By Tawa Braimah
Major cities across Europe pride themselves on being cultural melting pots – multicultural hubs – where aspects of different cultures come together to create a beautiful, ethnically diverse way of life. Arguably, the most visible evidence of this resides in the taste buds – it’s in the mouth-watering range of indigenous Indian curries, flaming Brazilian dishes, earthy Italian cuisines and ever-yummy Turkish kebabs. The flavorful appeal of these multicultural cities extends to the language, architecture and landscape, which offer the best of different worlds. The richness of these culturally diverse spaces is derived from the movement of people from one place to another in search of ways to meet a myriad of human needs, some as fundamental as shelter. As people move, they carry with them perspectives, beliefs, and traditions that they in turn share, interrogate and explore with others – some more welcomed than most.
When reading about the rich cultural diversity of these cities in colorful travel blogs and local tourism brochures, you are unlikely to come across the undesirable parts of the city: the shanty towns where undocumented migrants and refugees live in less than humane conditions. Neither would you be told of how difficult it is for migrants/ refugees to integrate in a society that is increasingly threatened by the presence of foreigners. Access to education, healthcare and the labor market for these groups of people is a luxury many are denied. Qualified professionals fleeing war and persecution in their home countries are lucky to find jobs well below their qualification. In fact, the Action Plan on Integration and Inclusion developed by the European Commission in November 2020 estimated that more than a quarter of migrants are highly educated, with almost 40% being too qualified for the jobs they do. It also found that at least a fifth of Europe’s migrant population would need more help integrating than they are currently receiving, since they have only basic levels of education.
As challenging as this year has been, it has helped to highlight the important roles migrants play in the socio-economic development of their host societies. Migrants constituted a significant number of frontline workers as well as essential service providers at the height of the COVID-19 crisis. The pandemic has also uncovered the girth of inequality within society as it disproportionately impacted different communities. When news of the successful trial of a vaccine against the novel coronavirus broke in November, the fact that the two scientists at the heart of this discovery are children of Turkish immigrants in Germany reignited the conversation of the importance of diversity. It also shows how the potency of science tends to override religious/political debates. Sadly, these positive aspects of migration tend to be overshadowed by isolated cases of violent crimes committed by individual migrants. Deliberate policies at the national and regional levels in response to these incidents, and the negative narrative of the impact of migration in sections of the media, create a hostile environment for foreigners to thrive in.
Fortunately, it isn’t all gloom and doom when it comes to these issues. There is a lot of work being done in academia, within civil society organisations, NGOS and at the community level to foster wholesome inclusion and diversity. And this is exactly what a three-part session at the just-ended SIETAR-Switzerland congress sought to explore. Tying in with the aptly chosen theme of this year’s congress; “The Future of Inclusion”, the session on “Unpacking Migration: Recognition of the benefits of individuals on the move in our societies”, brought together researchers, migrants and professionals working actively towards the integration of migrants to share ideas and best practices on how to achieve a collective goal. Moderated by the ever-dedicated and passionate past president, Anne-Claude Lambelet, the sessions sought to answer some pertinent questions on the evolving roles of stakeholders working to create a truly diverse and inclusive society.
Moving Beyond the Stain of Inequality as It Pertains to Migration
NCCR – on the move, which is the National Center of Competence in Research (NCCR) for migration and mobility studies, “aims to enhance the understanding of contemporary phenomena related to migration and mobility in Switzerland and beyond” using interdisciplinary approaches. We were fortunate to have its director, Gianni D’Amato, share with us some research findings that highlight the specific structural and systemic challenges faced not only by migrants in Switzerland, but also by locals and their perception of them. Here are some relevant takeaways from that presentation:
- Qualification Mismatch: As alluded to earlier, many migrants with high professional qualifications from their home countries do not find jobs that utilise their knowledge and skills. According to Prof. Gianni D’Amato, an NCCR research found that migrants from India and North America are more likely to find jobs that match their qualifications than those from Eastern Europe, Africa or the Balkan region for example. The chances of this happening are even greater for men than they are for women. A similar study found that Swiss nationals with different origins and non-Swiss sounding names would have to apply for 30-44 more jobs than their native counterparts to get an interview, lending credence to the fact that skin color, names and other factors impact migrants’ abilities to enter the labor market and, through their jobs, improve their position in society. Discomfort when confronted with migration: Another research finding by the NCCR-on the move that was shared by Prof. D’Amato shows that the more educated people are, the less discomfort they tend to feel when confronted with migration. In addition:
- The more right-leaning people are, the more likely they are to experience discomfort when confronted with migration
- The older people get, the higher their levels of discomfort in these situations
- Political Culture: Regions within Switzerland with the highest diversity also record the lowest negative attitudes towards supporting migration. “The more plural and dense experiences we have in our everyday lives are, the better we evolve as a society”, Professor D’Amato emphasised.
- Importance of Active Civil Society: Although integration policies are interpreted and implemented differently at the substrate level, albeit within a federal framework, it is important to appreciate the role of an active civil society in addressing attitudes and creating levels of political contact that help overcome negative attitudes
Refugee Narratives of Inclusion
Associate Professor of Interculturality & Diversity in Education at the University of Patras, Greece, Dr. Eugenia Arvanitis gave an insightful presentation on research that sought to understand how young refugees perceive the concept of home and to get an idea of their educational trajectories. Another approach the university has been using since the spike in migrant numbers in Greece is the reflective dialogue method which “helps to create a collaborative intelligence around the issue to deal with our own stereotypes; culture of disbelief and suspicion”, and how we deal with refugees and their depiction in the Greek society, she said.
