Access to housing, healthcare, mental health support, language learning, education, and employment are essential for people who have fled violence and persecution to be able to rebuild their lives and successfully integrate into host communities. This blog explores innovative ways that local governments and the public sector have been addressing the needs of newly-arrived refugees and the issues facing the communities they settle in.
While some European countries (Germany in particular) have been praised for implementing forward-thinking national-level integration policies, many central governments have policies that are inadequate or actively damaging for refugees and asylum-seekers. Innovation in refugee inclusion has often been at the municipal or regional level rather than at the national level.
Although immigration and asylum are generally thought of as nation-state level issues, refugees don’t move to nations, they move to cities. While states may grant asylum, it is local authorities and communities who deal practically with issues of providing shelter, medical care, schooling, and it is at the local level that social integration occurs. Cities can and do play a vital role in designing and implementing strategies for refugee inclusion and integration.
Many cities across Europe, often in spite of restrictive national-level policies, have undertaken pledges to be places of welcome and sanctuary for refugees. EUROCITIES is a network of local governments sharing best practices around integration issues and celebrating inclusivity. Over 100 towns and cities in the UK have joined the City of Sanctuary movement, which supports local authorities working with local civil society groups to create a culture of hospitality in communities and engage in joint action across localities to effect change, demonstrating the power of public-civil partnerships. Wales has pledged itself as a Nation of Sanctuary, using its devolved status to act as far as it can within the constraints of central UK government policy for the rights of refugees and asylum-seekers, creating partnerships between relevant public authorities to improve access to accommodation, healthcare, employment, education, advice and information, and financial inclusion.
A number of cities have focused on building community cohesion between refugees and migrants and the local population. Barcelona has founded its integration policy on ‘intercultural’ values, celebrating cultural difference as an asset, and actively promoting social cohesion and interaction. As part of its intercultural policy, Barcelona operates an ‘anti-rumours’ programme - 3000 volunteers have been trained to dispel xenophobic myths and build positive narratives about the contributions of immigrants and refugees, to counter discrimination and damaging anti-immigrant attitudes.
Vienna has demonstrated the power of local government by rejecting Austria’s national-level hardline stance against refugees and asylum-seekers, instead focusing on forward-thinking ways of promoting integration. Vienna’s Centre for Refugee Empowerment is a dedicated integration hub for community activities and services including language and skills training, job search, information services and creative activities. Refugees were actively involved in the design and development of the facility, and the multi-functional nature of the space encourages people to access and engage with a range of services and activities.
Barcelona’s use of a local census, the 'padrón', has proven to be an innovative and inclusive tool ensuring equal access to public services. Everyone registered on the 'padrón' can access healthcare, education, libraries and sports facilities, regardless of if they have a national social security number - this means even migrants with irregular legal status can access these essential services. On top of this, being registered on the 'padrón' for 3 years allows irregular migrants to apply to regularize their legal status. Barcelona’s inclusive policy approach can be seen as offering urban citizenship to vulnerable immigrants, and demonstrates the difference that cities can make in the face of state policy.
Athens has piloted an integration model which links housing, education, employment and active citizenship. The project, Curing the Limbo, creates tailored pathways for refugees to access affordable housing - making use of Athens’ huge vacant housing stock following the economic crisis - in exchange for a number of hours of community service supporting the needs of the local community, as well as providing language lessons, employment opportunities and psychological support. The project’s focus on the neighbourhood level helps create connections between refugees and local residents.
Other public authorities have designed services which are tailored to the specific needs of vulnerable groups. In Schweinfurt, Germany, the local hospital has partnered with Médecins Sans Frontières to develop Soul Talk, a unique programme which trains refugees as peer supporters to help other refugees with psychosocial support. The presence of peer supporters, who share a language and experience of displacement, helps encourage clients to participate and is proving an effective model for addressing the mental health needs of refugees.
While these cases demonstrate the positive impact that local authorities can have in aiding integration, much more still needs to be done. There are still major gaps in both national and local government provision of services which are essential for refugees and asylum-seekers in Europe to be able to achieve stability and rebuild their lives following displacement - especially regarding the asylum legal process, housing, mental health support, education and employment, and family reunification. A future blog will look at social innovation initiatives coming from citizens, civil society groups and NGOs in response to these gaps in support from governments.
There is also an urgent need to rethink policy on an international scale, ensuring refugees have safe and legal ways to move across borders. Europe’s closed border policies are leading to deaths, torture and exploitation, and detention in inhumane conditions. What’s more, the European focus on the 2015-16 ‘refugee crisis’ obscures the fact that 80% of refugees are hosted in developing regions - another future blog will look at innovative responses to displacement coming from humanitarian agencies, governments and communities in developing regions.
The refugee crisis is far from over, despite no longer being headline news. The growing number of humanitarian disasters, protracted conflicts and the climate crisis mean that more and more people continue to be displaced worldwide. Migration, refugee protection, and integration will remain crucial issues in the years to come - issues which demand radical new approaches everywhere from a global to a local scale.