My experience of immigration is in many ways typical. I moved abroad for an education, I studied, I married and I became a doctor. I gained much – an education, a wife, a new home – and I have made a contribution, in lives helped and in taxes paid.
But I accept that my story is, in other ways, extraordinary. I am the first “black” mayor in central and eastern Europe – I have led the town of Piran in Slovenia since November 2010. I am used to other people’s surprise – surprise that a small country with few immigrants from outside Europe should have accepted me, and surprise that I, a child of Ghana, have managed to integrate to the point that Slovenians think I can represent them and further their wishes and desires.
I too am surprised, though less so. I was born into a political family and I was used to moving between cultures and languages in Ghana, as well as in Europe. And Slovenians were used to living in a multi-ethnic country – Yugoslavia – and, historically, hosted a good number of African students. Still, there is no denying that integration takes a great deal of work on both sides.
Immigrants must learn the culture, the habits, and the thinking of their new home – and, typically, a new language. The host community needs to accept newcomers, guide them through a new environment and – in the case of refugees – provide them with housing.
As a mayor, I see the importance of the practical and cultural support provided by local and regional authorities. However, too often this very practical work of local politicians is ignored by national governments and overlooked by voters.
I expected that disregard to change because of the work done by many cities and regions to help Syrian refugees, usually with inadequate support. Reforming a complex policy in the middle of a crisis is difficult, but now – with the number of arrivals significantly lower – we should expect national and EU decision-makers to agree on well-balanced reforms that recognise the value the work of cities and regions. Increasingly, though, I realise that the efforts of my fellow mayors – people like Vincenzo Bianco from the Sicilian port of Catania, or Giorgos Kaminis from Athens, who both faced massive, often tragic challenges – remain underappreciated.
I can see this because I am a member of a community of local leaders from across Europe with a role in the EU process: I am a member of the European Committee of the Regions (CoR), an assembly of local and regional politicians that has a consultative role in the EU’s decision-making. As the CoR’s rapporteur on the Asylum and Migration Fund (AMF), I am disappointed with proposals that the European Commission has sent to the EU’s member states and the European Parliament.
True, the Commission is proposing a 51% increase in the fund, to €10.4 billion in 2021-27. But regions and cities would still have only a very limited role in managing the fund: they would have obligations to host, help, and integrate newcomers, but they would remain largely dependent on the sometimes misguided ideas of distant national and international authorities. Moreover, one of the major challenges for us local politicians – integration – seems surprisingly to be only of secondary interest to the Commission. That is evident in the nature of the proposals, which prioritise spending on strengthening the EU’s borders, and in the decision to drop “integration” from the name of the fund – the AMF used to be called the “Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund”.
The EU’s local leaders, represented by the CoR, agree that the EU’s borders need to be managed more effectively. But we need to balance improving border controls with addressing the root causes of migration, offering pathways to legal migration, and ensuring that newcomers integrate properly.
This balance should also be financial. One-third of the fund should be spent on integration and legal migration, we argue. Moreover, because we have an obligation to make a success of migration policy, we are calling for the fund’s budget to be €16.2 billion, rather than €10.4 billion. By making more money available, the EU will be able to make fuller use of the experience of local and regional politicians from across the political spectrum. My liberal colleague Bart Somers has shown that social investment can make a success of integration on many levels (he won the World Mayors Prize for his work in Mechelen, Belgium), while my conservative colleague Olgierd Geblewicz – governor of West Pomerania in Poland – won the backing of the CoR for a clearer system of legal migration that would be coupled with large, long-term investments in education and vocational training for existing EU residents.
Borders matter, but we must not let our thinking be dominated by the thought of keeping people out. If we do, we risk closing our eyes and hearts, giving our fears free rein, and nurturing the idea that we are victims. Such a political environment is dangerous, and it would harm the work of many members and supporters of Caritas Europa.
The CoR’s position on the Asylum and Migration Fund is therefore about more than money: it is an example of realistic, principled leadership that helps the needy, our charities and civil society, and our politics as a whole.