Cities and civil society on the frontline of reception and integration

On 4 April the European Policy Center debated integration of refugees in cities. Anna Lisa Boni (Secretary-General, Eurocities) presented Eurocities’s new report, showing the leadership of many cities in coordinating responses  with civil society. They promote fast-tracking children into education, providing language courses and fair living conditions. However, they struggle with lengthy application procedures and EU state aid policies that makes public support for affordable housing difficult. A city’s capacity depends on the funding and space to maneuver national authorities give. Many struggle with budget cuts and frozen recruitment, hindering the appointment of new staff to deal with demand.

Thomas Fabian, Deputy Mayor of Leipzig (Germany) explained that cities have no alternative to finding solutions with local governments and civil society – it is where integration either succeeds or fails. Leipzig aims to provide smaller housing distributed across the city as a way to counter the xenophobic view of ‘not in my backyard’ – by doing so, it will be in everyone’s backyard, explained Mr Fabian. The Deputy Mayor works in partnership with all actors – civil society, private partners, migrant associations and social workers – to provide services with the aim of helping people to help themselves. As cities are not responsible for returning undocumented migrants, they continue to provide services for them when permitted and their children continue going to school.

Heather Roy (Secretary-General, Eurodiaconia) shared the experience of churches and Christianity-based social organisations, members of Eurodiaconia that work with undocumented migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. In countries such as Greece and Serbia a lot of support is focused on reception of migrants and refugees and providing first aid and food. In other countries such as Sweden there is a greater emphasis on integration, teaching how the public transport system works and connecting with the local community. There is often a lack of much needed psychosocial and health care services available to undocumented migrants. Other times barriers to rights are arise because of misinterpretation of rules of what support can and cannot be provided. It is the scale and speed of arrival which is new, not refugees and migrants, said Ms Roy. We need to address xenophobia and racism and assist migrants to allow them to share their skills and abilities immediately. While providing language courses to migrants is important, we also need to ensure language skills among our own staff and volunteers to better assist those in need. A European Social Fund project in Hungary is a successful example of an integrated approach, providing a package of services. Women were simultaneously offered accommodation, language, training as child care staff and internships, instead of being granted access to services one by one. This resulted in more of the women feeling better and getting jobs. We need to be aware of competition for social services; there is a structural challenge due to different groups having different entitlements. Refugees might have a right to housing while a ‘traditional homeless’ person might not. Ms Roy questioned what happens to undocumented migrants who end up living ‘invisibly’, separated from society.

Valeria Setti (Policy Officer, European Commission) shared information about the European Commission’s work on an EU Action Plan on Integration of Third Country Nationals (read my previous blog). The plan will have a strong local dimension, involve all stakeholders and all the European Commission’s different departments. It is foreseen to be adopted at the end of May/beginning of June.