ECRE (European Council of Refugees and Exiles) interview related to the keynote address provided during the ECRE conference in the Hague: Refugees’ integration should start from the very beginning of a stay in a new country.
“It breaks my heart when I think that I had a chance to be successful and to rebuild a life, but I could be them, and they could me, if there was a different time and a different place.”
The so-called “refugee crisis” has turned the attention of States towards “managing the flows” of people seeking international protection in Europe. While the main discourse has focused on securitisation and on immediate reception and assistance capacities, integration has been neglected. Integration is an indispensable two-way process for the refugee and the State, and is key for the successful establishment of an individual in a new society.
The ECRE Weekly Bulletin interviewed Halleh Ghorashi during ECRE’s Annual General Conference in The Hague (14-16 October 2015), where she gave a keynote speech on the crucial importance of initiating the integration processes at the very beginning, from arrival, to ensure a sustainable and durable protection solution. Professor Ghorashi reflected on her own experience as an asylum seeker and what has changed, since then, for better or for worse.
Halleh Ghorashi is Full Professor of Diversity and Integration in the Department of Sociology at the VU University Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Professor Ghorashi came to the Netherlands in 1988 as a refugee from Iran. She has published extensively on topics such as identity, diasporic positioning, cultural diversity and emancipation, with a particular focus on the narratives of identity, (forced) migration and belonging in the context of growing culturalism.
What are the specificities of the integration process of refugees, and how is it different from the integration of migrants?
The experiences of refugees and migrants are quite different, and that has a high impact on their integration processes. For example, refugees were forced to leave their countries and most of the time they do not know when they can go back.
Because people leave so much behind, and have such horrible pasts, the first years of a stay are crucial in their integration process. It is paramount to focus on having a good start: refugees have to be able to really make something of the present for the future. They need to be able to give the past the place that it deserves, so that they can prevent it from overshadowing their whole lives.
It is essential to have a connection with society, to be able to learn the language, to have meaningful contacts with the natives of the new country, and to work. Work is indeed essential to rebuild a new life. Moreover, in the first years after arrival, the energy is at its fullest, so it is very important to capitalise on this positive energy and to give people the chance to integrate from the very beginning.
“It is paramount to focus on having a good start: refugees have to be able to really make something of the present, for the future to be also able to give the past a place that it deserves so that it doesn’t overshadow their whole lives.”
Could you provide an overview on the integration processes for refugees in the Netherlands?
When I came as an asylum seeker to the Netherlands myself, at the end of the 1980s, the asylum seekers centres were just starting to be set up, so the refugees from my generation, myself included, were able to be part of the society from the moment we entered the country. We had, for example, the chance to live with others; I lived in a students’ flat, I started to learn the language very soon, and after just one year, I was able to go to university. So at that time, there was a concrete possibility to become part of the society quite quickly, and that was a crucial opportunity for my life, and thanks to that opportunity, I am now a Professor.
However, the refugees who came later, from the beginning of the 1990s on, were housed in asylum seekers centres, which in the Netherlands are most of the times located in isolated areas and guarded. People can move in and out but there is still some kind of limitation, and they don’t have a lot of resources to move from the centre, so they spend most of their time there and they are not allowed to do much.
The idea of these asylum seekers centres came at the end of the 1980s. Some say they are created to protect refugees, others say they were created to protect society from refugees, depending on how you look at the issue. In any case, they have not been very effective in terms of refugees’ integration: people have to stay in these isolated centres for years, not allowed to participate in many activities, and then after five years of being passive – of becoming passive – they have to integrate, if they have a chance to stay in the country. So I would say that if I compare the conditions of refugees in the Netherlands today, with my experience as a refugee in the 1980s, policies have not been improved.
“If I compare the conditions of refugees in the Netherlands today, with my experience as a refugee in the 1980s, policies have not been improved.”
In your own experience as an asylum seeker, and especially as a woman asylum seeker, were you faced with any specific challenges in your integration process?
Well, this is interesting. I come from Iran, which is an Islamic country and I am myself a born Muslim, though not a believer Muslim. In Iran, I have been fighting against the regime. I was an activist, fighting for human and women’s rights, for democracy and freedom. In this sense then, my being an activist put me in a different position, or at least that is what I thought.
But when I came to the Netherlands as a woman from an Islamic country, I was shocked to be faced with all the stereotypes about Muslim women present in the Dutch society: the image Dutch people had of me was that of an un-emancipated woman, of someone who is always following the husband, and being dominated by the men of her family. This image really shocked me and that is when I realized I had a lot to do to change this perception.
This has been my work in a way: as an academic, to engage with societal debates through my research, and to try to challenge this image that people face, that individual refugees face every day. This was my biggest challenge in the beginning.
“When I came to the Netherlands as a woman from an Islamic country, I was shocked to be faced with all the stereotypes about Muslim women.”
What is the role of religion and of national identity in the integration process of refugees in a new country?
To start with national identity. For my PhD I have done a comparative research on the positioning of refugees in the Netherlands and the US, and there I could see that when the idea of national identity is a closed one – that for example, a Dutch (sic. person) is only someone who has lived in the country for three generations, with a certain skin colour and with a certain perfection in the language, then if you do not have those characteristics you will never truly become Dutch. When there is this closure in the identity, it doesn’t allow newcomers to be part of it and to share it.
