Towards a network of support for ex-refugees and their hosting communities
It is not about what they did to you. It is about what you did with what they did to you.
Looking ahead, I see a great opportunity for European communities. The influx of refugees not only brought a lot of business to economies involved and released a lot of social energy (which hopefully will be later available to deal with other problems). It also forced large part of population out of their comfort zones, giving an opening for new thinking and new social practices2.
In this text I will try to outline a concept of international network to support the process of integration of migrants in the places they stay and live for longer. Neither the newcomers nor the hosting community are involved in it by choice – this is essential. But they (we) are involved anyway. And still we have enough margin within the confines imposed by „powers that be” to make the best out of it – best for us all.
New kids in our crumbling block
The idea of bringing new people to participate in the European socioeconomic system sound especially wrong in context of creeping crisis and forced austerity we all suffer. In popular thinking there is simply not enough money, food, housing etc. etc. for everyone right now3. Bringing more consumers (or beneficients) means less resources per capita. Thus overwhelming fear, sometimes expressed openly (especially in poorer societies), more often disguised under a layer of national, religious or any other rationalisation.
Well, this fear is quite relevant. The „Western” civilisation is currently built upon (artificial and relative) scarcity. Rare „goods” (including safety, stability etc. etc.) have to be rare to be valued as a reward for complicity. And it means that the social game has to be kept a „zero-sum” or even „negative-sum”4 one – the latter being the case of a „crisis” we live in.
Of course, in such society, population lives in a constant „Red Queen Race”5 – and under the constant threat of sliding down the social slip. It leaves no room for long-term thinking, risk taking or questioning the rules.
There are, however, two factors that can break this stalemate.
One is a solidarity surge, which we experience now. Driven by emotions and fundamental moral instincts, solidarity impulse is a great „icebreaker”, quelling one’s learned helplessness in favor of altruism and activity. While relatively short-lived, it is a great booster of social involvement.
Another one is the fact that there is an alternative to the social game described above. Both in terms of self-governance and solidarity-economy, sprouts of alternative communities6 are visible throughout Europe. They are especially developed in the countries where new settlers are in aboundance: Greece and Italy.
Alternative communities do not focus on competition. They rather struggle to distribute burdens and benefits in a fair way and to increase the pool of wealth to be distributed. Their major weakness, however, is the lack of well qualified and seriously involved people. En masse they are more the ephemeral or part-time ventures than real alternatives; more subcultures than significant proposal for bigger population.
Salon des Refusés
One of the most significant revolutions in painting, impresionism, began in 1963, when a group of painters, rejected from an official national exhibition7, had their chance granted by Napoleon III, who allowed them to have their (un)official exposition parallel to the main one.
It wasn’t the first case when alternative artworks got rejected. But it was certainly the first time when the ruler, sensitive to the public opinion, declared:
“Numerous complaints have come to the Emperor on the subject of the works of art which were refused by the jury of the Exposition. His Majesty, wishing to let the public judge the legitimacy of these complaints, has decided that the works of art which were refused should be displayed in another part of the Palace of Industry.”8
This breakthrough opened the way for impresionism and avant-garde. Finally, it made the fine arts what they are today: an open firld for experiments and innovations, born and perished daily, for the joy and benefit of us all.
Enter new settlers
Mainstream society and its rulers have precious nothing new to offer as a solution for new settlers. Just more of the old: more police, more camps, more fear and more bureaucracy. Every suggested way of „integration” makes new settlers somehow excluded. Puts them on a collision course with the „locals” (many of them immigrants themselves). Above all, strips them off their empowerment, which brought them here, across so many borders.
From the first „processing” run by blue-gloved and masked Frontex henchman on a Greek island till the moment when a (successful) newcomer joins the army of unemployed dwellers of some rich country, their dignity is stripped off, layer by layer, by the abrasive tools of European civilisation.
Yet, it does not have to be like that. Already, there are groups, trying to form vernacular spaces, where new settlers can gather their wits and start their new life here on their own terms. This is not ghettoisation. This is self-governed integration, where both locals and newcomers have equal say and share the responsibility of creation new, mixed community.
Now, the great challenge is to connect this process with the realm of self-governance and solidarity economy. To invite new settlers, on equal terms, into alternative communities. To accept them as partners, not objects to take care of. To ask them for help, instead of processing them. To give them space and opportunity to contribute and settle.
