Europe in an Exercise of Social Imagination

Camillo Ripamonti, SJ

 Camillo Ripamonti, SJ / Church Life / Published Date:6 December 2018/Last Updated Date:30 June 2020

“Following the 2015/16 peak of refugee arrivals in Europe, attention has now shifted toward effectively integrating migrants into their new communities. While migration policy remains a national responsibility, central and local authorities recognize that integration needs to happen where people are, in their workplaces, in their neighborhoods, and in the schools where they send their children. Behind every migration statistic, there are individuals or families starting a new life in a new place. Local authorities, while coordinating with all levels of government and other local partners, play a key role in integrating newcomers and empowering them to contribute to their new communities.” This is the opening of a report published April 18, 2018, by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, titled Working Together for Local Integration of Migrants and Refugees.[1]

The formulation of this title is particularly significant. “Working together” expresses the need not only for a multidisciplinary approach, but also for different local stakeholders to come together to manage migration flows. The aim of this shared work is integration, which is back in the limelight after a time when – for too long – we failed to look beyond a perspective focused only on emergencies. Finally, the decision to group migrants and refugees together is also interesting.

The United Nations has launched intergovernmental negotiations that will lead to the definition of a Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) and a Global Compact on Refugees (GCR): two separate documents that need to be deeply integrated in a unified vision.[2]

La Civilta Cattolica

How is Europe responding to this global reevaluation of the challenges around migration? What resources can we draw on to lay the foundations for an “effective integration” that can reach beyond statistics and have a real impact on people’s lives? In his homily for Christmas Midnight Mass in 2017, Pope Francis used these words to outline his perspective: “This same faith impels us to make space for a new social imagination, and not to be afraid of experiencing new forms of relationship, in which none have to feel that there is no room for them on this earth. Christmas is a time for turning the power of fear into the power of charity, into power for a new imagination of charity. The charity that does not grow accustomed to injustice, as if it were something natural, but has the courage, amid tensions and conflicts, to make itself a ‘house of bread,’ a land of hospitality.”[3]

A new social imagination, a new imagination of charity: there are no better expressions to describe what is happening on the Old Continent far from the media spotlight. An attempt on the part of civil society – for this is not a Christian prerogative but a prerogative of men and women of good will – to build communities of solidarity through imagination gives rise to a fecundity, a creativity that dares to take risks because it is born from the dialogue of life that does not subvert diversity but enhances it.

This is more urgent than ever at a time when human diversity, geographic provenance and, sadly, skin color are used to divide. On December 14, 2017, in his address to mark the accreditation of some new ambassadors to the Holy See, Pope Francis said: “The international community faces a series of complex threats to the sustainability of the environment and of the world’s social and human ecology, as well as risks to peace and concord stemming from violent fundamentalist ideologies and regional conflicts, which often appear under the guise of opposing interests and values. Yet it is important to remember that the diversity of the human family is not itself a cause of these challenges to peaceful coexistence. Indeed, the centrifugal forces that would drive peoples apart are not found in their differences, but in the failure to set out on the path of dialogue and understanding as the most effective means of responding to these challenges.”[4]

Building communities of solidarity

Creating or strengthening a culture of welcome that promotes integration – intended as a two-directional process between those who welcome and those who are welcomed – requires not only laws to define its procedures, but also, and perhaps most fundamentally, the creation of a shared ethos. This is not just the sum of our baseline values of coexistence, but the fundamental idea that we cannot do without this coexistence in diversity: a sense of belonging based on solidarity and not identity, a feeling that we are part of a community where mutual responsibility is more than a mere sense of duty, and is configured as an awareness of the common good. The responsibility for integration does not rest with one group alone, but with multiple stakeholders, including immigrants, governments that welcome, institutions and communities, to name but a few.

The integration of migrants into Europe must be based on dialogue, on shared rights and responsibilities, and must ensure full participation under the law in the support and inclusion of everyone in society. This precious process – slow and not always linear, in fact often characterized by interruptions and regressions – must be built up from the grassroots through a journey in which all stakeholders are open to involvement and change.

Public responsibility is particularly important in this process, though the contribution of private citizens is significant and often essential. The increasingly numerous welcoming projects interact with their surrounding areas – which is to say communities, municipal authorities, local services, opportunities and resources – potentially creating changes of different kinds, be they cultural, social, political, economic or organizational.

