For genuine integration we need to re-think housing

We seem to believe there is a universal refugee character, someone we can easily recognise in the news. This story of “a common refugee” overwrites individuality and personal experience. The system of integration we now have doesn’t recognise refugees as agents, as if we are printing objectives onto a clean sheet of paper. For integration to really work, we need to look beyond categories, rules and policies and welcome new forms of co-operation.

Finnish language does not serve us well in understanding migration. We call people refugees too loosely and lack neutral words to describe the ordinariness of people moving across the globe. We speak of flows and other hazardous natural phenomena. We are new at opening up and for the most part multiculturalism is not a “no-brainer”.

Philosopher Slavoj Zizek, known for his controversial ideas, thinks the best word for describing a refugee is “neighbor”. Neighbor is someone who you believe is close to you but then does something unexpected. This makes you realise you did not truly know the person. “That’s why the Christian motto ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ is not as simple as it appears”, he says.

Zizek believes the humanitarian approach to refugees and its slogan “we are all the same” are fundamentally flawed ideas. We are not all the same and “true solidarity is in spite of all these differences.” People who receive residence permit don’t magically change their beliefs and values overnight. You wouldn’t either. According to Zizek this notion has escaped the liberals and the false premise is creating friction all around Europe.

Helping refugees shouldn’t be subordinate to our image of “the refugee”. Suffering doesn’t refine you nor should it make you humble. Yet, in Finland when asylum seekers criticised food in the reception centres, many questioned their decency. Charity is experienced as a form of forced gratitude and it is not what most refugees find ideal. If we think asylum seekers need to exchange their personality to residence permit, we end up disapproving normal reactions.

According to anthropologist Liisa Malkki we see displacement as pathological. The narrative tells that becoming a refugee has a fundamental effect on one’s personality. We see refugees as rootless, traumatised and in need of nurturing care of professionals. Consequently, non-professionals of the civic society are kept out of the picture. They are often allowed to operate but have no official role in the system.

One of the major issues is exclusive housing. In fact, it has a interesting story. After the second world war millions of displaced people needed a temporary shelter. A quirk of history is that first refugee camps were established in the closed concentration camps. They too were designed for managing large crowds of people, likewise transitorily. A lot of the policies were invented as the issues came along. How camps operate today is not merely a result of meticulous planning.

The UN Convention relating to the status of refugees, a key legal document for the refugee system, was originally only valid in Europe and before the year 1951. In the storm of de-colonisation, UN extended the convention with a protocol in 1967 and removed the limitations. Without the protocol, we wouldn’t have refugee camps in Africa, accommodating hundreds of thousands and sustained by the UNHCR.

Now the problem this: we think the camps are self-evident and this misconception likely affects how we organise living for refugees outside the camps. In Finland refugee centres are typically isolated as if to prevent any integration from happening before residence permit. In Germany refugees have reported to feel punished when their housing is organised far away from the centre.

The Finnish word for integration (kotouttaa) could be loosely translated into “homify”. It implies something cozy but refers to what the authorities can or should do to make people eligible. The criteria, “rules of homification”, are specific requirements which not even all natives fulfil. Whether someone feels satisfyingly “homified” or not, makes little difference. Their contribution to the society remains unrecognised if it happens outside the rulebook.

Like all human actions, migration from one place to another is tied to complex social relations and processes. Refugee system does not change the fact, but obscures it. Malkki proposes that we should look beyond categories and see refugees as agents with a history. Otherwise they go from striving for a refugee status to struggling out of it when trying to regain their agency.

In Helsinki, a shopping centre Itis now advertises its sales in languages that are rarely seen in the Finnish commercial public space. Recently Itis began to celebrate Ramadan as its customer base is increasingly non-native. Like good customer service, integration should be a two way street where people are allowed to get involved.

READ MORE. Publication WITH focuses on integration and the role of the civic society. It was created in co-operation with Kitev (Kultur im Turm e.V., Oberhausen), IPoP (Institute of Spatial Policies, Ljubljana). WITH is a report of the Refugees for Co-creative Cities project, financed by Advocate Europe Idea challange.

Liisa H. Malkki is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Stanford University. Her research interests include the politics of nationalism, human rights discourses as transnational cultural forms, political violence, exile and displacement and the ethics and politics of humanitarian aid.