Refugees and migrants can help build inclusive European societies

EPA/KAY NIETFELD

Refugees wait in front of the State Office for Health and Social Affairs (LaGeSo) in Berlin, Germany, 28 January 2016.

Refugees and migrants can help build inclusive European societies


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In 2016, let us embrace the migrants fleeing war, torture and abject misery to seek sanctuary and refuge in Europe. The distraught faces of families who have survived the treacherous sea passage to reach safety tell us what we need to know; no-one risks their life and the lives of their children unless they sense death at their heels.

If we fail to respond, we deny our humanity, our common values. We have a duty to provide sanctuary for those seeking asylum. And, when they arrive, as the Council of Europe’s Secretary General has frequently reminded our 47 Member States, migrants have the same human rights as native citizens. In return, they too must respect the human rights of others and Europe’s laws. This applies, for example, to the alleged mass sexual attacks on women, in Cologne, Sweden and elsewhere, that are currently in the news.

Nonetheless, the sheer numbers of refugees and migrants coming to Europe – over one million in 2015 – can be alarming, especially for those already struggling to provide for their families or to access the basic services they need. How can we share when we do not have enough?

Counter-intuitively, the answer does not lie in either/or solutions, but in a both/and approach that benefits everyone, including vulnerable and disadvantaged groups already living in  Europe.

We need to ask ourselves a simple question. Can we make a larger cake to share?

By working together, the diverse nationalities, cultures, religious or non-religious and ethnic groups which make up local communities create new opportunities and greater resources.

Migrants bring new knowledge, ideas and experience. And they create jobs. OECD studies show that the contribution to employment creation by immigrants increased steadily over the first decade of this century and that foreign-born entrepreneurs can help boost urban and rural areas at risk of economic decline.

What is essential, is to create the right conditions to empower the innovators.

But, can this really be done in times of crisis?  Over the last decade, the Council of Europe has seen many such local miracles across its 70-strong network of Intercultural Cities. Intercultural Cities treat diversity as an asset. Civic engagement is high and social cohesion strong.

Councils, businesses, civil society and community associations decide together on policies concerning anything from planning and housing to education and media relations.  Open, urban spaces are designed to encourage interaction between inhabitants and the development of new, creative solutions to social problems. Even migrants from poor, uneducated communities may contribute, by, for example, suggesting new ways to care for alienated teenagers, the elderly and patients with Alzheimer’s, which prioritise human contact. 

Our surveys show that Intercultural Cities generate greater trust, openness and tolerance, a decrease in the intensity of conflict and improved urban safety. They bring dynamism, innovation, creativity and growth. The benefits are both economic and social. Take the unaccompanied minor arriving from Angola in Parla, Spain, who later developed a project to integrate young people into Spanish society through capoeira; or the migrants in Geneva being integrated through work as school assistants; or, the ‘Tek-Stil’ art project in Berlin, which is regenerating the local textile industry by bringing together young designers and migrant seamstresses.

The intercultural approach is the most effective way to manage cultural diversity. It validates different cultures, ideas and beliefs within an overarching human rights framework, avoiding both the stifling conformism of assimilation and the moral relativism of multiculturalism.

And, by promoting dialogue and interaction, it ensures minority groups are not confined to ghettos, where they are either left relying on humanitarian aid – which the state concerned is obliged to provide – or accused of breaking the law for working within the informal economy or of taking jobs from local people. Instead of donating, the local population benefit; instead of receiving, refugees give back to society.

The Intercultural Cities network helps build societies that include everyone, that capitalise on the benefits of diversity and migration and reduce the risks. It is now being expanded as part of the forthcoming Council of Europe’s Action Plan on Building Inclusive Societies. Over the next four years, this plan aims to help protect Europe, by tackling the rise of extremism and radicalisation, by promoting Europe’s fundamental values and by reinforcing its underlying democratic security.

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