The Refugees Give Europe an Opportunity to Do Things Better

Robin Sclafani, Director CEJI

The political refugees are giving a second-chance to Europe, a moment in history with the momentum to rectify the societal structures which have failed so many times. Just look at the Evian Conference of 1938 in which country after country expressed sympathy for the plight of Jewish refugees, but only the Dominican Republic agreed to accept them.

The European Union was founded in the aftermath of WWII in order to avoid these kinds of mistakes of the past. The debate as to whether we should or shouldn't allow them to come is exposing multiple fears and uncertainties. The refugees are coming regardless if we "let them" and we must address the fears of the Reticent or Resistant as challenges to be overcome. We need to put in place the policies and programmes to support the realization of the newcomers' positive contribution to the future of our society. The refugees are being imprinted by their first contact with Europe, either an idealized version (such as the welcome provided by Germans and Austrians) or a demonized version (such as the mistreatment they are experiencing in Hungary). Even positive encounters with refugees will not be enough to ensure intercultural experiences which enable the new arrivals to become active participants in our democratic, pluralistic, equality-promoting structures.

The newcomers need to be educated in the rights and responsibilities of our multicultural Europe, we need to help them overcome their possible prejudices, such as those they may have about Jews, women and gays and lesbians. But we as hosts need to be challenged in our stereotypes too; the refugees can help us to overcome our xenophobia, and we can all be better prepared to expand our notions of common identity. The good will which is momentarily being expressed by so many towards the Syrian refugees may provide Europe the opportunity to address more effectively the already existing problem of ethnic discrimination in employment and the inequalities reinforced in our school systems. Let us not forget the millions of European citizens who may be Black, Roma, Muslim or other "different" identity who experience discrimination on a regular basis, at work, in the shops, on the streets, searching for housing, in the media and in the schools. Economists mostly agree that new workers in Europe will be good for the economy and counter-balance the deficit of an aging population. We need to ensure that employers can make the best use of this increase in the workforce. They must have a strategy in place that will prepare them to succeed and feel fulfilled in their labours. Policies linked to adult education, transfer of competences, programmes that address hard and soft skills, are all necessary parts of this strategy, as is anti-bias training for the existing workforce so that the new arrivals actually feel comfortable and appreciated. Let us take seriously the fears of those afraid of an increase in terror acts, even if it has been shown that Europe does not need refugees to bring terrorism into our midst. Screening of asylum applicants is crucial for previous engagement with terrorist organisations. But we should not forget that these people are escaping terror, survivors from the belly of the beast. They are diverse: Christian, Shiite, Sunni, Alawites, Kurds and Yazidis. If our reception of them is done well, there are better chances that they will become evermore loyal to Europe.

Essentially so much of the resistance expressed to receiving the thousands waiting at Europe's borders comes from a fear of losing one's culture, to find one's identity no longer the norm, to find oneself confronted with a different set of values. The refugees must be feeling this fear 100 times more than those of us within the existing European mainstream. The refugees must adapt because their lives are on the line. How about the Europeans with historical roots that run so deep? A little bit of change is inevitable with or without refugees, but maybe if we can do "integration" gracefully, with curiosity and decency, providing education into the benefits of secular democracy, we may discover a brighter more peaceful future.

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Read the article on Huffington Post UK

Date published: 
18/09/2015