How can diaspora stakeholders play a stronger role in migrant integration?

On 8th February Fondazione ISMU (Iniziative e Studi sulla Multietnicità) organised a European Workshop on “Building inclusive cities together – How to enable diaspora stakeholders in the development and provision of local integration services”. The event marked the official end of NEAR - Newly Arrived in a Common Home, a project funded under the EU Asylum, Integration and Migration Fund that aims at fostering social orientation of newly arrived migrants during their settlement in the receiving countries. Thanks to the efforts of project partners, the project has been piloted in four cities across three EU countries, namely Milan (ISMU, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore Milano), Perugia (TAMAT NGO), Lisbon (AIDGLOBAL) and Nicosia (CARDET), and modelled into a set of resources for migrants, stakeholder and policymakers.

As part of the event, ISMU presented the six strategies developed during NEAR on how to fully unleash the potential of diaspora stakeholders as integration actors. The strategies, that can potentially support the work of policymakers and civil society actors working at local level, were discussed and consolidated in a working session with 30 participants that represented EU and local actors providing a variety of local integration services. The following event takeaways were included in a policy brief that will be published at the end of February.

How to identify diaspora stakeholders strategically

Mapping diaspora groups is a key preliminary step in any engagement strategy as it allows to know who is active on the target territory and ultimately cater to newly arrived migrants via their network. To that end, having a clear idea of the city/neighbourhood where integration support can be provided is also fundamental to quickly enable the right actors.

Diaspora stakeholders are very diverse and provide support in different way following different rationales. For instance, asylum seekers and refugees interact with members of their or other national group in a specific way due to their migration path. Some migrants act or want to act beyond institutional structure without being affiliated to specific organisations. Reasons to help range from pan-regionalism to language affinity and interest in specific target groups (children, women etc.). While buddying integration programmes between long-term migrant residents and newly arrived migrants are considered to be very effective in terms of language and personal history, some diaspora stakeholders do not even think of themselves as influencers or key informants within their community due to low self-esteem or low self-awareness. Major age differences in integration support exist, with young people with a migrant background having lower affinity in terms of language and reasons for leaving the country of origin.  

How to build the capacity of diaspora stakeholders to act as brokers between migrants and services

Diaspora stakeholders often lack spaces, as these are strongly funding-dependent and yet are fundamental for groups to structure themselves and coordinate. In the short term, people’s will to help is generally stronger than the need for funding. In the long term, diaspora stakeholders face structural issues such as lack of legal recognition (which makes representation under umbrella organisation critical) and lack of networking capacity (which can be overcome by providing training on how to legally set up organisations and opportunities to enhance visibility). Involving women is particularly difficult, but a possible solution is to bring capacity building initiatives closer to them, namely in shelters or neighbourhoods. 

Diaspora stakeholders are constantly interested in getting briefed and updated on relevant regulation to keep up with the policy framework. They are also interested in developing skills in the field of local, national and European advocacy, monitoring of funding opportunities as well as personal and institutional communication. On the other hand, trainers should also receive proper training in terms of representation to avoid biases and the information shared should be comprehensive and free. Websites are great tools for information coherence but are difficult to update. A possible solution could be to rely on a network of local/thematic contributors (institutions and/or individuals) that can provide updates more or less regularly. 

How to foster networking between diaspora stakeholders and key local stakeholders

Trust in and access to public authorities vary considerably among diaspora stakeholders based on their cultural background and social network. It is therefore better to organise networking events in informal settings and in venues where services providers directly operate by involving the right people representing the right services. Connecting diaspora stakeholders with institutions, especially decisionmakers, is key to enhancing their network and meetings should be as open as possible to foster co-creation. While some institutions are more closed than others, changemakers can influence engagement processes from within and should therefore be able to liaise with one another to support institutional change. 

How to institutionalise the contribution of diaspora stakeholders for integration services 

Both ongoing and ad-hoc involvement can benefit integration services as long as non-migrant actors overcome the “us vs. them” narrative and address their biases. The Covid-19 pandemic and the Ukrainian crisis have created enough momentum in the EU on the importance of solidarity and citizens- and diaspora-led initiatives and this can help make the case for a strategic multi-stakeholder involvement for integration. However, this does not mean key public services should be entirely outsourced to citizens groups as a solution. Likewise, civil society organisations catering to migrants should work increasingly with other organisations that focus on other target groups to learn from each other and build complementary solutions. 

How to centralise integration services and/or mainstream integration

Coherence of information should also mirror coherence of services. Consulting migrants on the interconnection of integration aspects can help policymakers and civil society actors design services in an effective way. Services should be provided as close to migrant beneficiaries as possible, especially when catering to vulnerable groups, and should be organised in a coherent way through one-stop shops, open meet-up events or civil orientation courses led by cities and with the support of cultural mediators. Vice versa, when trying to access services, migrants prioritise relevant people over institutions, so investing in human capital is recommended. The level of digital literacy and language proficiency is not the same across migrant groups, so information should be shared in multiple languages both online and through more traditional channels. 

What tools to use to provide services effectively to newly arrived migrants through diaspora stakeholders

As proven during the NEAR project, maps are great tools for gathering information on local integration actors and services in a coherent, inclusive and user-friendly manner. They allow for a mentality shift where service designers embrace the so-called “asset framing” and focus more on people’s aspiration and resources as opposed to their needs and gaps. Maps can also foster active citizenship as people are eager to consider themselves citizens who help citizens. This approach to local development, ultimately, helps diaspora stakeholders and newly arrived migrants become more co-creators and less recipients of services.