- Home Narratives: After talking to young refugees in one of the migrant camps close to Western Greece, one of the striking revelations was that most of them had to create a strong narrative of home in order to survive. The loss of territorial roots and the physical separation, coupled with the transnational movements they embarked on, helped to create multiple allegiances to home.
- It was also found that these young refugees tend to reject the characterisation of victimhood in favor of resilience and the creation of new lives for themselves. “They provide a very important example of cultural change and cultural productivity… new cultural meaning ascribed to different dimensions of their lives”, Eugenia added.
- Educational Trajectories: Through an annual public forum organised by the university to give migrants the platform to share their experiences and aspirations with other stakeholders, a recurring theme has been the disruptive nature of refugees’ education. Dr. Arvanitis said that globally, 61 percent of refugees go through primary education compared to 91% of the general population globally. The number decreases as they grow older with 23% of refugees having had access to secondary education compared to 70% the general population.
- According to her, the inability to access education which has become a major denominator for inclusion is a challenge. “Such forums as the one the university initiated, gave these young refugees the opportunity to present themselves as deserving of opportunities…These kinds of narrative methodologies and reflective dialogues that we do in public forums act as important mechanisms to allow these people to obtain their voice with respect to their own refugeeness”, she concluded.
Overcoming Barriers for Inclusion
Professor Eric Davoine combines a chair in Human Resources and Organizational Development at the University of Fribourg with private consulting and leading projects at NCCR On-the-Move. Building on his extensive experience of expatriate recruitment and management in multinational companies in Switzerland, he has sought to understand what it must be like for ‘unwanted migrants’, whose experience is very different from that of the expats he has been used to working with. He conducted a survey with some 22 highly skilled and qualified migrants from Syria seeking asylum in Switzerland. Apart from the fact that most of the respondents in this micro survey could have easily passed for the expatriates he recruits, the research also uncovered certain issues that these highly qualified refugees encounter.
- Permit Category as Facilitator for Integration: Waiting time for getting a permit is a huge factor in preventing many skilled and highly qualified refugees from accessing the job market. Some even lose job offers due to the delay in processing their permits. Even with that, a refugee status could be used as an excuse for not hiring them for jobs they are qualified for, since many companies would rather hire people with long- term permits. “Different multiplicators of biases were found not just with recruiters but among social workers who play the important role of institutional gatekeepers of the employment market. Often they tend to categorise refugees according to gender, not taking into account their qualifications”, Eric Davoine said.
- Facilitating factors: One of the challenges that high qualified refugees have to overcome is the re-conceptualisation of their knowledge, skills and experience in the operational language(s) of their host country, in this case, Switzerland. Those who are successful in overcoming this hurdle are usually the people who invest more time in improving their language skills beyond the mandatory evening classes. Proficiency in the English language is also seen as relevant in changing one’s symbolic status as a refugee.
- Networking with Syrian refugees who managed to penetrate the Swiss labor market was also revealed as a strong facilitating factor. This, coupled with volunteering and help from relatives already domiciled in the country, tends to give these refugees an advantage over others.
- Taking internship and traineeship positions in companies, hospitals and other places matching their qualifications is a good way of making sure that their qualifications are recognised. It also offers them the opportunity “to go beyond the qualification, show skills and translate and contextualise their knowledge and skills”, he concluded.
Participants also heard from representatives of Swiss grassroot initiatives that focus on specific aspects of integration support, such as Charlie Hartmann-Lucarotti from the Lili Centre, Luzern, whose organization supports refugees and migrants with information and integration services. Next, Rea Grünenfelder, a representative from the Swiss Universities Students’ Union (VSS-UNES-USU), presented PERSPECTIVES-STUDIES and the projects that have been put in place in various universities around Switzerland to support refugees who seek to continue their studies at university level. Next, Giordano Neuenschwander, the Head of SINGA, Geneva, presented the entrepreneurship programs that have been designed for refugees and migrants, who often look at market needs with a fresh and creative eye but need help translating those ideas into workable market concepts. Finally, Lucy Antrobus, the CEO of Refugee Voices, shared her confidence-building and trauma-management initiatives.
Armed with findings from these eye-opening research studies and analyses of the refugee/ migrant situation, using Switzerland and Greece as case studies and drawing on the ground level initiatives they had heard about, participants were tasked to translate those into workable solutions to foster inclusion in their communities. They reflected on questions about how to promote the positive aspects of migration; how to establish a coherent and compelling counter-narrative to xenophobic and anti-immigration discourse; how to move from integration to inclusion in approaches to migrants and refugees; and how research projects and grassroot initiatives can collaborate more closely to deliver on the researchers’ needs and support migrant inclusion.
No matter the role you play as a stakeholder in this discourse, it would be extremely helpful if you would stop once in a while to reflect on these issues and consider how to effect meaningful change in the lives of those around you, which means all of us.
Drawing credit The banner for this article is taken from a poster created by Douka Ardit, a student from the General Lyceum of Kardamil, Greece. Ardit’s art creation was submitted in the nation wide competition titled “Representations of Otherness” and it was awarded with the 2nd price. The competition was run by the Forum on Intercultural Dialogue and Leaning (University of Patras) and Educartoon in 2017.