Many of our readers have already made their minds up about refugees. Generally, Europeans are relatively supportive of their country taking in refugees (though they might disapprove of how the EU has handled things). Yet we often get comments arguing that the vast majority of refugees are really “economic migrants” (that’s not true, and the reality is much more complex). Some also wonder why “Muslim countries” don’t take more Syrian refugees (of the over 12 million displaced Syrians, roughly 11 million are in the Middle East, either in Syria itself or neighbouring countries). Is this really a question of integration?
Would people change their minds if they knew some refugees personally? If they interacted with refugees and asylum seekers socially, would it shift attitudes? Often, it seems like people with the strongest views have never actually spoken with refugees personally, yet feel confident enough to generalise about the motivations and intentions of an entire group of people.
In order to take a closer look at the local impact of the refugee crisis, we have launched our ‘Cities & Refugees‘ project – aimed at fostering a Europe-wide dialogue between citizens, refugees and asylum seekers, NGOs, politicians, and European leaders. The emphasis is on connecting local, everyday life at the city level to decisions made in Brussels and national capitals.
Today, we are looking at Brussels, Belgium. This is the city where Debating Europe is based, so it’s obviously close to our hearts personally. Recently, refugees have been in the news in Belgium after reports of people sleeping rough in migrant camps. including former residents of the Calais “Jungle”. The issue is controversial, with some calling for a tough approach while others (including NGOs and voluntary organisations) want to offer support and assistance. Complicating things are reports that some of the refugees and asylum seekers in the camps do not want to claim asylum and integrate in Belgium, but would prefer to travel to Britain to claim asylum.
What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in from Gabi who thinks that refugees don’t want to integrate into European society. She believes it’s a “waste of energy” to even try. Is she being too cynical and close-minded?
To get a response, we put Gabi’s comment to Theo Francken, Belgium’s immigration and asylum minister. In October 2018, he accused Brussels’ local government of “pampering” refugees and NGOs, arguing that they are encouraging “economic migrants” to congregate in parks and migrants camps around the city. His office sent us the following statement in response to Gabi:
This statement is incorrect. We find that recognised refugees and persons with subsidiary protection are very motivated to integrate in our society. We focus on a quick and proper integration, in order for them to quickly find a job or to go to school and thereby to be able to rebuild their life here. By the way, here in Flanders they are obligated to take an integration course. Furthermore, they need this proof in case they eventually apply for the Belgian nationality. It is true that before and during their asylum application they aren’t obligated to integrate, but they are once they have been recognised as a refugee or they have received subsidiary protection.
To get another perspective, we also put Gabi’s comment to Adriana Costa Santos, Coordinator of the Accommodation Project for the Belgian NGO Citizen’s Platform for Refugee Support. How would she respond to Gabi?
I would say that we are not able to generalise about all refugees, because they represent thousands of people coming from many different countries and, unfortunately, from many different wars and violent regimes. But I would say that, from my personal experience, what happens is the opposite: refugees DO want to integrate…
What is most important in integration is to have a social network; when we are born in a country it’s very easy to have that social network. We have our family, we go to school, we do sports, we meet a lot people… And when we arrive in a country and are completely isolated and don’t have anybody in our social network, it is of course comfortable to meet people who speak the same language as us and have the same social basis.
So, we can see in Brussels that integration is made by building this social network. Refugees who were photographers in their country, for example, meet Belgian photographers [through the Citizen’s Platform for Refugee Support]. Refugees who are students come together to study and debate with Belgian students, and we encourage refugees to meet new people. This is the only way to integrate in a country. So, I think it’s definitely wrong to think that people don’t want to integrate – but I can tell it’s not easy to arrive in a country where you don’t speak the language…
Finally, we had a comment sent in by Marko, who wonders if there are enough incentives and support to help refugees integrate? How would Adriana Costa Santos reply?
The incentives and support are definitely not enough. When you see here in Belgium, for example, is that when people claim asylum they are able to get a place in a housing centre. Yet when we talk about integration, we can see how important it is – after finding a place to eat, sleep, and get a shower – for someone to have social relationships and meet the local population…
In 2015, while people were waiting to claim asylum, they were not able to get any support, so there were thousands of people in the park, homeless. And volunteers, people from Belgium, came to bring them clothes, tents, sleeping bags, food, and all their basic needs. And as soon as they get into a centre, they do not have anything else and the delays are very large, so they have to wait for one, sometimes two years to get an answer from the government to tell them whether they can actually start to build a life in Belgium. During this period, they are just supposed to wait.
So, during the year 2016-17, we were focusing much more on integration and accompanying asylum seekers waiting for their application to be processed. So, we’ve been providing language classes, school for the children, giving support in finding a job, finding an apartment right after they get their refugee status, giving basic support in administration – because sometimes even for those of us who are Europeans and living in our own country it’s sometimes hard to understand the bureaucracy… So, these are all volunteers have been helping thousands of people without getting any money…
Do refugees want to integrate? And is there enough support to promote and facilitate integration? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!