The ‘refugee crisis’ has only troubled faces. The war and destruction in Syria and Iraq make people put their destinies in backpacks. They leave all their belongings behind and hope for a new future in a faraway country mostly only known from the illusions created by TV and movies. Imagine what would force you to take such a step. When would you pack?
The other face is that of the new neighbours in the receiving country – mostly in low-cost housing and with modest or low incomes – who wake up in the morning to find a family next door with a different language, different customs, different habits, without work. This is a troubled face as well. Integration is a painful process, both for the newcomer and for the existing population. The second face is often ignored in politics. Newcomers do not integrate among the well-off. Newcomers do not threaten the jobs of the well-off, nor their housing.
The Netherlands has a national policy on refugees. It’s the government that organises the ‘welcome’ and integration of refugees. Communities are absent in the process. Municipalities only respond to national requests for refugee centres, for the administration and temporary housing, of those who apply for asylum. The Dutch Government is now enabling individuals and families to house refugees. It would make sense to organise this community-wide.
In turn, City Governments have to supply low-cost housing (with rents under 375 euros a month) to those who are recognised for asylum and have received a permit to stay. This is increasingly problematic, as there are less than 300,000 such homes available – and demand from local communities already exceeds supply.
What if we think out of the box and help communities become the willing receivers of refugees? Imagine communities of say 20,000-200,000 inhabitants in areas that are often stable or declining in population (outside of the ‘Randstad’ megalopolis). They could offer to house many refugees – perhaps up to 10% of their own population.
The refugee inflow to the Netherlands in 2015 could be as high as half a percent of the population. Even so, a community approach would still be helpful. Refugees who settle in a community would have some self-governance, while located in newly built barracks or some other form of shelter. Perhaps one should think of some kind of twinning: say a community ‘X’ with 20,000 inhabitants offering to integrate 2,000 refugees from community ‘Y’ in Syria.
The key to all this would be willingness: the willingness of communities. But what are the drivers of willingness? Willingness is usually marked by a kind of win-win, like reducing the risks and reinforcing community organisations (the local football club, music club, supermarket, etc.). Community organisations could also be the pillars of community involvement. People-to-people contacts are essential for integration. Of course local government should play its role in reinforcing the willingness of local organisations, while national government would be the enabler: funding both the settlement and integration of refugees.
It can be a win-win if there are clear rules of the game, including awareness-raising and even contractually-established ‘willingness’ to integrate on the part of refugees: anything from learning the national language in the shortest possible time, to treating women equally, to respecting the laws of the country – even where they contradict the teachings of some religious leaders. This would include respect for compulsory schooling of boys and girls. Such a contract would be a stage preceding what is now the inauguration ceremony at the time of receiving the new nationality.
To my eyes, there can be no top-down solution to the current refugee crisis. Communities in receiving countries need to be seen as equal partners in the welcome and integration of refugees.
Flickr / A.Proimos