The city of Ghent. Photo: Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.The city of Ghent, like other cities, is facing a growing number of refugees. In Belgium, the number of asylum applications doubled within one year. Most of them (60%) are getting recognised as refugees. As a local government we believe in a pro-active approach. In fact, we believe in starting the integration process from day one. The moment asylum seekers arrive in Ghent, they are brought into contact with relevant organisations. In this way they can have a quick access to language courses, volunteer work, leisure activities… This is a two-sided approach, not only speeding up the integration process for the refugees themselves, but also allowing organizations and citizens also get to know newcomers. This is a way to address negative stereotypes and prejudices against refugees.
To coordinate all of this, the city of Ghent set up a Taskforce on Refugees. Within this structure we believe it is very important to involve everyone who can take a role in dealing with the growing number of new arrivals. This is a cooperation, not only in between administration (city services and the Public Service for Social Welfare) and policy; also citizens and NGO’s / civil society are involved in this structure from scratch on. Due through this structure you can set also clear roles and responsibilities. Within the taskforce, we set up three working groups: a working group on shelter, a working group on integration and one on volunteers and public awareness. This triple-pronged approach allows us to tackle the challenge of welcoming refugees holistically.
Due to the growing number of refugees, the federal government decided to provide more accommodation for refugees. In Ghent, we started a cooperation in between three reception centers. As such, we can exchange information, experiences and good practices.
A new reception centre (a pontoon on the water) for 250 asylum seekers got a lot of publicity. From the beginning, we invested, together with the proprietors of this pontoon, in a good information exchange with the neighbourhood and all citizens of Ghent. For example: we organised information sessions to explain which new arrivals will come to the neighbourhood, to answer questions, to give the citizens the opportunity to write down their ideas to link the new asylum centre with neighbourhood and city. Afterwards we invited those citizens to further develop their ideas together. Also a tour within the pontoon was organised. Through giving accurate information from the beginning, and involving society from the beginning, you can demystify stereotypes and raise awareness.
In providing asylum seekers and refugees easier access to social rights – housing, education, work, health, leisure activities, we invest in peoples positive development and adaptation from scratch on. As such, asylum seekers are starting the integration process from day one.
In providing access to social rights, we try to work a as inclusive as possible. For example, a lot of asylum seekers have a quick access to (volunteer) work. This is not alone by leading asylum seekers from the beginning to the existing bodies on work. Also the important stakeholders on work are addressed from the beginning and are looking to lower thresholds and increase accessibility. This is a win win for the newcomers and the society. Recognised asylum seekers start to settle in the different neighbourhoods in Ghent. It is important to focus on building networks and awareness in the different neighbourhoods. As such, we can also reinforce social cohesion.
Volunteers and public awareness
NGO’s, volunteers, citizens are willing to offer assistance to asylum seekers and refugees. The arrival of these new migrants also led to an enormous increase in solidarity. Citizens and organizations offering their assistance to help on the refugee crisis, donating materials…
As a local authority you can align these initiatives and offer professional guidance. For example by hosting a volunteer event, setting up a dedicated website, aligning buddy initiatives… Initiatives like buddy systems, setting up volunteer work, leisure activities does not only empower the newcomers, but fast-tracks their integration process as well. By coordinating these initiatives you can fill up the gaps and give a warm welcome to asylum seekers and refugees and foster solidarity with other vulnerable groups within the city.
European cites on the front line
The growing number of refugees is an issue in most European cities. Newcomers settle mostly in cities. Cities play a big role in facilitating the integration process of newcomers, in reinforcing and enhancing social cohesion. Exchanging knowledge and experiences -such as bottlenecks, good practices and challenges- with other European cities (e.g. through the Eurocities working group Migration & Integration) is beneficial for as well our local work and policy, other city’s realisations and intentions as the European policy and approach/operation in general. Together with cities a comprehensive European Agenda on Migration (e.g. through the Urban partnership on Migration and integration) and appropriate and reinforcing funding can be realised. Due to the impact on and responsibility of cities, it is important that cities can have direct access to European funds. As more people arrive in the city, we cannot afford the time it takes to lobby national governments. We know that the need is immediate - and so direct funding streams are the only way that cities can possibly meet the demands of a population with complex needs.