This can be for better or for worse: without appropriate management to harmonize developments across the region, welcome can fail to foster social cohesion and instead become a trigger for nascent conflicts, fueling policies and social models resistant to welcome. Last year, during a speech given to representatives of municipal authorities, the pope said: “I understand the unease of many of our citizens in the face of the arrival of many migrants and refugees. This can be explained by the innate wariness toward the ‘foreigner,’ a wariness aggravated by the wounds caused by the economic crisis, the unpreparedness of local communities, the inadequacy of many measures adopted in a climate of emergency. Such unease can be overcome by offering spaces for personal encounter and mutual knowledge. Therefore, all those initiatives that promote the culture of encounter, the reciprocal exchange of artistic and cultural riches, and the knowledge of places and communities of origin of the new arrivals, are all welcome. I rejoice in the knowledge that many local administrations represented are among the main advocates of good reception and integration practices, with encouraging outcomes that deserve to be widely disseminated.”[5]

This is, in fact, the direction of the project Promoting best practices to prevent racism and xenophobia toward forced migrants through community building, which ran for two years in nine European countries. The project was led by JRS (Jesuit Refugee Services) Europe in partnership with JRS Italy, Belgium, France, Germany, Malta, Portugal and Romania, as well as Jesuits in Poland and Spain.

The aim of this project was to identify and promote good practices in preventing racism and xenophobia through community-building initiatives, enhancing the personal experiences of migrants involved in various activities, and raising awareness in their environments. The I Get You report, published as part of this project, involved a stage of mapping good practices in participating countries.[6] Each project partner identified a significant, representative sample of the outlook in its own country. Below are some of the results that emerged from an analysis of this research.

Creativity for Europe

In the nine participating countries, 315 community-building initiatives were identified: 62 in Italy, 55 in France, 50 in Germany, 37 in Belgium, 31 in Spain, 31 in Portugal, 20 in Malta, 15 in Romania and 14 in Croatia. The range of participating countries is significant, since it also includes some that have manifested greater resistance to welcoming and integrating migrants in the past few years. Most of the initiatives identified are not particularly sizable, but certainly important in preventing racism and xenophobia.

With regard to migrant numbers, the countries most represented in these initiatives are Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, Gambia and Mali. Most of the migrants are young people of working age, and over 50 percent have lived in Europe for over a year. The initiatives have received significant levels of public funding in Romania (53 percent), Portugal (39 percent) and Croatia (36 percent). In Germany, France, Spain and Italy, over 50 percent are funded by private donors.

Across Europe, these initiatives touch on different themes. An important sector is employment: for example, in Antwerp and Liege the project “Duo for a Job” sees various professionals lending their skills, as well as their social and professional networks, to help train young migrants over a six-month period. Results show that 56 percent of the 770 “duos” enabled the migrant to find a job within 12 months.

Another significant sector is sport: in Croatia, the football team Zagreb 041 is fighting racism and prejudice by fielding refugees as players. This is more than just a football team: it is a place of encounter for people of different cultures, origins and religions. After matches, which usually take place on the weekend, the team organizes events for players and their friends, involving members of the local community. For refugees, this is a great opportunity to show off their skills, as well as expanding their social networks.

Centers for integration have also been set up in particularly difficult areas such as the city of Plauen, in eastern Germany. This initiative – under the slogan Integration, not isolation – offers various services focused on encounter and integration with the local community, and works in collaboration with other projects in the area. The inclusive approach of this initiative is unique, creating spaces of encounter between different marginalized communities and vulnerable people, including, for example, youth with disabilities, job seekers and disadvantaged members of the local community. Its aim is to build a community that is inclusive for everyone, in contrast with the attempts made by some political factions to create competition between locals and refugees.

Community building in Italy

In Italy, the creation of community-building initiatives is tied to the presence of refugees in local communities. In the past three years, the number of local administrations involved in welcoming forced migrants has grown, because asylum seekers are now redirected as soon as they arrive in Italy’s southern ports, and shared between all the various regions of the country.[7]

As part of this research, 62 Italian initiatives were identified: 25 in northern Italy, 28 in central Italy, and 9 in southern Italy. Most of their beneficiaries are asylum seekers or people under international protection, and their countries of origin – Mali, Nigeria, Gambia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Eritrea – match the principal nationalities of asylum seekers in Italy in the past three years. Beneficiaries are between 19 and 25 years of age.

