INSIGHTS FROM THE EPIC INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE IN AMADORA, PORTUGAL

Oct 10, 2022

HOW CAN WE MOVE FROM AD HOC RECEPTION PROCESSES IN RESPONSE TO UNFORESEEN HUMANITARIAN CRISES TO A MORE STRUCTURAL RECEPTION AND INTEGRATION APPROACH? 

On 28th September 2022 EPIC brought together a range of stakeholders working on social integration to gather in Amadora, Portugal, for its International Networking Path. The International networking paths are fora that bring actors from different backgrounds together to exchange practices and share information to facilitate the development of knowledge and cooperation. A key moment to stop to think and reflect on the practices and mechanisms mobilised by public administrators and professionals who work to provide integration services in the midst of the hectic routine that means having to respond to emerging needs that are not always anticipated.

This latest International networking path event, the 2nd held the project, focused on how to move from a narrative of humanitarian crises to a structural approach for the reception and integration of migrants that can capitalise and build on lessons learned. Participants from across Europe had the opportunity to listen and interact with policy makers from local to international level, such as the Major of Amadora, the DG for Migration and Home Affairs of the EC or IOM, and NGOs and CSO representatives from different European countries working to make integration services for newcomers more accessible and resilient.

“Success in integration does not come without a joint effort to give a response to the emerging needs, especially when it comes to welcoming refugees coming under unexpected circumstances, such as people fleeing wars and conflicts, as happened in 2015 and now with the war in Ukraine,” said the Major of Amadora, Carla Tavares. 

About the importance of having an international platform like the model that EPIC offers, she added that “to engage and exchange experiences with other territories around Europe that are going through similar issues and are putting in place processes to provide responses is very fruitful so that we get to know good practices that we can also build in our territory”. 

Human Library: a safe harbour at local level 

After different keynote speeches to understand better reception systems and legal frameworks in Europe, the audience had the opportunity to hear the testimonies from those that have actually embarked on a journey with the hope of a better life in Europe. The panel “Human Library: a safe harbour at local level”, an initiative run by JRS Portugal, offered a glimpse of the experiences lived by Ghalia Taki from Syria, Hamad Hamdard from Afghanistan, and Tetiana Kozina from Ukraine and the very diverse realities they went trough to put them and their families at safe in Portugal, navigating through different integration services until where they are today. 

While Hamad could escape Afghanistan through a more organised process, given the political disposal and readiness many countries showed in evacuating some people at risk rapidly after the Talibans took over the country, Tetiana and specially Ghalia went through very different experiences. 

Arriving in Poland from Ukraine thanks to different contacts she had, Tetiana was told by people at the border to go to Portugal where she would be received by somebody who could help her to get settled. Once in the country, nobody was there and she had to find her own way. This situation was not uncommon, as many of the panellists present at the conference and who were working at the frontline of the crisis reckoned. The eagerness of civil society to contribute its grain of sand to the terrible situation that they were witnessing on television, clashed with the inability of that aid to be managed in an efficient, effective and coordinated manner. Vans and even buses driven from Portugal to the border and back were seeking to put as many people at safety as they could, without analysing where the newcomers would be hosted and what other immediate needs they would have. The promises made at the frontier were not always matching the reality lived afterwards, a situation that hindered even more the delicate situation for a person who has just fled a war. 

Fortunately for Tetiana and many other beneficiaries of international protection, the speedy joint efforts by the local authorities and NGOs managed to overcome the challenge. Tetiana could then benefit from the Porta de Entrada Programme (rented house with support for 18 months), received support from the Amadora Solidária Card for 3 months, occasional cash support from the Social Security Institute, attended the Portuguese course and her daughter, a minor, attends a school in Amadora.  In her own words: “We had no friends or relatives in Portugal. Now we have a house, wonderful Portuguese friends, and I have found a job. We have received a lot of help and support here. All the people we met here sincerely helped us”. 

