Amid refugee crisis, a street corner of hope

JON VAN HOUSEN and MARIELLA RADAELLI

On a street corner near where we live, Johnson Chijioke has created a job of sorts for himself. Every morning he can be found in front of a local supermarket, available to help the elderly with their groceries. He also accepts small contributions from passersby, some of whom donate coins.

The young refugee from Nigeria doesn’t openly beg during his morning shift, but instead is a friendly as possible as he tries to make a place for himself in the local community. His afternoons are spent in free Italian language lessons.

And as the country gets back to work after its long August break, he plans to check out an ongoing education center down the street where other refugees are taking lessons in preparing Italian cuisine.
Italian news: Migrant help
More than 3.5 million have sought sought asylum in in Europe since 2013.

Chijioke, whose story includes an arduous overland trek from his home to Libya and a boat trip to a refugee reception center in Sicily, is just one of more than 3.5 million who have sought asylum in in Europe since 2013. After accepting the displaced on humanitarian grounds, countries across Europe now face the daunting challenge of truly integrating them as productive members of society.

Michelle Mittelstadt, director of communications at the think-tank Migration Policy Institute, says language and job skills are crucial.

“European states, civil society and others in Europe are undertaking many programs to integrate asylum seekers into society and into the labor market with language classes, job training, mentoring, job placement and assisting with access to local services,” she says.

“Cities offer a wide array of critical services,” says Mittelstadt. “In addition to funding at EU and national levels, there is a rich tapestry of initiatives on offer.”

But there are enormous hurdles facing many refugees in finding a dignified life. Christa Schweng from the EU Economic and Social Committee, points to a study by her group that found “finding suitable employment is a major challenge for most adult refugees”.

“They face many obstacles such as insufficient language skills, loss of personal documents and certificates, the non-recognition of diplomas and qualifications, and a lack of job opportunities,” she says.

Mittelstadt stresses that “the ability to participate meaningfully in the classroom, workplace, and civic life is important for everybody, and in particular newcomers who are seeking stability and a chance to rebuild lives often scarred by political instability and the threat of violence, persecution or economic deprivation”.

Yet many find a way, some starting out like Chijioke on a benevolent street corner and going on to steady employment in factories, work in restaurants and opening small shops. A report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found that migrants accounted for 70 percent of the increase in the European workforce over a decade, workers who contribute significantly to labor market flexibility. A much earlier OECD report found that migrants generated about 35 percent of member country fiscal payments on average from 2007 to 2009.

In fact helping refugees has become an industry in itself. The number of initiatives at the public, religious and private level designed to assist refugees is so bewildering that all aren’t clearly known even by experts.

“It would not be possible to describe the scope of the huge numbers of programs country-by-country,” Mittelstadt. “I think it would be fair to say the Western European countries offer more of a safety net for new arrivals than do the countries of Eastern Europe, which have less experience with immigration.”

And beyond the high-minded humanitarian reasons for truly integrating refugees for their own sake is a tough reality Europe faces: Without it, the descendants of new Europeans can become alienated and a potentially fertile recruiting ground for extremists.

“The issue is more lack of opportunity for the European-born children of immigrants, rather than the immigrants themselves,” notes Mittelstadt. “When one looks at the 7/7 bombers in London, the Paris terrorists, and most recently those identified as the attackers in Barcelona, these are members of the second generation -- the children of immigrants. And while it is too simple to attribute the embrace of terrorism to a tiny fraction of diaspora members who turn to it due to the lack of employment or feelings of exclusion, this marginalization in combination with other factors can serve as preconditions for radicalization.”

Italy’s Minister of Domestic Affairs Marco Minniti is reported to a have had a hand in implementing new approaches to staunching the flow of refugees from Libya, and as former head of the country’s intelligence service, he puts it more bluntly:

“Without integration, there is terrorism,” says Minniti.

For Chijioke, who has studied Italian for the past year, the path to a better life seems to have started. “My Italian is not too bad, but it has been harder for me than the other Africans from French-speaking countries. But I can communicate.”

And as a fixture on a street corner he has now made his own, locals can be heard giving him a quick “ciao” as they go about their morning errands. Good will, a commodity often in short supply, seems to be flowing on all sides.

A version of this story appeared in the Khaleej Times of Dubai.