Mediating conflicts over refugee integration

Conflicts arising from refugee integration are perhaps inevitable, but public mediation techniques offer a blueprint for how governments and civil society can help cities adjust.

Álvaro Ramírez
13 December 2016

A refugee child walks on the stairway in a refugee housing in Waltrop, western Germany, painted with a swastika graffiti and a writing "get out dogs". Martin Meissner AP/Press Association. All rights reserved.

Since 2015, the arrival of refugees to European cities has, in many places, triggered conflict. In most cases, these conflicts have not arisen from struggles over resources, but from perceptions coloured by disrespectful stereotypes, prejudices and discrimination. Examples of such hypothetical threats are restrictive religious differences, incompatible uses of public space, and competition in the labour market.

Civil society groups and public administrations could and should work together to counter these perceptions. Their complementary functions – city councils create and enforce policy, while civil groups are important actors in everyday social cohesion – suggest that together they could make substantial progress in making cities work for old residents and new arrivals alike.

Cities are not only places of life and coexistence, but also spaces of meaning, social organisation, cultural identity and political representation. Public powers should thus not seek to entirely avoid discussions of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Not only are they perhaps inevitable, but they are an undoubtedly democratic part of polities adjusting to new people within their midst. Rather, municipal administrations should seek to integrate and frame such discussions as integral parts of pluralistic, democratic societies. This, however, does not happen overnight. There has to be a defined strategy for action, and mediation can play a crucial role in achieving success.

Mediation as a public policy

Explicit integration policies are essential. These measures are powerful, send clear messages of intent, and can minimise certain expressions of social conflict. However, they are not sufficient by themselves – they are not a magic wand. Public mediation is another way to encourage readjustment, since it establishes a dialogue among problems, needs, and interests. Mediation is a process through which an external and neutral agent brings together the perceptions, behaviours and interests of conflicting parties, with the goal of achieving a new power balance based on an innovative solution. As Barbara Gray of the Penn State Smeal College of Business describes it, public mediation’s aim is in “creating opportunities for the disputants to investigate, (...) and enlarge their own and others’ frames about the conflict without having to give up (or abandon) any of their existing frames”. As such, the purpose of public mediation is to build common places without giving up the identities from which the parties involved set off.

Public mediation in local environments is crucial. “If we want to understand and do something about big issues, whether it be deprivation, oppression, citizenship, marginalisation or community, we should not look to abstract discussions regarding commitments to justice and fairness”, writes David Laws, “but to the everyday settings in which these questions are rooted and from which they develop”. However, the bureaucracies of public administrations are rarely flexible or quick to adapt. This begs the question: how best can we foster interaction between residents and refugees?

The role of civil society: community, space and interaction

More nimble civil society groups could fill this gap. With regard to the integration of refugees, civil society could productively intervene in three ways: 1) the establishment of communities of practice; 2) the development of open or safe spaces; 3) the use of these spaces to mediate interactive resolutions of conflicts regarding the integration of the refugees.

“Communities of practice”, as Etienne Wenger describes them, “are groups of people who share a concern or passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly”. In short, civil society groups must come together and collaborate to promote the integration of refugees. The more they collaborate, the better they will become and the wider their reach will be.

Furthermore, these activities should promote the social and political participation of refugees themselves. Neighbourhood assemblies where people can freely interact and express their views are good for this sort of local governance. To maximise interaction, however, these assemblies must remain safe spaces for all participants, locals and new arrivals alike. Safe spaces encompass deliberative, cooperative and non-coercive settings where the participants follow an open and honest attitude in order to pursue cooperative efforts that enhance everybody. At their best, safe spaces are:

“Supportive climates include situations which encourage descriptive speech in which the listener perceives requests for information as genuine; problem-oriented atmospheres which stress the importance of finding mutual solutions to conflict, rather than trying to persuade the other to change their viewpoints and beliefs; spontaneous communication, which is devoid of deception; empathy for the feelings of the other and the giving of respect and legitimacy for the other's opinion, even if the two parties are not in agreement with one another; an atmosphere of equality; and an atmosphere that encourages provisionalism, the idea that issues are open for debate, and that different and new ideas and suggestions can be considered” (Julia Chaitin).

In this sense, safe spaces are optimal for the development of Interactive Conflict Resolution (ICR) measures. ICR is a set of participatory and collaborative processes oriented towards a sustainable and mutually beneficial reconciliation between the disputants. Furthermore, in ICR the participants speak for themselves, not in representation of anybody else, and they have full freedom to explore in detail those topics taken as pertinent in the relationship. This practice is also flexible enough to integrate the expertise, resources and influence of public mediators, and can frequently benefit from doing so.

Concluding thoughts

Some might consider mediation naïve, because words are cheap and cooperation is not easy. The scale and depth of the problem can also appear overwhelming, and in such situations any way forward can appear infeasible. Additionally, the interaction between refugees and inhabitants in safe spaces can also trigger asymmetries of power, negative attitudes such as recrimination or defensive behaviour, or develop reductionist stereotypes, especially in cases that had experienced escalation in the past. These are risks that must be acknowledged and explicitly addressed, and the use of trained mediators can go a long way in warding off the negative possibilities.

More broadly, I’d suggest that to diminish the likeliness of conflict arising from refugee integration it would be good to explore the bonds between institutions, organisations and individuals, since their strengths and weaknesses are mutually complementary. Governmental bodies are part of a broader network of actors, and so are civil society groups. There are many productive avenues for cooperation open to these groups, and everybody will benefit if these are pursued.

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