The Thessaloniki Integration Forum “Je t’ aime, … moi non plus: Reframing migration and integration challenges in Greece and Europe” took place on 9-11 May 2019 at the Thessaloniki Municipal Hall, organized by Symbiosis-School of political studies in Greece, affiliated to the Council of Europe Network of Schools, within the framework of the EC Jean Monnet programme, with the support of the Thessaloniki Municipality and the UNHCR Representation in Greece.
The Forum discussed critical issues in policy-making and cross-disciplinary approaches related to the migration/integration nexus, aiming to address multiple challenges and the gaps between national policies and local implementation common to many European countries.
The objective has been to review policy-making on migration and asylum, integration and acquisition of citizenship in the context of 2019 as the last transitional year towards the Greek government taking over direct management of funding and implementation of all support services related to asylum seekers, including protection, shelter and cash assistance. Cross-disciplinary approaches and useful practices were debated with the participation of institutional representatives, academics and practitioners from Greece and Europe. Ιnsights on international and European discussions on ways and partnerships to respond to humanitarian emergencies and meet the operational challenges of migration management and international protection policies have been also considered.
Following the post-2015 humanitarian emergency refugee response in Greece and its interesting modalities setting a new precedent for the EU member states, the Greek Ministry of Migration Policy published its Strategy for Integration, while a plurality of stakeholders faces a challenging period ahead, given continued challenges of interjecting scales of receiving new arrivals and integrating populations benefitting from international protection, changes in flows of funding, everlasting temporariness of policies and their impacts, refugees’ and migrants’ own agency, EU perspectives following the European Parliament elections and possible rise in racism and xenophobia. Challenges pertaining to legal migration seem to be overlooked, however Greece has made significant progress in aligning its legislation and administrative practice with international standards in the field of citizenship acquisition, prevention and reduction of statelessness.
The debates reframed integration as a relational practice constituted by multiple incremental and transformative formal and informal encounters between displaced people, places, institutions and services that are developed to endure and maintain life. An understanding of integration as the result of complex daily strategies of learning, navigating and governing the city enabled discussions to shift the focus onto the historical and present experiences of those who ‘have to integrate’, recognizing the centrality of migrants’ and refugees’ own assessments to policy innovation and urban governance.
The discussion was structured around three main challenges in the way in which the migration / integration nexus is currently conceived, governed, implemented and lived:
Challenge 1. Currently, ‘successful’ integration is measured as the achievement and access across the sectors of employment, housing, education and health; assumptions and practice regarding citizenship and rights; processes of social connection within and between networks within the community; and structural barriers to such connection related to language, culture and the local environment. These elements are sufficiently broad to build a valid framework for analysis. There is, however, no such policy or practice in existence that ticks all these boxes. Evaluating the impact and the success rate of an integration policy is difficult as findings are not coherent. Exercises of comparing statistic data and integration outcomes to assess the success of integration rarely consider local specific economic, political and social contexts that widely contribute to and shape outcomes. Thus, policies remain empty wish lists or patchworks of separate practices.
Challenge 2. Scholars highlight at European level a significant gap between national policies and local implementation. The gaps of the first greatly leave the challenge of integration in the hands of the latter. Further, in Greece the process of institutions and capacity building on reception and integration is ongoing, while further legislative changes are needed. Strategies need to be turned into policies, policies that are mainstreamed and budgeted; policies into timely and implementable action plans, monitored and evaluated against as a common framework. How is this possible in Greece during the ongoing transition from humanitarian emergency to sustainable integration?
Challenge 3. Urban settlement and dispersal imply the generation of new forms of decision making that are often performed in collaboration between different actors (local administration, citizen initiatives, through multilevel governance) and through a continuous negotiation between global and local forces/needs. Scholars highlight policy fragmentation and erosion: integration is not conceived as development or urban issue. Despite wide accounts of the multidimensionality of integration, and recognition that housing, labour and welfare are integral and indivisible components of socially inclusive cities, they are still dealt with in isolation, often creating double standards. Lack of migrant and refugee voice in policymaking is also an issue that has been highlighted widely.