Brussels, Belgium, 12-13 September

Can social innovation provoke change in the way our society address refugee integration?

Following the significant increase of asylum applications in Europe and the humanitarian concerns that have arisen in some countries the European Council of Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), and the United States Mission to the EU, in partnership with the Council of Europe and its network of Intercultural cities, the Economic and Social Committee and the Canadian Mission to the EU have organised a seminar on social innovation aiming at the integration and inclusion of refugees.

Held over two days, the seminar promoted exchanges between social innovators, NGOs, local authorities, businesses and service professionals in order to create local partnerships, stronger connections between public/private sectors; increased involvement of refugee communities, and better coordination between European and national authorities for increased sustainability of refugee integration initiatives.

More than 300 people attended the event from very different backgrounds and openly shared their experiences. They interacted with the other participants during the match-making sessions which were intended to connect authors of new inclusion applications and platforms with NGOs and public authorities.

The seminar opened with a reflection by Eric Young, a social innovation expert from Canada, on the importance of strong and bold leadership committed to deliberately creating a space, an innovation culture, and a transformation incubator, for new agendas to emerge and provoke a paradigm shift.

The need for a powerful narrative change, capable of disrupting the currently mainstream narrative of fear, failure and impossibility, was also addressed. Sharing success stories as the ones of the successful installation of a refugee camp in Grande-Synthe (France), thanks to strong political leadership and community engagement, the New Scots strategy – a comprehensive policy framework for refugee inclusion in Scotland, the city of Gdanks which launched a massive consultation & participation process to design an inclusive and comprehensive integration policy and the creation of the Greek Forum of Refugees, are examples of ways of provoking change, as they inspire others to try new ways of doing things.

Another tool to provoke narrative shift is humour, as exemplified by Firas Alshater (creator of the YouTube channel “Zukar”), because “if your daughter is scared by the monster hiding under her bed, she would not be reassured by statistics on monsters' attacks to kids” and the same is true for xenophobes. Xenophobia is, after all, just an irrational fear and humour is the best way to address the real problem: the populist, people that are exploiting and abusing the fears of others.

Different experiences and innovative initiatives were presented during the two days and helped focusing the discussion on different topics, like the added value of technology. One of the main conclusions of this panel is that there is no technology for refugees, but only technology for people as tech is always a way to connect. Therefore the problem of duplication could be avoided by asking ourselves if it makes sense to create an app specifically targeting refugees, or if the need of refugees in a certain domain are not indeed the same of other groups’ (whatsapp for refugees is after all simply whatsapp).

The need for an offline infrastructure and for creating places to bring people together complementing the online apps, was also stated.

Finally, a call to Governments was launched, for them to stop making their own tech and make use of what already exists, to build on and not to build new and to learn from business oriented models like Google or Facebook which only acquire Youtube and Instagram, did not reinvent the wheel.

A particular contribution was also made by the business world in which the interest for the diversity advantage represented by refugees is increasing: mentoring, work placement, networking, awards for employers who host refugees, work-language combinations (learning language on the job) are some of the experience which were presented by the Canadian department of Immigration, Refugees and Credential, by the Refugee Talent Hub, the Association New Dane, Novo Nordisk, the European Trade Union Confederation and the Confederation of German Employers’ Associations.

Workshops on participation, political change, housing and higher education completed the reflections of the Seminar.