The highly intoxicated political discourse around migration of the last few years and the mostly security-oriented measures that have been adopted to tackle (or rather curtail) migration flows to Europe have led to neglect of the question of the integration of migrants into the host countries. Yet integration remains crucial not only if we wish to prevent tensions between newcomers and locals, but also if we aim to build inclusive and equal societies. 

The popular but misleading idea that closing ports and borders could stop, once and for all, the entry of migrants, hence protecting mythical national identities and allegedly ensuring the security of local communities, has raised the enthusiasm of many concerned and disoriented European citizens, who have become frightened by an uncertain, fast-changing and increasingly globalised world, of which international migration is but one of the most visible symptoms. 

However, easy and short-term expedients, promoted by unscrupulous right-wing politicians, can neither prevent nor solve a phenomenon that is not only complex but also structural. Most EU member states have turned, in the last decades, from countries of emigration into countries of immigration – a trend that will not be reversed in the short or in the long term – and are still mostly struggling to adjust themselves to this new role. 

Against this backdrop, the attention and financial efforts of the EU and its member states have focused mostly on short-term and short-sighted measures, such as border control and prevention of migration, rather than on the need to govern the phenomenon, by offering legal pathways to migrants as an alternative to smugglers and traffickers and to a future of irregularity. At the same time, not enough attention has been devoted to the need to create the conditions for the full integration of newcomers – those who are already in Europe and those who will come in the future – into European societies. 

Us versus Them

Yet the latter is a true emergency, for at least two interrelated orders of reasons. Firstly, the “us versus them” attitude, which is so widespread in Europe, both reinforces and is reinforced by the perception of failed integration, feeding into suspicion, prejudice, and fear. Secondly, the sooner and better newcomers integrate into the host countries, the sooner and better they will contribute to their economies and societies, also helping to dispel concerns about themselves. 

“so far, the responsibility of integrating has been pinned almost entirely on the newcomers”

The “us versus them” attitude, and this sense of the migrants’ otherness, represents an obstacle which integration policies rarely manage to overcome. And this is indeed the challenge: how to promote inclusive societies, where a sense of togetherness may eventually thrive. So far, even if integration is commonly defined as a two-way process, in which both the migrants and the host communities have to learn to know each other, live with each other, and adapt to each other, the responsibility of integrating has been pinned almost entirely on the newcomers. Migrants are often to abide by rules that focus exclusively on the requirements they have to meet (be they the knowledge of the language or of the local laws and customs), whose importance is undeniable but which, by themselves, rarely ensure his/her full participation in the social, cultural and political life of the host community.

For sure, a sense of togetherness is not something that can be forced into societies. And feelings of insecurity towards the stranger, and to what we perceive as unknown and different from us, is understandable and, to a certain extent, legitimate. But for as long as only one part is given the heavier burden of the integration process, and for as long as policies do not create the fertile ground to allow mutual recognition – not only by fighting mutual prejudices and stereotypes, but also by favouring the encounter – little progress can be made in this direction. Particularly in the current wary and aggressive political mood.

In order to reach the goal of a more inclusive society, a necessary premiss will be the adoption of policies – for example, in the labour market, housing, education – aimed at producing more equality and social justice for all, and not just for one category or the other (migrants as well as citizens), in order to prevent the perception that some are benefitting more than others, that what one receives has been taken away from another, and to contribute to the construction of a new sense of belonging. But to allow the newcomer’s full capacity to take advantage of such policies, it will also be crucial to ensure that his/her presence in the host country is acknowledged and regularised. Regularity is in fact the – necessary but not sufficient – precondition for guaranteeing the full respect of the migrant’s rights, for ensuring decent and rights-based employment and preventing exploitation. 

“In order to reach the goal of a more inclusive society, a necessary premiss will be the adoption of policies aimed at producing more equality and social justice for all”

The role of both civil society organisations and organisations of the diasporas, which is already crucial in the process of integration, should be further strengthened to allow them to act as a bridge between migrants’ communities and those hosting them. With a caveat: the idea of the transience of the migrants’ presence, their being always migrants – no matter the years of residency or the generation – should finally be overcome, because it widens the distance between us and them and perpetuates the idea of their otherness. 

In Europe, there are many good examples of best practice in the field of integration and inclusion. However, what is still missing is a Europe-wide and consistent approach, which moves from the idea that migration is a fact to come to terms with, and that identities and societies are an unmovable, homogeneous and cohesive whole (as promoted in the rhetoric of certain right-wing political parties) – because in reality they transform, adapt, and develop constantly. And newcomers should be put in the position to become positive actors of this transformation in order to build, together, the inclusive society of tomorrow.