In the US, on the other hand, I realised that although the “American identity” may seem a very patriotic concept, it is still quite inclusive of differences. If you think about the construction of the US identity, it has been all about migrants. In a sense the construction of American identity is that migrants “made” the country, so it is more inclusive to diversity as the result of migration, yet of course exclusive towards native Americans.
During this research, I realised that when the national identity is inclusive it makes possible for migrants and refugees from different countries – even for the first generation refugees and migrants – to be part of that identity, to claim it and to embrace it. In most European countries though, that is not the case: the national identity or the construction of the national identity is a closed one, it is actually a national identity which stands as opposed to refugees and migrants who enter the country.
Talking about religion, there is an even stricter closure in national identities, especially towards certain religions. Islam has now clearly become the most problematic feature of the migration discussions in most European countries. In this sense, when there is such a negative image of a specific religion, and of people who practice that religion, it is extremely difficult to think of them as “one of us”, so there is a lot of work to be done to create connectedness.
There is clearly nowadays a lot of fear of Islam and of groups coming from Islamic countries, but at the same time there is a lot to be gained from people coming from those countries. We have to embrace these possibilities instead of focusing on fears and impossibilities.
“When the national identity is inclusive it makes possible for people from different countries – even the first generation refugees and migrants – to be part of that identity, to claim it and to embrace it.”
You talked about the difficulties that a closed national identity imposes on people coming from other cultures. What do you think can be done to make national identities more inclusive and what is the role of civil society and individual activists in this sense?
At the time when I did the research for my PhD, I was focusing on the aspect of national identity and I realised how inclusiveness of nationalities is important in the construction of who we are. But my research took place around 15 years ago, and what we are seeing now is actually an increasing closure in the construction of national identities: people have become more protective of their identity instead of creating inclusiveness.
People are not talking about inclusiveness, even the political leaders are not talking about the idea of an inclusive identity, they are instead going more and more along with the populist sentiments in society, a tendency which is actually very much exclusive to migrants and which is creating polarisations in society instead of connectedness.
Later on I realised that maybe for people to feel that they belong to a certain society, it is not necessary to have these big national outbursts. Maybe it is important to find some small niches in society, people who you feel at home with, and in this way you can create your home within, perhaps, a homeless state.
In this sense, civil society and individuals are very important, engaged individuals who really care and with whom you can become friends. I know many refugees, and myself included, who have become friends with people who helped us in the beginning; from aid organisations, or just individuals who are willing to help refugees and migrants. You start talking with them, and then you realise that you are akin in spirit, that you share the same dreams, the same kind of ideals, and then you become friends. So this can be a different approach to connectedness and belonging which is not on the national level, but more on the small scale.
Although I still hope that political leaders will assume their responsibilities, what I see now, for example, is that refugees in the media are associated with criminals, and I do not see many voices go against that. And though I wouldn’t say that all asylum seekers are holy, of course there are criminals everywhere, but they are human beings and what is happening now is that there is so much negativity around the issue that certain types of images become fixed. And I don’t see leaders standing up and saying ‘We do not tolerate this, this is not the kind of country we want to be’, which is still a necessary step to be taken, but until then, that is why I believe that connections on the civil society and individual level are so important.
“What we are seeing now is actually an increasing closure in the construction of national identities: people have become more protective of their identity instead of creating inclusiveness.”
Given your expertise on the integration of people from Muslim communities, do you think that people coming from a Muslim background face more difficulties in integrating into present-day Western societies? How are populist politicians and far-right groups, who very often lash out against Muslims, affecting the integration prospects of refugees who mostly come from Muslim countries?
The impact of populist leaders in Europe is huge, because their main idea is to purify their culture and nation from migrants and refugees, which is a very scary thought. If I think about my example, I have been living in this country for quite a long time. I am not a Muslim believer. I have a very good job, a very comfortable position in society and I am respected for what I do, but it still affects me deeply when I see refugees approached and treated in such an inhuman manner.
It breaks my heart when I think that I had a chance to be successful and to rebuild a life, but I could be them, and they could me, if there was a different time and a different place. This makes me very sad. And if this saddens me, in my comfortable position, you can imagine how sad or frustrated, or even angry people can be, all those who are not in such a comfortable position.
Many refugees face discrimination every day: they cannot find a proper job, they are treated like they are not full citizens, because they speak the language with an accent, because they ask the wrong questions, because they are believers.
And I cannot even imagine, for example, what it means to have a headscarf today in the Netherlands: you can really see that people who can be visibly identified as Muslim believers are treated badly. In a way I think there are different levels of exclusion, there is the level that I feel for example, because I am part of a group, when I see or hear certain things, and there is a second level of exclusion, for people who are visibly different, and for whom the distance is much bigger and discrimination much harder.
However, if you look at universities in the Netherlands, but also at society at large, there are many young Muslim with headscarves, believers, who really try their best to be part of society and who are saying “I have a headscarf, I am a Muslim, I am a believer but I am also a Dutch person”. They do their best to be part of society, through the hardship they had to endure, through their hard work, and they demand the respect they deserve.
“It still affects me deeply when I see refugees treated in such an inhuman manner.”