When politicians recognize that refugees remain refugees for a long time, it becomes necessary to redesign the refugee system. We need to focus on shaping the narrative to increase public support and prevent a far-right surge. We also need to move away from refugee camps and design hybrid solutions that benefit host communities as well.
Immigration levels in Europe ebb and flow, but in recent years immigration and refugee issues have taken centre-stage in public debates all over the continent. National conversations are very much focused on arrivals and the narrative has been captured by extremist right-wing groups who espouse a vision of European nationalism defined in exclusionary terms. Populist movements exploit immigration and refugee-related concerns to gain supporters and power.
The policies enacted by European leaders in response to the arrivals, and the perceived shift in public opinion, do little to promote the values upon which the European Union was founded or to address the situation, let alone provide for those in need of international protection. Starting from the deal with Turkey through the Italian deal with the Libyan ‘government’, many policies dealing with immigration and refugees are counter-productive, because they feed into the populist rhetoric, empowering parties that pose a threat to democracy.
We need to have an honest conversation about the refugee system’s failures and limitations. The main challenge is political. The need to focus on integration follows. It is necessary to redesign the refugee system and move away from refugee camps and solutions that are meant for temporary situations.
Seeing eye-to-eye with reality
The first step towards devising and enacting open and effective policies is to have the political space to do so. This requires the support of citizens. Public opinion on these issues is usually presented in binary terms: those who oppose and those who support refugees. However, there is evidence that public opinion is not always polarized into these two groups. In fact, in most European countries, the majority belong to the ‘conflicted middle’, people who hold feelings of empathy and solidarity for refugees, but who also hold valid and legitimate concerns about the economic, cultural, and sometimes, security impacts of welcoming refugees.
The second step is to recognize that a significant percentage of refugees do not live in refugee camps or reception centres and, when they do, camps become what David Miliband described as ‘funeral homes for dreams’. Long periods of time in isolated camps often result in refugees developing coping strategies to survive and to attract the attention of donors and aid workers. These coping strategies can be positive (such as entrepreneurship) to negative (lying about their situation in hope of receiving more attention, prostitution, or theft – which is understandable if their survival depends on it).
Thirdly, the operating model of the refugee system is based on premises that no longer hold true. The system was designed assuming that refugee status was short-lived and that refugees would return to their countries of origin. Based on this view, establishing camps made sense, as camps can make it easier to provide for the immediate needs of refugees and asylum-seekers and guarantee their survival. The goal is still to find durable solutions – be it repatriation, reintegration, or resettlement – but the reality is that people often retain refugee status for significant periods of time. Given that refugees are likely to stay in the country for years, and probably will not return to their countries of origin, policymakers need to recognize the need to move to a model focused on integration. A focus on integration would also help prevent the development of negative coping strategies by refugees.
A solution that benefits all
Yet promoting integration is not easy and welcoming refugees can produce a backlash in receiving communities. How can we allay these concerns? Contact theory tells us that sustained positive contact can help reduce prejudice1. Policymakers in Europe should create spaces for interaction between refugees and host communities, interactions that are positive and can be sustained. This will not happen if refugees are isolated and do not have permits to work or move freely.
More importantly, when designing long-term policies, palpable benefits to the host community should also be taken into consideration. Devoting resources to help ‘outsiders’ can create resentment. In this, we can learn from countries that have adopted new ways of welcoming refugees. In new settlements in Uganda, refugees are going to live side-by-side with members of the host community. In recognition of the efforts made by the host communities, about 30% of the resources of the humanitarian response will go toward benefitting host communities through improvements to local infrastructure and other actions.
Devising policies and agreements to thwart arrivals that overlook human rights does nothing to assuage the concerns of the public (who are susceptible to being exploited by far-right extremists), solve the situation, or strengthen governance. Such policies erode Europe’s already frail moral standing and boost divisive narratives. European policymakers (and civil society) should start by focusing on shaping the narrative – and promoting successful integration is a key part of this. Refugee and immigration issues are no longer niche areas, they have become a central point of contention and are at the core of challenges to liberal democracies. New and creative solutions that look at challenges in a holistic way are absolutely necessary, particularly in times when there is a far-right surge.
1. Pettigrew, Thomas F., and Linda R. Tropp, ‘A meta-analytic test of intergroup contact theory.’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 90 (2006): 751–783.
Photo credit main picture: Fotomovimiento, April 2016 via Flickr