Monday, February 5, 2018

Integration of Refugees: Systemic Policies and Personal Responses

UNHCR Poster

Our speaker at Caritas Rome

Posters made by refugees who are studying Italian at Caritas Rome

Fr Thomas Smolich, SJ, International Director of Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) speaks about the importance of “accompanying” the refugees.
Integration of Refugees: Systemic Policies and Personal Responses
by Soo Kim, MNA

Quoting that 41.4% of refugees and migrants have lived in an informal and hostile settlement situation in Italy since 2011, one NGO worker stated passionately about the lack of systemic integration measures for the refugees: “Current refugee crisis is not an emergency situation, it is an endemic situation!” This is probably the most impactful statement I heard during the incredible week I spent at AGI-Rome, learning about the European/Italian responses to integrating and managing the influx of refugee population. By hearing from speakers representing the Italian government (i.e. Ministry of Interior), UNHCR, as well as various NGOs, we now have a multi-angled view of how the refugees are being received and integrated into Italy. The picture for a large number of refugees is a bleak one. The process of documenting and legalizing these incoming individuals is not as streamlined as it should be. There is a shortage of adequate housing for this large number of people. There is a lack of coherent policies for including the refugees into the national education system. Job opportunities for these displaced people are scant. Public health care system is not easily accessible, and cultural mediators who can help with the acclimation process are insufficient in number. Many of the refugees’ living conditions in the new country are such that they suffer from secondary trauma and psychological stress derived from life expectation mismatch and social marginalization.

Despite the glum reality for the refugees and the displaced, we also saw hope and light when we learned of the wonderful work various organizations are doing to provide necessary and personal help. The Ministry of Interior started a program called SPRAR (The Protection System for Asylum Seekers and Refugees) in 2002 where the national government funds and oversees the refugee integration programs that are organized and managed at the local municipality levels. Since 2015 this initiative has grown to incorporate over 700 programs in Italy. By cooperating with the network of local institutions, they are able to implement better reception projects that are meeting the specific needs of the refugees and forced migrants in each municipality. The speaker from SPRAR program said, “we provide tools for integration but integration is a personal process.” This appeared to me as an honest and humane response. We can’t just lump all refugee experience and integration process into one homogenous practice. Government policies and responses have to take into consideration that each refugee experience is particular and distinct, and the help for the integration process has to happen at the ground level for individuals.

Another speaker from Caritas Rome has expressed a similar sentiment. Caritas is an international organization that is inspired by the Catholic faith. With the goal of helping the poor and the vulnerable regardless of race or religion, Caritas Rome is working hard to provide housing, meals, counseling, and legal services to over 30,000 users every year. Our host talked emotionally about many unexpressed and complicated needs each refugee has when adjusting to a completely new culture and language, embedded in unfamiliar legal and social systems. She spoke of one of the happiest endings that she witnessed in her many years of working at Caritas. The story was of a young man from Ivory Coast who was matched with an Italian family that “adopted” him. This family walked closely with this young man through his integration process. This young man, with the immediate and kind help of this family, became entirely independent within a year and is now working as a chef. This story emphasizes the importance of deep human connection in any human development and success. It also echoes what Father Thomas Smolich, the International Director of Jesuit Refugee Service shared with us. JRS, whose mission is to “Accompany, Serve, and Advocate,” stresses the importance of providing close and direct contact with the forcibly displaced persons. Father Tom said, “when you feel alone your personal demons are stronger whether you are a refugee or not.” He emphasized the need to be companions to those who are lacking social network in the new world in which these refugees find themselves. This is probably why Pope Francis called on European parishes and religious communities to offer true welcome and shelter to migrant families in 2015. This is also the reason why he launched Share the Journey campaign in 2017. When human connections are formed, refugees transform from being “those others” to “one of us.” The success of a true integrative process for the refugees depends on the receptiveness of the host communities as much as it does on the efforts of the refugee and displaced people.

This week spent at AGI-Rome made me realize that a comprehensive and holistic response for the refugee crisis must incorporate both systemic public policy and personal receptiveness at multiple levels of host communities. If current refugee crisis is not an emergency situation but an endemic situation as the NGO worker claimed, it is even more critical that the integration responses are infused with fundamental human kindness and empathy.

For additional helpful thoughts on the integration process for Europe’s refugees, you can read:

· McKinsey Global Institute’s November 2016 report

· World Economic Forum’s research

· UNHCR’s 2013 report