be lucky enough to receive housing from the state, but they cannot be given a sense of belonging by the state. That comes from being given a purpose. Projects like CUCULA, the Refugees Company for Crafts and Design, in Berlin claim to do something ‘together with’ refugees, not simply something ‘for them’. In their workshop, they teach refugees how to make furniture, and other skills. The furniture is sold, and the proceeds go towards further training and language classes.

When it comes to different cultures, we need to understand each other better. EU forums on intercultural dialogue that bring together an Imam, a Bishop and a Rabbi are better than nothing. But the best intercultural and interfaith dialogue I experienced was in my school playground, where I had friends of various faiths and of none. Through sharing our experiences and asking questions, we found out far more about each other. It is wonderful to see my children enjoying a similar experience in their playgrounds today. Projects like United Invitations have been created to achieve something similar by enabling people to host a dinner for one or two immigrants or refugees so they can come over for food and a conversation. I have always thought that the greatest cause of our problems in this world is that we do not seek to understand different points of view, so why not bring people in and talk to them?

As an MEP for London, one of the best parts of my job is being able to champion the charities and local community organisations across my home city. I work with anti-radicalisation charities like Tuffs, which uses football to prevent potential Daesh targets from being radicalised. I work with jobs clubs that don’t want a hand out from the state, but maybe an old computer that a company is throwing away. I help a charity called The Feel Good Bakery which turns ‘dope dealers into hope dealers’ using the skills that drug dealers often have in building supply chains and developing a customer base to sell sandwiches! All of these projects do fantastic work without state funding, and as politicians we should do all we can to promote their work, to connect them with people who can help them grow, and to rely on their ingenuity to find solutions.

The best intercultural and interfaith dialogue I experienced was in my school playground, where I had friends of various faiths and of none

Rather than complaining or waiting for the government to do something, it is heart-warming to see the many individuals and community organisations that have opened their hearts and homes to newcomers fleeing conflict and persecution. These examples show that many people want to help those who are in genuine need and have fled for their lives. We need to get a grip on the migration and refugee crisis because the “open door regardless of circumstances” approach has undermined confidence. But let us be in no doubt that even if we return economic migrants so they can apply through legal migration channels and only resettle the most vulnerable people from the refugee camps, we will still have a large number of refugees here in need of our help. The answer is not state-built ghettos and top-down integration programmes, but community-led solutions that promote dialogue and understanding.

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