Statement to the NGO Committee on Migration in New York

Refugees protest at railway station

Syrian refugees protest at the platform of Budapest Keleti railway station in September 2015 – Mstyslav Chernov, licence CC BY-SA 4.0

The following statement was delivered on October 12, 2017, at the event convened by the NGO Committee on Migration in New York.

I am going to speak from the experience of Dianova’s programs in Spain and Sweden with the reception and housing of refugees, including children and their families. One key fact to mention is that I will not be referring to programs in the borders or in refugees’ camps, the programs covered here refers to beneficiaries who are alyssum seekers and who have been sent by the governments to our programs. They are in a somewhat intermediary phase – they are staying regularly in the country, but the continuity of their stay will depend on the results of their alyssum request.

In Spain we have recently concluded our last cycle of reception of alyssum seekers with nearly 300 beneficiaries on a comprehensive 2-year program which included the provision of every service needed for refugees’ health, well-being and integration into the reception country.

In Sweden, on the other hand, we are working in partnership with an organization called Liberandum to provide housing for families who have just received the residence permit and are now waiting for their asylum requests to be processed.

Interesting to mention that I spoke to representatives of both programs separately, but the overall analysis of the situation in both countries and the feedback received was very similar. In the following, you have a brief highlight of some of the challenges and recommendations concluded from these conversations:

  1. Both of our programs in Spain and in Sweden reported that children have been very little affected by xenophobia and discrimination in these countries. In both cases – because of their status – the children who arrive in the programs have full access to education. They did not encounter problems with the enrollment in the schools and generally neither with the integration with other children.
  2. Not surprisingly, access to jobs remains a big challenge and some reasons being: the short time given for refugees’ reception programs to address issues related to language, capacity-building, mental health, new cultural and social norms, but also the lack of proper documentation or, alternatively, the difficulties and lengthy processes to get recognition of equivalent degrees. In addition, the long processes to review asylum applications and the small percentage of approvals (20% in Spain) creates anxiety and uncertainty for both employers and potential employees.
  3. The lengthy processes to review asylum requests also affects and endangers the lives of unaccompanied minors who in many cases end up loosing the special protection before the law when they turn to adult age before their asylum requests have been processed.
  4. In spite of the negative consequences of some bureaucratic processes, both Spain and Sweden reported that the overall local population has been very receptive of refugees from their programs – and that in fact the level of generosity and voluntarism has been surprising. With some bumps on the road, social integration has been overall a positive experience for most beneficiaries of Dianova’s programs in Spain and Sweden (which is actually in line with Amnesty International 2016 “Refugees Welcome” Survey in which the Spanish people comes out as one of the most welcoming of the 27 researched countries).

At first, their positive reports about the healthy integration processes in these countries came to me as a surprise. Not surprisingly, actually, considering that the mainstreamed narrative wants us to focus on the divide: which is that the ordinary person in reception countries would be xenophobic, racist, and just want refugees to go back home. What we may not realize is that the more they try to convince us that xenophobia is the mainstreamed reality, the easier it becomes for them to justify and normalize acts of hate against minorities and vulnerable populations on social media, news channels, public debate and public policies.

Now, so that we are not naïve when we speak about xenophobia versus social inclusion, it is important to understand that the refugees and asylum seekers we are refereeing to in our programs, are the “lucky ones” (if that can ever be a term for someone who is forced to leave his/her home). To mention a big aspect of it, we are talking about those who are receiving some sort of social, psychological and health support, housing, language course, clothing, education, training, and to some extent, opportunities – they are not the completely marginalized, left behind, forgotten in refugees’ camps or suffering in worse conditions like trafficking or else. The difference, for the refugees addressed by the analysis of Dianova’s programs in Spain and Sweden, is that there is an official support system backing them up (far from ideal, but in many ways effective).

This indicates that when properly supported by the local government (more often than not in partnership with civil society), the chances of being accepted and integrated into the new societies increase exponentially. Because this supportive processes are important to enable refugees to contribute to their new communities and help removing some of the stigma. On a different level, they also help refugees to regain self-confidence and confidence in processes and in institutions – after all let’s not forget that they are mostly escaping men-made wars and the process of rebuilding trust can not, in such contexts, be overlooked.

Important to say that the positive aspects reported here are by no means an exhaustive conclusion of the reality that refugees are facing in reception countries, in fact in most cases they are still just an aspiration. But if anything, in a very pragmatic way, these experiences come to support the idea that if governments are receptive and create the conditions for refugees to live a dignified life, it increases the chances that the hosting population will be receptive as well. In contrast, what we see nowadays is a tendency for governments to justify their lack of action and support on the assumption that their population are against refugees. By doing so, they create a vicious circle of antagonism, exclusion, marginalization and lost opportunities for all, particularly for the children. We must, then, find a way to leverage these positive experiences for the negotiations on the Global Compact on Refugees, mindful that having supportive systems in place is essential to maintain peaceful societies and to boost economic growth: for instance, if given individualized attention to address their specific needs during the integration processes, each person who arrives in need of help will soon be able to be active contributors to the social, cultural, and economic development of the new community.

The current narrative of hate wants us to believe that people are in their very essence against one another, that individualism comes first, and that hates prevail. We know this is a fraud. And we have to be more united than ever, pushier than ever, to make sure that every refugee family, single, adult, youth or children, have access to the services they need to thrive in whichever community they arrive.