North Africa, West Asia: Opinion

Educating the host: It's not just refugees who need ‘integration’ programmes

Teaching local hosts the experience of war and forced displacement would help to publicly challenge hate speech and inform compassion

Estella Carpi Sara Al Helali Amal Shaiah Istanbouli
12 October 2021, 12.00am
Syrian refugees protest at the platform of Budapest Keleti railway station in September 2015
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Mstyslav Chernov, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

All over the world ‘inclusion’ and ‘integration’ programmes for refugees affected by displacement proliferate. But they often remain ineffective in catalysing social cohesion. This is unsurprising when local hosts who receive refugees are not equally instructed and informed about including and integrating migrants.

In fact, inclusion and integration programmes – far from being radical in any way – are not merely ineffective, they are also politically conservative. This is because they fail to capture human mobility as an everlasting process that cuts across all social groups.

In the contemporary history of forced migration, most development and humanitarian programmes have revolved around assistance to refugees and asylum-seekers, emphasising their needs and rights. Civil society associations and activist groups, who, in general, overtly engage in political mobilisation, often end up adopting a similar strategy, focusing only on one side of the coin in advocacy campaigns and assistance programmes.

That being said, informal small-scale information sessions on forced migration and integration activities that require the involvement of local hosts can, at times, be found in cities and towns, but are not incorporated in official education programmes from early years. This lack of a systematic approach to ‘educating the host’ means information is not delivered cogently. Teaching empathy to those social groups who feel aloof from societal issues such as forced migration and from all of what refugee reception involves should be promoted.

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Based on data we collected in Lebanon and Turkey over the past four years, as part of the Southern-led Responses to Displacement from Syria project led by Professor Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh at University College London, we found that many of the refugees from Syria we interviewed highlighted the need for local ‘hosts’ to learn the experience of war and forced displacement in order to understand the reasons behind their arrival and to learn how to accept and support refugee newcomers within their societies.

“In the media, the government and local municipalities should work on delivering messages that encourage local people to support Syrians or, at least, prevent them from engaging in different forms of racism. Such messages should particularly target local students,” a Syrian refugee woman we spoke to in Hatay, Turkey, explained.

"Governments must clarify that refugees do not receive aid at the expense of the host economy”

Indeed, the suicide of a nine-year-old refugee student in Turkey in October 2019 as a result of extreme racism at school was reported, while local and national media were fuelling waves of xenophobia across Turkey sincethe beginning of the Syrian humanitarian crisis.

Misconceptions

Likewise, a large number of refugees from Syria pointed to the misleading belief that they merely constitute a burden on ‘host economies’.

A Syrian refugee man in Gaziantep, a city in Turkey, suggested that “the governments of Arab countries should contribute to educating their people so that refugees are accepted on their lands and integration is facilitated: governments must clarify that refugees do not receive aid at the expense of the host economy”.

Another contended that his cash vouchers are not a gift from host governments, and that conveying this message publicly would ease local tensions. Educating the hosts is often mentioned as an effective tool to reduce anti-refugee resentment and stimulate informed empathy within local society.

A Lebanese student in a northern Lebanese village, confirmed this: “I don’t know much about what happened in Syria in 2011. I only see lots of Syrians here. How will I learn this history if they don’t teach these things at school?” they asked.

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In our interviews and experiences in Turkey and Lebanon, international NGOs were especially mentioned as holding a potentially influential role in educating the locals on what it means to actively host refugees, since some large humanitarian and development actors have the capacity to pressure the international media and, sometimes, governments.

The considerations above, coming from refugees, raise the fundamental question of what sort of venues would be safe and suitable for the endeavour of educating the host. In most cities, refugee reception is highly politicised and regularly used as a way for local power holders to create constituencies.

Challenging hate speech

One question is whether human empathy can really be ‘taught’. However, even though the response to such a question is complex, accepting the status quo is not an option.

For instance, the presence of official education programmes on forced migration for the local hosts would help to publicly challenge hate speech and inform people’s compassion with legal and historical frameworks on refugee reception.

Whether we want it or not, people will keep moving, and the sustainability of everyone’s welfare cannot be but a common affair

Informal activities and events are often organised in cities that receive large numbers of forced migrants, both in the Global North and the Global South.

In Europe, some cities and towns host municipality-led events or initiatives run by collectives aimed at promoting integration through cultural activities or inter-religious dialogue.

In cities like Beirut and Istanbul, film screenings and roundtable discussions on Syria have been organised widely by local activists, with the purpose of sensitising the civil society. Yet, these initiatives quite often do not manage to become visible to all social groups and, importantly, are still missing in the official discourse on forced migration.

‘Hosts’ who don’t actively host

Instead, the responsibility and capacity to integrate and be included are exclusively ascribed to the refugees themselves. Paradoxically, the members of the societies that receive refugees are officially defined as ‘hosts’ without actively hosting.

This is not to discard the importance of ‘integration’ and ‘inclusion’ in contemporary societies, but rather to advocate for the healthy coexistence and mutual knowledge between the long-standing and new members of those societies.

The international community must shift the ‘capacity to integrate’ formula from the refugees to the local ‘hosts’, and acknowledge the need for a real plan with long-term, mandatory educational programmes.

Some might see this call for educating the host as an ideological and, thus, questionable move, but the truth is that whether we want it or not, people will keep moving, and the sustainability of everyone’s welfare cannot be but a common affair.

*This research has been conducted in the framework of the project “Analysing South-South Humanitarian Responses to Displacement from Syria: Views from Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey,” funded by the European Research Council under the Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation agreement no. 715582.

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