Keynote speech at OSCE-ODIHR round table on local government and migrant integration

Warsaw 26 october 2017
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Thank you very much for the invitation to join you today at this very topical round table. The question of migrants’ integration is increasingly central to my activities, so it is a great pleasure for me to speak to you at the opening of this forum to exchange some thoughts of the role of local government in this area.

Since my appointment in February 2016, I have carried out fact-finding missions in eight European countries: Greece, “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”, Turkey, France, United Kingdom, Italy, Serbia and Hungary. In the context of these missions, I have had the opportunity to speak to mayors and other representatives of local authorities. I have seen a wide range of different approaches to the reception and integration of migrants; and diverse systems for sharing responsibilities between central and local government. It is on the basis of this on-the-ground experience, as well as my general information-gathering activities, that I address you today.

Let me begin by stating the obvious: local authorities have a critical role to play when it comes to the integration of migrants.

The state must put in place certain laws and policies to create a framework for integration – such as legislation granting migrants access to the labour market, housing and other services. But the implementation of those laws and the development of wider policies for inclusion often depend on initiatives at local level. The general attitude of mayors and other local authority representatives towards migrants has a bearing on the policies they adopt. It is also affects their willingness to engage in projects which encourage citizens and migrants to interact and to show understanding for each other’s cultures.

I can summarise my broad conclusions from my fact-finding missions in this area by reference to three main themes: the importance of mayors as opinion leaders; the scope for municipalities to apply practical and innovative solutions; and the need for local and central government to work together.

There is no doubt that large parts of the population across Europe have concerns about the impact of new arrivals from the Middle East and Africa on their communities. This has manifested itself in the rise of anti-immigration political parties and an increasingly hostile rhetoric at national and local level in many places. Often, the negative opinions held by citizens, ill-informed though they may be, translate into resistance to welcoming migrants in communities.

During my missions, I have come across municipalities which have chosen not to counter negative perceptions and to respond to challenges linked to migration in an unconstructive way. By pitting migrants and locals against one another, they have only made matters worse. By contrast, mayors who have worked to influence public opinion positively and to realise the potential that migrants can bring have often managed to diffuse potentially tense situations. The inhabitants of the Greek island of Chios were reminded of their families’ refugee past. The municipality of Athens adopted a firm policy of non-discriminatory access to services and welfare benefits. The mayor of Palermo launched a Charter on international human mobility, promoting mobility as a right for all human beings.

These are all good-practice examples that can be discussed and shared among municipalities.

We should expect, and even demand, of our mayors that they show positive and principled leadership. I do not underestimate the difficulties they face, particularly in those areas where arrivals have been highest. Experience has shown that local patience with large migrant communities and the demands this can place on stretched resources may eventually wear thin. As I have stressed in my reports on Greece and the camps in northern France, there must be a system for sharing responsibility. In some countries such systems simply do not exist. In others, they do not seem to be functioning as they should. National networks of municipalities that can be used to share responsibility for migrant and refugees must be promoted.

Even where burden-sharing arrangements are non-existent or have broken down, there are steps that municipalities can take to create compassionate and tolerant communities. Indeed, they have an advantage over central government when it comes to seeking solutions to the challenges associated with integrating migrants. Their autonomy, limited territorial size, pragmatism and close links to the community mean that they can test creative responses. They can also adapt strategies more quickly depending on what has been shown to work, and what has been less successful.

During my visit to the camps in the north of France last year, I saw very plainly the impact that this can have. Historically, migrants gathering in these camps intended to travel to the United Kingdom. They had little interest in asylum opportunities in France, and the duration of their stay in the camps depended on the success of their clandestine attempts to cross the border. The hundreds of school-age children in the Calais camp were not allowed to attend local schools. It was clear from my meeting with the Calais mayor’s office that there was no appetite at local level for action in this area. However, some 40km down the road in the separate municipality of Grande-Synthe, arrangements had been put in place to give children in the camp access to local schools in the afternoons. (I was told that the children were too tired to attend in the mornings since they spent their nights attempting to board lorries bound for the UK). While the academic value of this initiative was a matter of debate, my interlocutors were clear on its value as a tool of integration policy: requests for asylum in France were higher among families with children in school. These kinds of initiatives can be further built upon – to improve linguistic and other support for example – and a positive message shared with other municipalities facing similar challenges.

Facilitating access to education is an area where the Council of Europe can help local authorities. Our recent Action Plan on protecting refugee and migrant children, adopted in May of this year, calls for surveys of experiences on the provision of education to migrants and on integrating them into mainstream education. The idea is that this would ultimately lead to a guide on good practices, and potential cooperation activities. At a more practical and immediate level, my office is currently working with the mayor of Athens to provide training to teachers there, so that they have a better understanding of migrant children’s needs and how to cater for them.

Opportunities for migrant and refugees to learn the language of the host country can also usefully be provided at local level. Municipalities can seek to engage members of the community by putting in place arrangements for voluntary language teaching in local community centres and schools. The Council of Europe has developed a language toolkit for use by volunteer language tutors. It offers information on cultural and language awareness; guidance on language needs and planning language support; and diverse learning activities. It is currently available in seven languages.

