There is no greater tragedy than the loss of that which has been created through shared effort and experience. The community in which imagination was fostered, dreams were realized and wisdom was passed onto future generations is one that becomes part of an identity and, when destroyed, can be a blow that shakes those involved to their very core. A loss of place is a loss of a sense of belonging and acceptance. The world can seem a frightening and unforgiving place.
This narrative applies to both refugees seeking solace and those who oppose their settlement into their communities. A desire to protect the community from harm can be a powerful emotional driver. The development of infrastructure to effectively integrate refugees into a new community introduces mechanisms through which to alleviate those fears and broaden the sense of fraternity to include those it previously did not. But that is no simple task.
The current waves of ideological populism sweeping across the globe has common roots in a sense of fear: fear of financial insecurity, fear of terror attacks and fear of losing a sense of national identity. Immigrants and refugees entering a community are, in this reality, widely considered to increase or compound the risk that these events will happen and will directly affect those most afraid. Nationalism, wielded by disenfranchised opportunists, pushes a narrative of blame to those who pose the greatest perceived risk. But politicians who specialize in punching down are often left making broad stroke claims and promises that fail to capture the scope of problems, while presenting overly simplistic solutions that are inevitably abandoned in the face of responsibility, or altered to push a more draconian agenda.
However, nationalism and patriotism can serve as a force for good. If nationalist regimes can be viewed as negatively impacting foreign policy, there remains potential to positively embrace the ideals and values forming the bedrock of a community and develop policies that promote the best of a nation to all who seek to belong. The integration of refugees and immigrants, by it’s very definition, involves their acceptance into society. It is also a process designed to be open-ended: there is no magic formula for appropriately integrating individuals into society because not only is every circumstance relatively unique, but levels of acceptance will differ from the actors with individual societies to the time needed in each society to be considered a member. Additionally, the responsibility of integration rests not with one party, but with all – immigrants, host governments, institutions, communities, community members and cultural centres.
Despite the lack of common formula, there are individual steps that can be taken by government bodies (reduce waiting times for access to necessary services, development of employment programs, ensure foreign work experience and qualifications are valued, place additional investment into the settlement of minors and the disabled) to chart an inclusive course. But the scope of responsibility falls upon a broader swath – civil society and cultural institutions must play a role as well, in both integrating new citizens and creating an atmosphere of acceptance in communities.
This is the power of nationalist rhetoric – a desire to improve one’s nation, the bedrock of nationalism, can be accomplished through a show of welcoming acceptance. A true belief that a nation is founded upon ideals that matter is one that should look to exercise them whenever welcoming those who wish to emulate them into their homes. Whether by implementing government policies, developing mentorship and apprenticeship programs, or offering language skills training or educational support, communities have the capacity to welcome new members by embodying the values they wish others to adopt. In this way, patriotism can be a force for good, one that creates a sense of place and hope to those within and provides a beacon to all those seeking a better life than they themselves have.
The economic and social benefits of effectively integrating refugees are well noted. A welcoming society who can effectively utilize human capital sees higher returns, and welcomes new voices to develop solutions to complex, wicked or systemic issues.
Integration is a lengthy and imperfect process – never will a group be uniformly “one of us”. But the adage that the true power of diversity is diversity of thought must coincide with the fact that voices at the table who come from different backgrounds, experiences, perspectives and struggles will provide just that to a national debate – perspective. And in understanding the perspective of others, the stories that have guided their journey, we can begin to work alongside them to create a world better suited for all.