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How the city of Ghent copes with increased numbers of refugees


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How the city of Ghent copes with increased numbers of refugees

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By Daniël Termont, mayor of Ghent and president of EUROCITIES

The city of Ghent, like other cities, has recently had to cope with increased numbers of refugees. As a local government, we believe in a pro-active and two-sided approach, not only speeding up the integration process for the refugees themselves, but also allowing organisations and citizens to get to know newcomers. This is a way to address negative stereotypes and prejudices against refugees. The moment asylum seekers arrive in Ghent they are brought into contact with relevant organisations. In this way, they gain quick access to language courses, volunteer work or leisure activities.

To coordinate all of this, the city of Ghent set up a task force on refugees. Within this structure we believe it is very important to involve everyone who can take a role in dealing with the new arrivals. This is a cooperation between the political level, the administration (city services and the Public Service for Social Welfare) as well as citizens and NGO’s/civil society.

Through this task force Ghent has set clear roles and responsibilities. We created three working groups on:

  • shelter and reception
  • integration
  • volunteers and public awareness.

This three-pronged approach allows the city to tackle the challenge of welcoming refugees in a holistic manner.

Shelter and reception

The federal government responded to the crisis by providing more accommodation. In Ghent, a cooperation between three reception centres was set up, which allowed information, experiences and good practices to be exchanged.

A new reception centre for 250 asylum seekers, situated on a pontoon on one of the canals in Ghent, got a lot of publicity. From the beginning, the city administration, together with the owners of this pontoon, invested in a good information exchange with the neighbourhood. For example, we organised information sessions to address residents’ concerns about the new arrivals and give them the opportunity to write down their ideas on how to link the new asylum centre with the neighbourhood and the city.

Afterwards those citizens were invited to further develop their initial ideas. People also had the chance to visit the reception centre. Through giving accurate information from the beginning, and involving citizens, we were able to challenge stereotypes and raise awareness.

Integration

In providing access to social rights – housing, education, work, health, leisure activities – Ghent has tried to work as inclusively as possible. For example, many asylum seekers manage to quickly access volunteer work, thanks to the Refu-interim project. A lot of progress has also been made with different local stakeholders to lower the requirements to access the job market. In this way

Recognised asylum seekers start to settle in the different neighbourhoods in Ghent, and focus has now shifted to long term integration: building networks and reinforcing social cohesion.

Volunteers and public awareness

The arrival of refugees brought about a huge wave of solidarity with citizens and NGO’s offering their assistance and donating materials. As a local authority, Ghent is well placed to coordinate the initiatives. For example, by setting up a dedicated website, hosting a volunteer event, supporting initiatives such as mentoring schemes, conducting volunteer work, and coordinating leisure activities. This not only empowers newcomers, but also fast-tracks their integration process, and creates solidarity with other vulnerable groups.

European cities on the front line

Exchanging knowledge and experiences with other European cities through the EUROCITIES working group on migration & integration is beneficial for Ghent and for the European policy approaches in general. This is reflected in the EU Urban Partnership on the inclusion of migrants and refugees, which has set out a roadmap towards achieving a comprehensive European Agenda on Migration fully recognising the role of European cities, as well as providing them appropriate and reinforced funding.

Due to the impact of migratory movements on cities, it is important that cities have direct access to dedicated European funds. Given the immediacy of the situation, direct funding streams are the only way that cities can possibly meet the complex needs of migrant populations. Currently, national governments impose guidelines for European funds, dependent on national contexts, while urban contexts often differ from national contexts.

It is in the spirit of city-to-city support that the “Solidarity Cities initiative” was launched last October. Cities located outside the main migration routes or in member states that have not yet accepted refugees currently receive fewer migrants. However, cities should be able to play a direct role in the relocation process. I proposed, as mayor of Ghent, to open 30 places for direct relocation from Athens and asked for the collaboration of the Belgian government to be able to do so. This is still being negotiated.

By Daniël Termont, mayor of Ghent and president of EUROCITIES

The views expressed in opinion articles published on euronews do not represent our editorial position

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