Some interesting examples of creative actions at local level can be seen in Calabria, in Italy. I am sure that many of you have read about the efforts by mayors in Riace and Gioiosa Ionica, for example, to harness the potential benefits of hosting and integrating migrants. In rural areas, these new arrivals can revive the local farming industry. Their children can ensure that local schools have enough pupils to stay open. The money they spend in local shops can support local business and revitalise formerly neglected town centres. The local children benefit from their exposure to multiculturalism, and all residents share the advantages of better service provision.

The Intercultural Cities Programme run by the Council of Europe can help cities to develop inclusive integration policies and realise the diversity advantage. The programme facilitates exchanges of best practice, through study visits and other mechanisms, to allow model solutions to be rolled out quickly in other places. Over 120 cities from across the globe participate in the network.

But even the most inclusive local societies need the support of central authorities. Making the relationship between central government and the municipalities work is key to the effective reception and integration of refugees and migrants. It is clear from my fact-finding missions that a number of challenges must be addressed in this respect.

In some countries, I was told that relevant data about migrants were not being systematically shared by central government with the municipalities asked, or expected, to host them. This makes it challenging for local authorities to incorporate migrants and refugees into the provision of accommodation and services.

In the United Kingdom, for example, legislation was passed to enable some unaccompanied migrant children without family in the country to be admitted – the so-called “Dubs amendment”. Local authorities were invited to make offers to central government to accommodate a certain number of children; these offers would dictate how many children were actually allowed to enter the United Kingdom. But local authorities found it difficult to make concrete offers without access to information about the profiles – age, educational level, specific vulnerabilities – of the children concerned. Without the support of central government, it was difficult – if not impossible – for them to obtain this data themselves.

Similarly, in the context of the dismantling of the “Jungle” camp in Calais last year, municipalities across France were asked to act quickly to provide suitable accommodation and services for the large number of unaccompanied children evacuated from the camp. I visited some of the newly created centres for these young people and was surprised to hear that prior to their arrival, those managing the centres were given little or no information about the people they were being asked to accommodate – including, in some cases, how many to expect.

A lack of adequate resources also creates barriers for local authorities looking to invest more in welcoming migrants. This is a particular obstacle when it comes to putting in place reception facilities in those countries where this falls within the competence of municipalities. In Italy, for example, local authorities are responsible for providing second-line reception facilities to asylum-seekers and refugees. They do this via the SPRAR network of accommodation. SPRAR facilities are usually small establishments that enable more tailored support for residents, including assistance with language learning and integration activities.

I was impressed with both the philosophy behind the SPRAR network and with the SPRAR facilities I visited in Rome. But the severe shortage of SPRAR places means that the vast majority of entitled refugees and asylum-seekers are accommodated instead in larger emergency facilities without access to integration projects. I see the SPRAR network as an excellent example of how local authorities should be looking to develop longer-term accommodation for asylum-seekers and refugees. And when examples of best practice are identified, funding needs to be made available to enable them to be rolled out more widely.

Lack of adequate resources is also relevant to child protection, also usually a matter for local authorities. The high percentage of under-18s arriving in Europe in recent years has caused significant problems in the effective implementation of guardianship and other child protection measures. In several of the countries I visited, one or two local authorities bear the brunt of the new arrivals and they are struggling to cope with the demands placed on their limited capacities.

Sometimes, the problem lies with austerity policies. The amount that municipalities get per unaccompanied child in England and Wales can, for example, pay for foster care but not for private housing. The same municipalities lack the resources to follow up on refugee children who are reunited with their families there. However, it is these very families who, because of their precarious situation, need most attention. In other cases, the problem is legal. According to legislation in force at the time of my visit to Italy in October 2016, for example, the mayor was the guardian of all unaccompanied children on his/her territory. In the case of Palermo, this translated into over 500 children. And then there are cases where the administrative processes seem to ignore migration. In Turkey, for example, I was informed that refugees are not taken into account when the population of cities is calculated for the purpose of determining the level of financial support they receive.

We cannot even begin to talk about the integration of children if they are placed in unsuitable accommodation without access to necessary additional support. If adequate funds are not provided, the numerous children arriving in Europe are denied the material and emotional support they need and the opportunity to identify and develop their life goals.

To conclude, integration is a process through which people form bonds with the communities which host them. Such bonds are formed, first and foremost, at local level. This is why local attitudes towards migrants are so important. Whether states are also prepared to provide the necessary additional resources depends on the price tag we are prepared to attach to human rights, social cohesion and, to a certain degree, the future of our continent.

Until some of the fundamental issues are addressed we should not, of course, remain inactive. As I have already mentioned, during my missions, I came across municipalities that looked proactively for pragmatic and innovative solutions.  Sometimes, ad hoc arrangements in loose cooperation with NGOs and civil society actors seemed to work due to the willingness of those involved. Sometimes local government actors showed welcome flexibility in applying legal norms; for example, Turkish mayors applied in a generous way certain decrees to facilitate the employment of Syrian refugees, which would have otherwise been restricted.

All of this shows the importance of voluntary arrangements in adding value in this area. And, above all, demonstrates that goodwill is a necessary precondition for putting in place policies aimed at enhancing the integration of migrants at local level.


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