By Jofelle P. Tesorio
For someone who has moved places, whether from Utrecht to Harlingen, or from Damascus to Arnhem, perspectives can be different. Do newcomers the only ones who need to adjust to the new cultures, new people, new environment, or should it be a two-way, perhaps a circular process? Newcomers could also mean new inspirations and new ways of thinking.
Sometime in July, in the beautiful city of Nijmegen, our Welcoming Spaces group collaborated with Samenwerkingsverband Burgerkracht Europa (SBE) to organize a symposium unpacking the question ‘who is a newcomer?’ where around 150 professionals and residents from the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany came to discuss how, with mutual effort, everyone can shape the embedding of newcomers in the community in a positive way.
As countries with shared borders, the Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium are often confronted with similar issues, and in many cases, coordinating, sharing experiences and knowledge help unpack the issues and identify best practices. Like other countries in Europe, dealing with newcomers is one of most pressing issues in the last years. How do newcomers see themselves into our communities? How can they best integrate or is ‘integration’ (‘integreren’ or ‘inburgeren’ in Dutch) the right word to use? As Wahabou Alidou, the coordinator of a citizen-led initiative for newcomers Colourful Het Hogeland, said, community members should ‘outegrate’ (‘uitburgeren’) to also learn from newcomers. The theme collaborating with newcomers is not a new concept but in the wake of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, this is timely to revisit and put into perspective. What can newcomers do to become part of the society, and what can communities do to ensure that they feel welcome? There are many similarities but also significant differences, in which we can learn from each other.
Participants with migrant backgrounds engaged in a conversation wherein they were asked: Are you still a newcomer if you have been living in the country for 20 years? How do you manage to be part of the community? For them, there were no standard answers but common to their experiences was the need to connect with people, the community and to be able to feel that they were welcome.
“I always say to them, you survived, you are safe here and it is also genuinely nice to also show your gratitude by giving something back to the society where you are,” said Farisa from Arnhem. She added that while there is talk about conforming, the best way to collaborate with newcomers is not to be in front or behind them but beside them. “They will soon be able to find their own place in the future.”
Farhad, who volunteers at a reception center, said residents need to connect. “I told them you have to work, volunteer, no matter what it is…so you can make contact.”
The bright side
During the plenary, Prof. Dr. Annelies Zoomers of Utrecht University talked about the EU-funded Horizon 2020 project Welcoming Spaces wherein new ways of combining two policy challenges are explored: how to help depopulating European rural regions recover, and at the same time contribute to the settlement of migrants in places where they come and where they can pursue their own life projects. Looking into five countries – the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Spain and Italy – the project’s main assumption is that revitalisation takes place through collaboration between all actors living or working in shrinking regions.
The bright side, according to Prof. Dr. Zoomers, is that there are existing examples of ‘welcoming spaces’, but often remain invisible and dispersed in various European regions, which play a very important role in the reception of newcomers, but also in working together with the newcomers. She stressed that newcomers can really make a difference. “Thanks to the arrival of these migrants, schools can remain, a hotel can be reopened, shops are opened, the industry is kept afloat…” Explaining the outcome of the project, she stressed the harmonious relationship built around citizen and migrants-led welcoming initiatives, which are also often supported by NGOs and mayors. “I am very much convinced that mayors can really make an enormous difference. It is not hard for us to show this, and it is possible.”
While looking at this bright side, according to Prof. Dr Zoomers, the Welcoming Spaces project is also gradually finding out about the number of restrictions for newcomers, which have to do with policies. Many migrants in general are not in preferred locations. “We can describe in many cases how harmoniously people work in small locations and seem to keep small communities afloat, but if you put it from the perspective of newcomers themselves, their development opportunities are often very limited.” She also posed a question on the distinction of newcomers from the point of view where they come from, which becomes ‘stigmatizing’. “In the end it does not help us build a bridge. If we do not talk about where people come from… If we manage to fuel the debate and ask for more. What are you going to do here? What contribution do you want to make? Then you get a completely different discussion.”
Newcomer policies: Belgian, Dutch, and German perspectives
While all three countries operate within the European asylum policy, there are also different perspectives, principles and realities.
