A change in the narrative on migrants is the need of the hour, besides disseminating the many good stories as an antidote to the fears and worries spread by right-wing populists. Efforts towards integration need to be accelerated—the city of Mechelen could be a role model of what successful integration can look like. Family reunification is key to proper integration, and so is access to work and basic services. Therefore it is indispensable for member states to stick to the relocation programme they themselves agreed upon in September 2015. It is unacceptable that the nine member states did not relocate any refugees. Europe needs solidarity in order to handle this challenge.
The 3rd Migration Forum, an event jointly organised by the European Commission (EC) and the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), brought together over 200 experts from civil society organisations from the 28 members states. The event held debates on burning issues related to migration, such as access to basic needs, resettlement, relocation, family unification and protection of children.
EU Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos opened the event together with EESC President Georges Dassis. "Migration is the most challenging and divisive issue in Europe and we need to tackle it with a unified approach. No country, no city, no organisation can deal with it alone. Civil society's work on the ground and its advice is crucial to successful European migration policy," said the commissioner.
Dassis reminded participants that the EESC had long ago called for an asylum and migration policy with a holistic, long-term and solidarity-based approach. "We need to clearly distinguish between refugees and migrants. Regarding refugees, we have not only a moral, but also a legal obligation to welcome them, based on the Geneva Convention." He pointed out that the Geneva Convention had been established with the people fleeing from Communist Eastern Europe in mind, and it was therefore "unacceptable that some of those countries in particular were now refusing to take in refugees".
Changing the narrative, telling the truth
Reporting from the working groups, speakers emphasised the importance of changing the narrative. With growing disparities in EU societies, fears and concerns about migration are rising. Bigotry and xenophobia, intimidation and lies are "weaponised" for winning elections. "Migration has become a vote-grabbing issue, widely used by populist right-wing parties", said MEP Cécile Kashetu Kyenge, adding that "we all have to stand up for human dignity."
A Syrian refugee, Muhannad Bitar was invited to tell the story of his journey to Europe—an odyssey of violence, fear and loss which Mr Bitar summed up as follows: "During my journey I've seen the best and the worst of Europe".
Integration is key—family reunifications and access to work foster integration
Integration efforts need to be stepped up. It is also crucial to manage the expectations of both refugees and host communities. Refugees are sometimes exposed to toxic environments, particularly in large reception centres and refugee camps. Therefore, it is a matter of humanity to speed up relocation. Participants also called for infringement procedures against member states that do not adhere to the 2015 agreement. The EC representative pledged that the EC will not hesitate to use its power under the treaties to enforce it.
Family reunification is key to integration. Participants called for safe and legal avenues to facilitate it. They also stressed the need for a more proactive labour migration policy. EESC member José Antonio Moreno Díaz referred to the problem of labour policy segmentation, calling for a consistent European approach to facilitate migrants' access to work and also to education and vocational training. Kyenge pointed to the demand for low-skilled manual work which many migrants were already engaged in.