You are the Minister of Integration. Your first action?
This is a question that does my head in, because I am so passionate about it.
My first action is to take on my colleagues in government and make them understand that integration policy has to be much higher on the political agenda than it currently is, with resources to follow. I believe that the political climate in Europe in general is underestimating the importance of developing integration policy that will truly allow people to become part of society. My follow-up action is to redefine what integration actually means, put it into a bigger frame and allow more components than mere language tests and ID cards. I would talk more about citizenship and less about “tolerance”, a holistic approach with a clear focus on interculturalism.
I believe being an integration minister in today’s Europe is one of the toughest, most thankless political jobs one could have. There is never enough money, the investment and results are long-term and not always spectacular or instantly measurable. This however does not make them less important or worthy, on the contrary! I am seriously perplexed at how underestimated this policy area is! It baffles me that we think that social investment is somehow a waste of time and resources. I often have this discussion with friends or colleagues, and the arguments can be “it’s a bottomless hole”, “yes, well, when your parents came from Greece things were different”, or “nowadays most immigrants are from outside of Europe, the cultures are too different”, or “society can’t handle the sheer numbers of people arriving”. My response is, DUH! Yes, things ARE different, yes, people DO come from different cultures, and HELLO - this is the world we live in! I don’t pretend that these are easy topics to deal with. But we’re doing us all a disservice by ignoring the problems that an inadequate integration policy gives rise to.
At the same time we need to also raise the status not only on rights but on commitments (I prefer this term to “obligations”). The responsibility for a well-functioning society where its newest members are fully included in its structure lies not only on the part of the immigrant or the part of the receiving community. The responsibility lies squarely in the hands of both parties. Our commitment to society is everybody’s business. Ultimately integration policy is about active, committed citizenship, something which I believe has fallen lower on the list in the face of prioritising big business and risky financial investments. Isn’t about time we brought it back up again?
Who is ‘the other’ for you?
“The other” to me is a very personal notion. I have a vested interest in the society I live in, I cherish people who do good and contribute, in whatever big or small way, and I try to do my part and be committed and present. For me, “the other” is anyone who brings destruction, on whatever scale, and is disrespectful of their surroundings and fellow citizens. From this perspective, “the other” isn’t tied up with a specific ethnicity or minority. The other is someone who in one way or another does not feel part of the society her/she lives in. This “other” could be ruthless companies who pollute whole ecosystems for financial gain, or the guy on the tube who crams a burger in his mouth and throws the wrapping on the seat and leaves. To me, that is “the other”, and it is personal, because it has to do with one’s principles and perceptions of what is right and what is wrong, what one would and wouldn’t do, what is acceptable and what isn’t.
If one looks at it from this perspective I believe the discourse becomes a different one from what we are used to when discussing “the other”. It is still a question of it being what oneself is not, but it is no longer confined to a discussion about ethnicity or nationality. It broadens the discourse and it becomes a matter of values and ethics, and those are often shared across cultures, nationalities and minorities. It also becomes a more interesting conversation, less closed and absolute. There is always that great moment where you feel a connection and affiliation with people who on paper are so different from you, but with whom you find common interests, common perceptions, common convictions. We don’t have enough meetings like that, enough moments where people can connect and break through the barrier of “the other”.
In an ideal world I guess there wouldn’t be “the other” but I believe this is unrealistic. It is part of human nature to relate to one’s fellow humans from one’s own perspective and “scan” the people we meet to try and figure them out. But wouldn’t it be great if the scan lead to curiosity and interest instead of suspicion and misconceptions? That I do not think is unrealistic, it is highly doable. What’s more, it is crucial, because “the other”, just like stereotypes, can lead us down the wrong path.
Has integration in Europa failed? Or will the problems pass like indigestion?
To say that integration is Europe has failed would be an one-dimensional exaggeration. It would be an insult to all those who have devoted their professional, and often personal, lives to bringing people together and helping newcomers find their feet in society. It would be an insult to all those who leave their countries behind in the hope of making a better future for themselves and their families, and who do everything they can to become part of society. Moreover, this statement is a form of stigmatisation of citizens with a different ethnic background to the natives, who have lived, worked and paid taxes for decades, but who now somehow bear the brunt of Europe’s social problems. It is a statement used by desperate politicians up for re-election, and populist forces who want to create scapegoats and provide easy solutions to complex problems.
Integration is a complicated and sometimes frustrating issue in politics. I don’t pretend to grasp all the complexities and layers of it. But I believe part of the problem lies in the misconception that somehow integration is a “one off” occurrence, that when we’ve made some efforts, ear-marked resources and developed some successful programmes, we’re somehow done with it. Or that integration will take care of itself, as long as we put tougher demands on newcomers and make them follow the rules, which in my opinion is a common trend in Europe today. By shifting the brunt of the responsibility to those new to our society we are underestimating the mutual relationship that exists.
I live in a suburb outside of Stockholm that receives a large number of migrants every year. Many of them arrive with very little knowledge or perception of Sweden and Swedish society, apart from it being wealthy and peaceful. They often need counseling to deal with their traumas, and help to start learning Swedish in order to get a job. There are plenty of examples of wonderful community actions, often supported by the local council or the region, that have successfully helped these new citizens to enter into society. On a macro-level they make up anonymous numbers. On a micro-level they are human beings, individuals who want to be part of a community.
There are always those who don’t really care if they are part of a society or not. They live in their own communities, often with their own rules, acting outside of society’s framework. I see this as a clear indication that we have not done enough to ensure that they feel part of a social fabric, and that our integration policy, such as it has been, has been too passive. Again, to me it is a question of active citizenship, of engaging people and making both commitments and privileges clear. The problems won’t pass by themselves; we need to work on them, continuously, like you would a sensitive stomach.
What form of community inspires you and why? What does your ideal society look like?
I am inspired by so many things! I’m big on social entrepreneurs, people who use their talents and creative skills to find ways of engaging the community they live in. There is a wonderful word in Swedish, “Eldsjäl”, meaning Fire Soul. It stands for people who are passionate about something. There are so many examples, often on a very grass-root level that inspire me. It is easy to feel distant from the corridors of power. Decisions are made that trickle down through the governing system, but it is often on a really local level where you see the difference. It often requires a passionate person or group of people, who want to create something, to contribute, to engage people. I would like to give an example.
A Romanian friend of mine moved to Sweden a couple of years ago, for both love and inspiration. She discovered that there was a plot of land close to the city she lives in that was once meant to be a community garden for local citizens, most of them non-Swedish, but because of a disagreement between the landowner and the council nothing had been done and the project was halted before it was even started properly. My friend took an interest in this project, and started initiating contact with the locals, calling and pestering the council and the landowning company to at least agree to a meeting with her and the group of people she had got to know. She read up on the benefits of gardening as a form of therapy, as many of the locals had trouble finding their way in this new society. Many of them had farming and gardening skills that went unused. These were compelling arguments that lead the powers-that-be to see reason and give this project a chance. The garden is tended to and shared in a democratic way, producing organic vegetables and fruit, and giving people involved a purpose, and an income.
This is an example of what an ideal society would be like for me: community engagement, passion for ones fellow citizens, a curiosity to explore the seemingly difficult and impossible, and sharing knowledge and energy. Lofty and idealistic perhaps, but where would we be if we didn’t dream for something better?