More than a refuge, a welcome

Note from the LeftEast editors: This article by Manuela Zechner, Bue Rübner Hansen, and Francesco Salvini was published on the website of OpenDemocracy.Net on the 8 October 2015, This text was written in the context of Barcelona en Comú and the incipientRefuge Cities network and edited with David Llistar for publication in
No One is Illegal! May Day of Action, 2009. Flickr/Tanya Liu. Some rights reserved.
No One is Illegal! May Day of Action, 2009. Flickr/Tanya Liu. Some rights reserved.

Hundreds, sometimes thousands of people have come to our towns and cities in the last week seeking a safe place to live. They escape dire economic and political situations, and many have lost all they had in violent conflict, loved ones and their homes. We want to welcome them.

Welcoming and hosting newcomers must be intelligently imagined and enabled. It needs to go beyond the violence of an ‘integration’ that makes newcomers solely responsible while placing them in hostile conditions. We need forms of welcoming that enable respect and friendship. Rather than the verticality of ‘us’ helping ‘them’, we need to welcome people in a way that enables mutual relations and the construction of a new ‘we’.

In recent weeks, we have seen that civil society has the tools to welcome newcomers in this way. People arriving have not only encountered the violence of our borders, but determined acts of solidarity by thousands of Europeans. This mostly logistical support has revealed a capacity and will to engage in a sustained welcome.

But to continue welcoming requires resources. We will need to free up time and make space for new friends and colleagues. New people constantly come to be part of our societies and we should all have the same rights and responsibilities as those that come, for living together. Only then can we create a social fabric strong enough to resist exclusion, division and hostility.

In many European countries the preferred mode of welcoming has been delegated to the state, which has isolated the newly arrived in reception centres and camps. Many normal residents have either trusted the benevolence of the state, or look with suspicion at those who are being isolated in this way.

Now it is clear to more and more people that the way states receive newcomers is isolating and often violent and paternalistic. And they have taken the initiative themselves. The task now is go beyond the old methods – either leaving all responsibility to a civil society that lacks resources, or clamouring for the state to take it on itself again.
Instead, what we need to develop is ways in which the state can provide an economic and legal base for a popular welcome. Newcomers and collective initiatives need to have rights and access to resources. Networks of cooperation and care can enable both more autonomy and more interconnectedness this way. All this is about learning from existing ways of welcoming and developing them.

Cooperation across the cycle of welcoming

Welcoming is not just about giving shelter, it is about sharing social life. This is the task of integration beyond coercion: to combine the life of those who are here with those who arrive. Both sides need agency in this process. This means to think about the cycle of welcoming in its integrity, enabling different options for arriving and staying. Not only the urgency of asylum, but also the guarantee of social, civil and political rights as well as the inclusion of newcomers in the reproduction of life in common.

Some components of this cycle are: first reception and accommodation; legal, social and trauma support; housing; access to healthcare, education and other social and civil rights; access to work and reproductive rights. Many cooperative and institutionally transformative models exist at each of these levels.

The integral welcoming circuit has provided the basis for Sanctuary Cities in the United States since the 1980s. In fact this model, which was developed to welcome political refugees and then the exiled of neoliberalism, disobeys federal laws on discrimination and exclusion: Sanctuary cities, by law or de facto, guarantee migrants and refugee the possibility of accessing social services – education, housing and health – as well as guaranteeing minimum legal rights (a due process and legal representation) in many cities of the United States. Sanctuary cities have provided a framework through which newcomers could settle in close contact with long time residents.

With these experiences in mind we want we want to foreground some examples of public policies that can help us address the complex question of welcoming refugees and migrants in our cities.

Receiving and hosting

In the first place there is the task of asylum – in its etymological sense, a task of giving shelter and protection to those who need it. Asylum need not be paternalistic – gathering people in big public centres whilst ignoring the conflicts and precarity this confronts them with, and the habitual scepticism surrounding society tends to develop towards anyone who the state chooses to isolate. Beyond emergency mass accommodation, a database of available stand-by flats in our councils could enable quick temporary hosting of newly arrived persons.

Similar databases and mechanisms for sharing private housing have been developed in Germany and Austria by civil society, enabling refugees to find accommodation in private houses (flatshares/families/housing coops) and helping them secure the financial rent support available from the state (this is the case of Refugees Welcome).

Different city councils across Europe have taken this model up and are building databases and mechanisms to mediate between refugees and locals (Vienna, Berlin, Aarhus, Barcelona, where else?). Some of those databases also enable the donating of time, money or other resources, and this model could be expanded towards enabling a series of matchmaking functions – also relating to language swaps, leisure activities, etc.

For this to function, hosts and refugees must have access to translation. Hosts can be great entry points for refugees into their new country, and if they receive sufficient counseling they can be great native-speaking advocates for the newly-arrived as they encounter asylum procedures and other public institutions, and finally the labour market.