I am clearly aware that it is hardly a big scale proposal. Both populations – the locals and the newcomers – are conservative by definition. Both are deeply scared and traumatised. What I suggest is an experiment, but an experiment we need to undertake. As the „European House” is crumbling and we all need some shelter outside of the disaster area. The more people we manage to bring there, the bigger chance for the rest of us, when the proverbial shit hits the fan.
Weaving a network
We need some proof-of-concept examples. We need them in various places of Europe, in various social contexts, in various forms9. And we need the support network to help them go ahead in mutual support, but still independently. Let us think now, what kind of support such network could provide.
- Legal framework and umbrella structures.There are groups that do not have (yet or at all) any formal identity. Thay may surely use a friendly and trusted organisation to provide some services, like fundraising or car sharing.We need to remember that each group has its own identity and code of conduct. The network should respect it and never force members to adopt any „one size fits all” model. The challenge here is to create a „network protocol” – a mnimal set of rules, mutually agreed, allowing communication, cohabitation and cooperation in a friendly manner.Both the protocol and the legal form will have to be discussed in greater detail among interested parties. For starters, I believe that „outside” structure could well use the model of European Social Cooperative10, based upon „Statute for a European Cooperative Society11”. Used as a „vehicle” it provides certain legal safety and leaves enough freedom inside to create more informal governance system.
- Economic sustainability know-how.There are several ways to make new settlers financially sustainable. It surely has to include local economy as well. Unless local communities see their interest in supporting newcomers in an honest way, they will predate them instead and eventually we will see pogroms, robberies and killings at large. No help should be expected from the state or I-NGOs, as there is political will to „make it hard” to refugees, as a part of deterrent strategy12.At the same time grassroot movements cannot rely solely on donations. We are dealing with a long-term process, not a seasonal crisis. The activity has to be planned as sustainable and resilient, also in a financial sense.
- Sharing of infrastructure, skills and assets.The network will be able to obtain both funding and support to create a pool of resources, to be shared by participants. Thanks to the umbrella functions, participants will not need to be constrained by any formal conditions, except for those mutually agreed. An internal skill-share system can help participants both obtain and contribute help in the most needed places. The same applies to the infrastructure: be it a safe internet website or a fleet of vans, it can be easier obtained and maintained by the network and then shared with participants.
- Education, information and mutual help.The major problem in self-organised activity is the problem of trust. We need to develop a circle of trusted persons and groups, which can set up – and execute – best practices, without resorting to any external authority. The network I propose may be a place to achieve it.
Isn’t it redundant? We have Facebook for that!
There are several services being used (like Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Slack13) and a lot of fully informal groups performing various services for volunteers and refugees. However, the most mature of them (for example Lesvos „Volunteer Coordination Agency”) are getting gradually formalised and professionalised. The problem is that they do it in a manner of centralised NGOs, which repells quite a lot of grassroots activists. My proposal aims on preventing NGO-isation while providing shared infrastructure and support. This combination of features is still nowhere to be seen, so I believe we need to create it ourselves.
I also believe that the political attitude towards new settlers (and, consequently, their supporters) will be gradually changing towards more hostile and restrictive one. There are informations from Denmark and from Greece that some volunteers were thratened to be prosecuted as traffickers. I expect that such episodes will be more and more frequent. Again, there will be growing need for independent groups to have some legal and technical structure to protect them (without forcing centralisation).
Let us go ahead
This text is hoped to be a trigger for (hopefully vivid) discussion. If you are interested, please visit the discussion group and contribute.
This text is also available for download in PDF
1 There is an ongoing debate which term is more appropriate: refugees or migrants. Fortunately, the scope of this text allows me to use term „settlers” or „new settlers”, thus avoiding terminology problems.
2 Which may be positive or negative, depending on your views. But that is a change anyway.
3 This is true ONLY under certain, artificially created, conditions. Fortunately, we do not need to deal with that notion. We just ignore it.
6 We are talking here about alternative communities of certain type, roughly associated with the left-wing thinking; not every alternative community fits this model.
9 The examples I know include a squatting housing community in Athens and Thessaloniki, an association in Italy and several groups in Germany. There are surely more of them and you, Dear Reader, are invited to let us know of them.
12 See an example: https://rsc.refugeesupport.net/2015/11/28/no-beds-for-eidomeni/
13 Of course, every activity using these applications MUST conform their respective terms of services. You cannot, for example, communicate with volunteers through Facebook unless you accept its rules and regulations in full.