In 69 percent of these initiatives, the migrants involved have been living in Italy for at least one year. Thirty seven percent say that organizing intercultural activities is their principal remit, while 19 percent focus on projects promoting shared living and welcome. These projects are highly varied, but could be summarized as “diffused welcome experiments.” This formula seeks to facilitate the creation of positive relationships with the migrants’ surroundings – within families, parishes and religious establishments, in independent apartments or appropriate institutions. 11 percent of the Italian initiatives focus on activities aimed at improving access to employment and professional training.

In Italy, therefore, the initiatives identified touch on various sectors. From a methodological point of view they are strongly characterized by the promotion of active participation, seeking in different ways to create synergies and reciprocity. This is the case with Casa dei Venti in Rome, where the aim is to develop a strong sense of belonging by promoting autonomy, but also co-responsibility in the management of activities and shared spaces; or with Progetto Tandem in Parma, where co-housing apartments open to university students and people under international protection enable the development of new and more effective forms of proactive, shared citizenship.

Better integration is fostered by the presence of migrants in urban, non-isolated areas, and by the creation of smaller groups. Many initiatives are aimed not only at refugees, but rather at all the vulnerable populations within their local communities. This raises awareness of diversity, creating communities that are generally more inclusive and supportive.

Food, sport and art are powerful factors of aggregation that have not lost their power of attraction, despite a general weakening in the capacity of public entities to manage these activities directly. It is interesting to note that initiatives started as a way of responding to the concrete needs of forced migrants and facilitating their journeys toward integration can become an opportunity to rethink and improve the quality of life for all members of a community, and particularly for the most vulnerable.

There are two conditions required for this to happen: on one hand, an effective valorization of the resources offered by migrants, so as not to encourage the purely utilitarian interpretation of their presence that considers them merely useful in resolving a problem for the welcoming community, perhaps as a way of “repaying” the welcome received; on the other hand, a willingness to look beyond traditional systems of service, seeking to promote activities based on “doing together” rather than “doing for.”

In this way, forced migrants are not the exclusive – or even primary – beneficiaries. The beneficiaries of these activities include all members of their communities. Their shared aim is to create a context that welcomes everyone, and to strengthen relationships of collaboration and attentiveness toward the needs of their neighbors, regardless of any classification. The desire to feel part of a community, to share an interest or cause, to give meaning to time can be particularly pressing for a recently arrived foreigner, but is equally felt by many citizens, perhaps disillusioned with traditional politics or similar forms of engagement.

A final element that appears particularly relevant to the prevention of xenophobia – and particularly of Islamophobia, which is rising alarmingly in Italy – is interreligious dialogue, which has been incorporated in various community-building initiatives. In most cases, this element is somehow implicit, a collateral effect of mutual encounter and of the friendships established with forced migrants, who are often Muslims.

This type of response, creative and based on solidarity, clearly contradicts the image of Italy as a frightened and diffident country that is heavily influenced by the media, an image often evoked by politicians. Certainly, the challenges to welcome and the crises that are increasingly visible across the country contribute to dividing public opinion. It is equally clear, however, that diffused welcome, aimed at small groups and open to the effective participation of citizens, can decisively facilitate the management of welcome, while effectively preventing the rise of hostility and indifference.

[1] Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Working Together for Local Integration of Migrants and Refugees, Paris, OECD Publishing, April 18, 2018, available at

[2] See Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, Migrants and Refugees Section, Responding to refugees and migrants: twenty action points for the Global Compacts, available at Pope Francis has particularly emphasized these negotiations, referring to the two intergovernmental documents in his Message for the 51st World Day of Peace, No. 5, (cf. January 1, 2018.

[3] Francis, Homily for the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord, Vatican Basilica, December 24, 2017; italics added for emphasis.

[4] Francis, Address to new non-resident ambassadors accredited to the Holy See: Yemen, New Zealand, Swaziland, Azerbaijan, Chad, Liechtenstein and India, December 14, 2017.

[5] Francis, Address to members of the National Association of Italian Municipalities (ANCI), September 30, 2017.

[6] See

[7] The agreement reached in 2014 between government, regions and local authorities, resulting in law No. 142/2015, attempted to overcome the emergency-based logic of the welcome system through a shared plan for the distribution of migrants across different regions based on regional access to national funding for social initiatives. This system of regional quotas, introduced in 2015, effectively helped to rebalance the presence of asylum seekers across Italy, which had previously weighed primarily on the southern regions (in 2013, Sicily, Apulia and Calabria collectively hosted almost 70 percent of Italy’s asylum seekers). Under the current legislation, every region is obliged to host a fixed number of migrants; prefectures, working within regional coordination groups, are responsible for allocating the required places within their areas of jurisdiction.