Concerned about the deteriorating situation in Syria,  receiving death threats and trying to get a visa in different countries for a while, Ghalia had to pay 35,000 euros to smugglers in order to escape. This was the only desperate solution left they found after months of trying to find different avenues. Her moving presentation put on the table the debate about human corridors and humanitarian visas. “Imagine if I could have used that money to start a new life in Europe instead of using all our savings to leave the country” said Ghalia. Once in Portugal, a country that was supposed to be a transit destination towards the final stop in Sweden but that ended up being their place for asylum unexpectedly, Ghalia and her family had to wait 18 months to complete their procedures, lacking autonomy and facing many problems to get accommodation afterward. Working as an interpreter and cultural mediator and finally being able to communicate in Portuguese, she can finally say she feels integrated. For her, this means being able to be an active member of the community, something that requires not only a great deal of effort from the part of the newcomers but also the willingness of the receiving society to enable this. 

Political willingness, the key turning point to make things happening 

Reflecting on these three testimonies as well as on their own experiences providing immediate responses to the latest humanitarian crisis, the national and international experts of the closing roundtable of the conference, “What solutions at local and national level to overcome the emergency?”, concluded that the current war in Ukraine and the fast mobilisation deployed by the EU27 showed how many of the traditional existing barriers could be removed to accelerate the process when there is political willingness. “For countries less used to being at the front door of reception, it has been a learning process. But now new mechanisms have been deployed and lessons have been learned. If a person can get a resident number in just a few weeks, even days, and not to wait a year to obtain something that it is going to block them them for getting access to many other services in the city, this is already a great improvement to ensure newcomers can integrate”, said Susana Nogueira, Councillor, at the Amadora City Council, for Housing, Development and Social Intervention. 

Local authorities and CSO are the ultimate antenna implementing national policies and therefore, those responding to the immediate solutions. But we should not assume that such a responsibility to integrate newcomers ends in the work done by CSO, said Vasco Malta, Chief of Mission of IOM Portugal. “Integration starts in hour neighbourhoods, in our schools, in our houses, and that’s why all the local initiatives we are talking about are so important“. 

As part of our storytelling work, AEIDL presented during a conference a video with a glimpse of how the project supports partners’ cities to improve integration practices in their territories through mutual transfer of knowledge & capacity building. Watch the video below. 

Local practices 

The event also took participants to two field visits, one at the “12-15 Project”, a project aimed at fighting school dropout, and significantly decrease absenteeism and the underachievement of youngsters aged between 11 and 16, mainly from a migrant background, who dropped out of school or who are at risk of doing so. The project focuses on children who have not completed the Portuguese 1st cycle of basic education (4 years) and aims to tackle severe behavioural (SEBD) issues like aggressive behaviour towards others, lack of interest and motivation toward school and deviational attitudes. The commitment to offer these kids a second chance to get back on their feet is the main driving force of this local innovation project in Amadora, supported by the Municipality. Social workers spend their summertime repainting the walls of the facilities and take the time to get to know the families and realities of each of the kids to generate bonds with them and better understand how they can be supported. This, in return, earns the trust of the youngsters who see how there are many people that are there to support them to get a different future they´d have if they were not under any programme. The project is the only one of this nature in the district of Lisbon, sometimes receiving applications from schools in other areas. The scale up of such an initiative or its replicability to other municipalities in Portugal with similar issues could increase the social integration of young people at risk of exclusion. 

The second field visit took place at JRS (Lisbon): Centro Pedro Arrupe (CPA), inaugurated in 2006 to support homeless migrants and refugees. With a capacity of 25 residents, the CPA was created in response to a need felt by JRS when monitoring many users in situations of severe economic distress. The CPA is open all day long and provides individualised follow-up for each resident, making available a multidisciplinary technical team, composed in part of former residents.The methodology is mainly based on the participation of the residents, who have to define their objectives and achieve them. In general, the objectives are to accompany individuals and families in emergency situations towards sustainable autonomy through access to the labour market, full citizenship and housing so that they can become an integral part of society. In line with JRS’s missions of accompaniment, service and advocacy, human dignity and respect for the rights and will of individuals are fundamental values defended in this centre. Finally, the centre aims to be anchored in local life and to ensure good social cohesion between the residents of the centre and the neighbourhood by offering cultural activities open to all. 

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