Mayor Kees van Rooij of Meierijstad agreed with Prof. Dr. Zoomers on her points but according to him, some policies need to be reconsidered. As a mayor, he said, it is a balancing act. He cited that in the community level, people are receptive of policies on integration and welcoming initiatives but he is also often told “our children also want a roof”, not just newcomers. “In all those discussions, you’re already trying to manage each other, in such a way that you want to keep some support, but also at the same time try to give perhaps even an extra impulse for all those starters and all those young people who also want a home…”
In the Netherlands, he added, the discussion is mainly on the shortage of collective places for asylum seekers and some are situated in municipalities where many people are against large shelters being built near them.
For Belgian Secretary of State for Asylum and Migration Nicole De Moor it is also finding a balance. “I try every day to work on a better migration policy, a fair migration policy, a policy whereby we can protect people fleeing from war or persecution… as well as for people who may not be fleeing the war, but who want to come to Europe to work or to study.”
According to her, there are many different channels, but there are also many challenges that come with it. The past few years have been ‘historic’ and particularly challenging year, she said, because of people fleeing from war and persecution from different countries, including the Ukrainians.
She is in constant communication and meetings with her counterpart to learn and improve the Belgian system, for example in asylum reception and integration. Now, the federal government is in favor of voluntary asylum centers. They have about a hundred collective centers spread over different municipalities and local shelter initiatives, which are managed by municipalities on a voluntary basis. “These are municipalities that actually take over the task of federal asylum reception and often receive asylum seekers in many small-scale or individual homes.” She said that they encourage local reception initiatives because those places are important for specific target groups of asylum seekers, people who may find it more difficult to join a collective center and “they are much better for integration”.
Marcel Erps, head of the Labour and Social Affairs Department of the city of Kleve in Germany was also present.
Workshops and ways of moving together
After the opening plenary, 14 interactive workshops followed. Based on concrete initiatives by residents, municipalities/governments and civil society organisations in Belgian-German-Dutch rural regions, the participants discussed specific themes in relation to newcomers. During the workshops and during breaks, the participants gathered suggestions for ways to look at collaborating with newcomers differently, creatively and good practices, which were discussed in the closing panel.
Throughout the panels and breakout workshops, participants listened, shared experiences, and critically analysed various aspects of the theme. The following are the ideas for recommendations from the participants:
A. Collaborating with newcomers
- Approach the newcomer by not asking where he/she came from
- Talk to newcomers and not about newcomers; involve them more
- Make the encounter easier by thinking along about possibilities
- More newcomers are needed to use their experiences in the inclusion processes at support organisations
- Have newcomer guides as coordinators and process supervisors
- Introduce reciprocity for newcomers; think about volunteering
- Build self-confidence and language skills through the active involvement of newcomers in the activities for and with newcomers
- Questions about needs – what do newcomers need to find their way when they arrive and settle in. Start from what people themselves say they need or worry about
B. Policy and guidance
- Treat all newcomers equally: both from Ukraine and from the rest of the unsafe countries
- Ensure an integrated approach. Not to approach everything from the perspective of target groups of status holders/asylum seekers/family reunifiers
- Use the Temporary Protection Directive for Ukrainians as a basis for the reception, integration and placement of all newcomers
- Provide information at the right time and in phases at the pace of the newcomer
- Subsidy schemes for associations and local foundations that want to go the extra mile
- Make sure that you are not the only driving force, but along with several people in your organisation to support newcomers
- Flexible, structured cooperation so that the newcomer can be integrated into the system
C. Asylum reception
- Use the potential of everyone who enters the asylum seekers centrum (AZC)
- Create opportunities to participate and learn equally
- Provide a larger range of languages at the AZC (e.g. English lessons)
- Think from the perspective of the local society and see how to realise an ideal reception
- Connect with employers, sports clubs, educational institutions, etc.
- For municipalities, provinces and the state (including COA), create opportunities for early involvement of local residents to work towards humane and sustainable shelters that serve both the neighborhood and newcomers
- Make the shelters smaller; think from the perspective of local communities
D. Inclusion and work
- In order to participate, giving the newcomer enough information is important
- Let asylum seekers work without obstacles
- Learn from projects such in the nursing/care sector where newcomers learn the Dutch language and work. Make this possible for other sectors and professions
E. Other tips and general recommendations
- View newcomers as a possibility/opportunity and not a burden
- Kindness helps!
- Personal attention starts with a smile on an equal basis
- Use food to connect
At the end of the symposium, the participants signed the Manifesto “Collaborating with Newcomers” that called on all governments, agencies and residents in the (border) regions to look and support opportunities for newcomers. The manifesto also included the above mentioned recommendations that will be passed on to all stakeholders involved with newcomers.