The seminar was a meeting of activists, charity workers, campaigners and policy makers representing their countries, institutions and projects from Lebanon, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, Denmark, Sweden, Austria, the Netherlands and the UK.
They each presented best practice techniques and projects ranging from lobbying governments, integration initiatives, advocacy, education and humanitarian aid.
The most informative aspect was hearing the distinct perspectives and challenges of the refugee crisis from each represented country. In Jordan and Lebanon we heard of the significant impact of the large numbers of refugees hosted in the countries. Naturally, owing to their geographical location bordering areas of conflict they each host over 1.3 million refugees. The challenges faced centred on meeting the basic humanitarian needs of the refugee populations, food water and sanitation. Host nations are dependent on international aid to provide this. A lack of education or job prospects for refugees is of course significant but secondary to these basic needs. We learned of a great project in Jordan to educate refugees who had fled oppressive regimes on human rights, freedoms and democracy to empower them.
However similarities with European nations were found in the way that the influx of refugees can cause domestic internal tensions and some backlash and stricter border controls. Fears relating to wage undercutting, job losses and housing demand fuelled some resentment within host countries.
Nonetheless an important thing to note was the relative welcome and acceptance of refugees in Jordan and Lebanon. On the whole it was evidenced that the host populations were more tolerant, understanding, accepting and open towards refugees. This could be explained by a historical experience of hosting refugees in Lebanon and Jordan, as well as cultural solidarity and a general understanding, knowledge and appreciation of the plights and circumstances of refugees. Regular and historical experience and daily confronting and exposure of the issues faced by refugees seemed to foster a more compassionate understanding of refugees circumstances. This could provide some insight as to how we might influence public opinion in European countries spreading accurate information, exposure and education on the circumstances of refugees.
A key theme is once you are face to face with a refugee, once you are exposed to the experiences and stories of a refugee, once the refugee is humanised to that extent then this appears to dispel fears, suspicion and fosters understanding and tolerance in its place.
It was noted that a common theme across European nations was after an initial welcoming and positive sentiment and de facto accommodation towards refugees, public opinion became more negative.
A common theme found through Morocco, and European countries is the public perception of unfairness of refugees having access to housing, welfare and resources having not contributed to it. This fostered a hostility to refugees and migrants. This was particularly strong in countries such as Sweden and the Netherlands which have a strong welfare system which newly arrived refugees have access to. It was noted however that this was not as evident in Greece. This can be explained by a lack of a strong welfare system and a more tolerant welcoming public opinion.
The shift in public opinion towards more negative attitudes against refugees has been rising in Sweden, Denmark, the UK and Austria. This has led to rise in far-right nationalism drawing on a fear of loss of cultural identity and then to tighter border controls and restrictions on intake of refugees. This of course has significant implications on refugees themselves, making crossing more dangerous and the rise of informal camps with poor conditions along border lines.
To me this brings out the central problem that we in the UK face along with other European countries. Negative public opinion towards refugees was agreed to be the most significant challenge we currently face. This in my view can be countered through the public being exposed to the personal stories, journeys and identities of refugees, positive narratives and a more effective asylum system which facilitates greater integration and engagement with local communities.
An important best practice on asylum applications which we might seek to adopt in the UK is that of the Netherlands. In the Netherlands, from day one of an asylum application the asylum seeker is provided with language lessons, is able to apply for work and is expected to attend cultural exchange events.
The language lessons naturally meant the asylum seeker could speak the native language and as such became more independent and autonomous. It also fostered an immediate understanding of Dutch culture, ways of life and provided a means of integration.
An example of a cultural exchange event is that local Dutch residents are invited to meet and share food with newly settled refugees. The refugees and native residents each prepare traditional food from their home countries and share with each other. This fosters understanding of different cultures as well as providing a way for Dutch persons to meet and understand the journeys and stories of refugees, which as I have noted above dispels fears and fosters tolerance.
Purpose built asylum accommodation centres have been established in response to the influx. These also include provision for social housing thus alleviating that demand as well. Here is an example of how the accommodation of refugees can actually improve social housing and infrastructure rather than place additional pressure.
To compare to our asylum application system where the process can take up to two years, asylum seekers are given no language lessons, are not entitled to work, and given no incentives for integration and may be accommodated in immigration detention centres, we can see how this could make a significant difference to the well-being and integration of asylum seekers. We can ask how welcome does one feel under such a system, how likely are you to want to integrate or feel you are able to. It is likely that our system could be perceived as hostile to asylum seekers which in turn could make the asylum seeker themselves feel hostile towards it. This opposition is not conducive to an effective asylum and integration process.
In sum the take away points ought to be the following.
- It is a shared problem among western European host countries that after an initial welcoming sentiment they saw a backlash in the form of resentment, anti-migration rhetoric and far-right nationalism. This in my view is the biggest challenge we face. It is crucial to change public opinion on refugees in order to have the public support for a more welcoming and accommodating environment for refugees and to push for the government to take in more refugees.
- A clear solution to this problem is public exposure to the stories, journeys and identities of refugees, thus humanising them. This dispels fears and intolerance and fosters acceptance and accommodation. This is shown in numerous examples in the Netherlands as well as in host countries bordering conflict zones. Positive narratives and personal exposure are essential.
- We ought to research further into and push for the UK to adopt what we may call the Dutch system of asylum applications and integration. This also helps significantly to address points 1 and 2.
Bradley Hillier-Smith is a long term-volunteer in Calais, a charity worker and political campaigner for refugee rights. He is currently studying for his PhD in moral and political philosophy researching ‘our moral obligations to aid victims of rights violations, specifically refugees’. He is also a member of the Liberal Democrats for Seekers of Sanctuary Council and represented them at the seminar. He told the about the Liberal Democrat campaigns to raise item donations for the camps as well as our lobbying campaigns working alongside Citizens UK and Calais Action to pass the Dubs amendment, and continuing to work for the subsequent transfer of unaccompanied children that come under the remit of the Dubs amendment.