Innovative projects in housing can strengthen ties between refugees and host societies

Building a sense of home was the central theme of the annual conference on Social Innovation for Refugee Inclusion (SI4RI), hosted by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) in Brussels last week

Now in its third year, the annual SI4RI conference, held on 24 and 25 January, put a spotlight on the importance of having safe, secure and adequate housing and the impact this has on newcomers’ ability to successfully integrate into society, while taking into account the needs and fears of the host community.

The conference was jointly organised by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) and Migration Policy Institute Europe (MPI Europe), with the support of the Missions of Canada and the U.S. to the EU. It brought together social innovators and entrepreneurs, authors and journalists, urban designers, government and public officials as well as civil society organisations from Europe, Canada and the U.S.A.

The conference theme dealt with the issue of how innovative solutions in housing and a holistic support system can help migrants and refugees to find a suitable home thereby further enabling them to take advantage of economic opportunities and build social ties. It sparked many interesting debates among the participants at the conference, which attracted a capacity crowd.

With this theme, we wanted to capture the idea that where you live is so much more than the roof over your head. It also defines all external aspects of your life, from who you meet to your job prospects and your access to services, education and training. We wanted to show that housing really is a major milestone in a refugee's journey, said MPI Europe's Assistant Director of Research, International Programme and Senior Policy Analyst, Meghan Benton, in her opening remarks.

Finding stable and affordable housing for refugees can create immense challenges, yet it is often overlooked or somewhat side-linedMs Benton said.

This sense of home should be built by both the host society and the newcomers working together. Now, at a time of anti-immigrant sentiment and political crisis resulting from migration in many Member States, achieving this has become particularly challenging despite the fact that it remains extremely important.

Public policies must be based on a two-pronged approach, President of the EESC Group on Immigration and Integration, Carlos Trindade, said in his welcoming speech. If integration measures only target migrants without showing the same support for the nationals of the host country, you might end up fueling racism and xenophobia. These feelings might then become acceptable and could turn people against migrants."

The fact that a lack of affordable housing is a structural problem, not linked only to migration, makes it a very difficult and divisive issue. Discriminatory housing policies, caused by poor investment in the housing sector, have pushed low-income groups, migrants and vulnerable groups to the margins of society.

These groups make up the fabric and diversity of our cities but are being slowly excluded from areas where there are jobs and where their full potential can be reached,said Sorcha Edwards, Secretary General of Housing Europe. We must stress the importance of community-led housing, its potential for generating public wealth and economic benefits. It can be a springboard out of poverty but if done badly, it can turn into a poverty trap,she maintained.

Other barriers to the successful integration of refugee populations are prolonged stays in refugee shelters, or perpetuating a victim narrative that views refugees merely in a charitable light without acknowledging their own agency.

If you are "warehousing" refugees, keeping them in refugee housing where there is no economic activity, you are creating a barrier to integration. That is a recipe for catastrophe,said Doug Saunders, a Canadian and British author and journalist. People are seeking pathways to inclusion and they will find it, unless they are stopped by such barriers

According to Tariq Tarey, Director of Refugee Social Services at Jewish Family Services in Columbus, Ohio, U.S.A., refugees can bring transformative economic potential to their host communities as some of them were engineers, lawyers, doctors, and educators in their home countries. 

In Columbus, refugees operate 873 businesses, earn close to the average annual salary earned by citizens of the host community, and contribute USD35.9 billion to the local economy, Mr Tarey said.

In order to overcome the barriers many refugees face in finding an adequate home and in settling into their new communities, many innovative best practices and projects have been launched. As was shown at the conference, these include successful co-housing initiatives which help foster refugee inclusion.

Startblok Riekerhaven is a co-housing project, launched throughout Amsterdam, which offers young refugees with a residence permit the possibility of living in shared apartments and studios alongside young Dutch people. This model generates all sorts of cultural or social activities that build ties between the two groups and equip the newcomers with the skills necessary for successful inclusion, such as language acquisition and development of professional skills. Sharehaus Refugio in Berlin offers similar opportunities by incorporating a social initiative dedicated to community building into the co-housing project. The initiative is called Give Something Back to Berlin.

Many other socially innovative projects of a similar kind, launched at grassroots level, were showcased at the conference. The event consisted of several panels and breakout sessions dedicated to different topics or ideas, such as first reception as a gateway to inclusion, employment-focused projects that enhance a sense of belonging, urban planning, community-based civil society projects or innovation in cities and rural communities.

Kitchen on the Run, a project run by the Berlin-based association Uber den Tellerand, takes the inclusion process one step further. Made up of a mobile kitchen housed inside a shipping container, the project allows its mixed team of refugees, migrants and Germans to travel to small towns around Germany where wariness towards newcomers may be more pronounced. There they bring together people of different ages and from different social classes or backgrounds over evening meals which are jointly cooked by the project participants.

Examples from the U.S.A. and Canada were also presented and these indicated that differences exist between North America and Europe.

In the United States, newly resettled refugees and asylum seekers who are unable to secure their own housing are often supported by existing diaspora communities, Mr Tarey said.

According to the conference speakers, refugees are more likely to become home owners in the U.S. than in Europe. In the U.S. home ownership is seen as an indicator of successful inclusion. In Europe, this is much less so.

In Canada, government-funded local immigration partnerships exist as well as private sponsorships of refugee programmes, which are also championed by the Canadian government to support inclusion efforts at all levels of society.

However, in the EU, despite increasing awareness that effective action at local level is crucial to ensuring successful integration, many local authorities feel that they have been overlooked by the national authorities in terms of funding and political backing.

Inadequate funding is also a problem for many social entrepreneurs. Investors may struggle to identify social enterprises committed to best practice as many lack adequate impact measurement tools to describe their success. Yet there are some innovative financing solutions that show promise in building bridges between different actors, for example social impact bonds which provide funding for social projects from private investors who then receive financial rewards from governments if they meet their targets.

The importance of social innovation in supporting successful integration of refugees and migrants who plan to stay will only continue to grow. Many innovators will need partners for projects that foster all aspects of refugee inclusion, including accommodation, language acquisition, employment or other factors that are necessary to rebuild their sense of home and belonging.

It is the feeling of a sense of home, a feeling we all share as humans, which should serve as a litmus test when we look at policies and initiatives in the area of integration,said Mary Coulter, Counsellor (Migration) at the Mission of Canada to the EU.

At every stage of someone's journey, at every part of that integration process, we as policy makers, we as NGOs, we as communities need to think how do we act from a place of kindness, with a goal to bring to the people involved, both on the community side and the refugee side, that wonderful sense of home, Ms Coulter concluded.