Presentation by OMNES' about inclusion of migrants: Opening remarks by Ambassador Jørn E. Gjelstad

The Ambassodors opening remarks on the occation of the NGO OMNES' presentation about their impressive efforts and achievements in including migrants to the local societies in Northern Greece.

I wish you all welcome to this presentation by the organization OMNES, represented here today by Celine Cagne and Stafanos Kamperis, of an interesting strategy for an effective and cohesive integration of migrants into a local context.

 

And please, allow me at this introductory stage to paint a bit with the wide brush, because migration and integration have become high-politics:

 

Now doubt, the issue of integration has become a topical issue for the whole of Europe in the midst of this current period being marked by  European divergences and increased pressure for national solutions. Migration-related challenges are coming towards us from all kind of directions, threating to transform liberal, tolerant Western societies into a construct of identity politics. In the long run, such a dynamic can, at its worst, transform a democracy from an instrument for inclusion into an instrument of exclusion.

 

But I hope and believe that successfully implemented, a well-calibrated and effectively organized integration-policy can counter such a trend;

 

it can contribute to sustaining social cohesion, it can reduce polarization, counteract hatred and discrimination, mitigate anxieties and reshape the broader pattern of intolerant attitudes that has been on its rise for some time within our societies.

 

We know from current sociological research that people are far readier to tolerant migrants not only when they judge their numbers acceptable, but in particular when they see sign of their successful integration; meaning migrants taking part in the local economy and thereby contributing to the collective interest. This will portray the migrant as an asset to the society, and not as an liability.

 

We really need this kind of success stories.

Because through the last years we have witnessed how regular, tolerant citizens of liberal democracies in Europe have been transformed into angry followers of the extreme right.

 

We have seen how the migration crisis has provoked almost a moral panic, and how populist leaders have utilized this in persuading a large segment of their societies that “a certain line has been crossed”.  In my own country I can easily identify a growing anxiety among an increasing number people:

the same foreigners, warmly welcomed some years back, are now considered to compromise the Norwegian welfare model, historic culture and our liberal society. I guess that my Nordic colleagues can identify similar trends in their countries. Therefore we need trust-building initiatives so that immigrants and their descendants can be recognized by the majority as a legitimate part of both the local and national community.

We can also observe how an attitudinal divide between Europe’s West and East has taken place on diversity, multiculturalism and migration, or to be more explicit:

How the migration crisis has brought a renationalization of politics and a concomitant/ simultaneous resurrection of the East-West divide. This has resulted in a challenge of principles and institutions of constitutional liberalism that serve as the foundations on which the European Union is built. A case in point and a case of concern.

 

A last observation is how the Left-Right divide in European domestic policies is gradually being replaced by a conflict between identities, between internationalist and nativist, between those who would see an open society and those who would see it closed. This trend seems to have certain potentials of driving the dream of a Europe without frontiers right into a brutal crash with the prospects of a barricaded continent. If translated into a reality, we will all loose.  

 

But now, back to the real purpose of this mini-seminar, namely the refreshing pilot of a local and targeted integration model designed by Omnes. Our Embassy made in March a most interesting field trip to Thessaloniki to observe the situations in two of the reception centers, Alexandria and Veria, discuss integration issues with the Vice-Mayor Dimarellos and his staff, and also learn about the integration-pilot of Omnes in the municipalities of Kilkis.

Regarding the latter, we were all both impressed and encouraged and invited right on the spot Celine and Stefanos to Athens in order to present their thoughts and experiences to our friends and colleagues. The beauty of the project is its limited scale, the careful match of skills/ education and requirements in the local labor market, its locally rooting and the bottom-up approach. It stands out as a model we all could learn from.

 

Surprisingly enough, the challenge of integration has not yet materialized itself as an important issue in the Greek public debate. This has to come before it is too late. Currently, more than 20 000 migrants have already been granted permanent residence permit in Greece, waiting impatiently for being phased into their new homeland. Integration is demanding, costly and resource consuming. It requires top priorities from the political level now, if another critical situation should be avoided that would overburden Greek institutions. I am happy to see Vice-Mayor Dimarellos of Thessaloniki, Vice-Mayor Kokkalis of Piraeus and Advisor to the Mayor of Trikala, Kaliaras, present here today. All three municipalities have shown a great engagement of this issue and stand out as important dialogue partners for us.

 

So Celine and Stefanos, on this background we are eager to be guided into your experiences from Kilkis. Your model is certainly a contribution of high value that can serve as a real inspiration for the local and national debate that has to come.