In Tuscany, the Local Government deals with recently arrived refugees by engaging local cooperatives in a distributed mechanism of welcoming, that works with small groups of people, guaranteeing legal and social support for refugees. They offer a mechanism of integration to avoid conflict with local populations and the exclusion of the newcomers.

Legal and trauma support

But to guarantee a warm welcome is not just about providing resources or services but also about empowering the people and to renew their forms of participation in society by managing social problems. One of the questions raised and addressed in the definition of refugee policies has been that of post-traumatic help. Yet we cannot think about trauma as a merely “technical” problem, rather we need to approach it as an issue crucial to the empowerment of people as political actors in society.

The Plataforma Afectados por la Hipoteca in Spain, for example, organises collective processes of legal assistance, where the act of sharing one’s experience with other people in the same situation helps break down loneliness and isolation, by creating a space for trust, mutual aid, and for reflecting on how shared problems can be dealt with in a collective manner. This can be a tool for dealing with the situation of refugees too: what are the procedures for getting asylum, what is the experience of being a refugee – of moving through war, precarity and abandonment in the attempt of building a safe life for oneself and her family?

Following the examples of the Legal Clinic of UniRoma 3 in Italy, we should involve students, activists as well as refugees themselves in legal counselling – with the support of universities and as part of their education, affected persons can become ‘experts’ capable of taking their own and other’s cases to courts. This is crucial for the de facto activation of rights. In Denmark, the principal of the University of Copenhagen has requested an official dispensation from Danish law and the rigid Bologna rules in order to enroll refugees in free degree programs upon arrival.

Translation and language learning also can be organised in integrated ways with everyday life and work. The X:talk Project in London created a space of work-related language learning for migrant sexworkers. Such projects can be developed for other categories of migrants workers, and enables them to share experiences and build solidarities, as well as to enable them to claim their rights and negotiate the conditions under which they work.

Producing rights, reproducing life: health, care, work

Third is the task of reinventing forms of organisation that will allow the newcomers to produce and claim social, civil and political rights. Rights are not just laws, rights are practices and responsibilities. If we think about rights in this operative way, as a way of being part and participant of a society – of a life in common -, then we understand how welcoming is also about making migrants co-producers of rights. It is a way to work against the current situation, in which migrants often end up as underpaid and rightless workers and inhabitants, used as a lever to undermine the rights and working conditions of others.

Because migration is used to create such a race to the bottom, migrant rights is a way to raise the bottom. Here it is not enough to consider the inclusion of migrants in existing rights struggles, for instance when other groups fight to defend rights migrants don’t have, but also of how the newly arrived can configure welfare services starting from their experiences and problems, as well as desires of building a new way of living together.

Healthcare access is generally scarce for refugees and non-existing for undocumented migrants. Where access is given, this often comes without translation or continuity. Here the Italian city of Trieste provides a reference point for a politics of welcoming, which integrates the question of the system of healthcare with questions of language, housing and social participation. This system is geared towards intervening on the small scale of neighbourhoods or housing estates with supporting mechanisms for the access to social housing, the creation of cooperatives and economic support for young people to study or learn a job. It engages social networks to manage public spaces, social centres and healthcare activities suited to everyday life.

Another crucial aspect of enabling social composition is access to work. We need to think the cycle of welcoming as an opportunity to strengthen different ways of working and producing together. Cooperatives can be one important tool for this. The Catalan system of integrated cooperatives, providing financial support (Coop57), services, commodity production (Can Batllo) and the development of public space (La Borda) might be taken as a reference point for economic integration at the European level. Here it is crucial to avoid free labour and ensure formal and economic valorization of apprentice- and internships.

In today’s world, it is essential to take welcoming into account in the cycle of reproduction of social life. Welcoming is about reproducing a complex ecology of care that reaches across the private and the public. It is a way to avoid the ethnicized competition and fear that arises from regimes of differential rights and inclusion.

Our cities, institutions and laws must reflect this reality rather than reproduce the violence of separation – we have the tools to do this.

Manuela Zechner is a researcher and cultural worker. She participates in Barcelona en Comú and Murmurae in Barcelona, is currently a post-doctoral research fellow at the Berlin Institute for Migration Research (BIM) and runs the Future Archive project. Her work focuses on migration and social movements, creative facilitation and micropolitics, as well as translation.

Bue Rübner Hansen, @BueRubner, is a theorist and postdoctoral researcher whose main interests lie in the question of social composition, and the relationship between crisis, social movement and political change. He is an editor of Viewpoint Magazine, a participant in the refugee solidarity movement Welcome to Denmark and Barcelona en Comú.

Francesco Salvini is an activist and researcher based in Barcelona. Francesco participates in Barcelona en Comú and collaborates with Radio Nikosia. In Italy, he also collaborates with Conferenza Permanente per la Salute Mentale nel Mondo, in Trieste, and with the blog His research and activism deal with issue of precarity and public policies – in the fields of culture, health and urban rights.


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