Tents in football fields: That is not Europe

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Tents housing refugees near Belgrade's train station. [BETA, the EURACTIV partner in Serbia]

Europe needs permanent solutions for the refugee crisis, says Marc Calon. Affordable housing associations across the continent can be the key in addressing the emergency situation, he writes.

Marc Calon is the President of Housing Europe, the European Federation of Public, Cooperative and Social Housing.

“Pushing back boats from piers, setting fire to refugee camps, or turning a blind eye to poor and helpless people: that is not Europe” said President Juncker addressing the European Parliament Plenary during his State of the Union speech. I couldn’t agree more. Installing tents in football fields, expecting that this could be a shelter for people who fled war and terror: that is not Europe, either. The refugee crisis is putting into test the very qualities of our continent and let’s face it, our response has not been adequate so far. The main reason for that is the illusion that this is a crisis, and that it’s going to end at some point. But the truth is that the issue is here to stay.

Large scale migration towards and within Europe is the new norm for four reasons. First, climate change and drought reshape the environment in which people live in and trigger their search for alternatives. The economic osmosis of the recent years is changing the living conditions in many countries, pushing more and more people to move in search of better quality of life. The internal market only accelerates these mobility trends within the EU. Imponderables such as emerging warzones generate refugee waves like the most recent one from Syria. Finally, demographics set another major challenge for European communities regarding working opportunities and insurance systems, increasing thus (labour) mobility. The sooner we understand this reality, the better we can reap the benefits and face the bottlenecks. There is no time to lose from developing adequate solutions multilaterally.

EU leaders have recently agreed upon the European Commission Action Plan that will relocate asylum seekers among member states. This may only be the first link in the chain of responses to the issue. The EU institutions should set the framework for a long-term approach that will prepare European countries and local actors to deal with a new reality rather than with an emergency at the present. This long-term approach should recognize the housing and integration needs and facilitate measures which have been affected by austerity measures in almost all European countries. On the other hand, the EU shall offer coordination. The “hotspots” that have already been announced may be also used to inform the countries of destination of the refugees about the profile of the people who will be arriving. In this way, national authorities, along with municipalities and housing associations, can provide the optimal housing solutions tailored to the needs of single persons, young people, families with children etc.

Thinking out of the box can unlock solutions and generate additional housing capacity adapted to the group of recognized refugees. Transformation of empty public buildings, for instance, can be a good start. That is already happening, for example in Nijmegen, Netherlands where the municipality and the social housing corporations offered housing to 100 Eritreans in former student apartments. This is a way to overcome the cuts in public spending for affordable and strike the balance with the constantly increasing demand. We know that waiting lists for a social home are growing in most EU countries and the influx of additional people in need is testing the resilience of the structures in place.

EU funding within the framework of the Horizon 2020 can also be a viable support mechanism to trigger new solutions. Housing associations and local authorities should be encouraged to build alliances that will address the societal challenges that are identified by the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation. Now is the time for societal innovation with a focus on flexible housing concepts and the actual integration of newcomers in the communities.

Therefore, the role of cities is crucial. Local authorities have already declared their willingness to take leadership through the latest EUROCITIES statement and we should build on that. We have to intensify the collaboration between housing associations, employers, social service providers, (language) schools, municipalities and regions, so that we can jointly create a fair environment for people who are trying to build a future for their children. The contribution of cities is vital, in terms of resources and jobs. The social, public and cooperative housing sector helps to strengthen local acceptance and will be decisive in preventing extremist reactions and in breaking down stereotypes.

By offering a series of community services beyond housing provision, such as domiciliary care and support services for residents with specific needs, additional services for tenants (kindergartens, community centres, employment and training services, financial advice), urban development and urban regeneration, social inclusion has always been among the pillars of the work carried out by Housing Europe members. If the EU and governments set the right conditions, affordable housing providers are ready to answer this new housing need and pave the way for a sustainable future for all in thriving communities.

In France, Union Sociale pour l’ Habitat (USH) is working along with numerous volunteers to help public authorities welcome the numerous refugees under the best possible conditions.

In Germany, the national federation, GdW has set out clear measures that that would make addressing the growing needs and demand easier. These include: A) temporarily lowered standards and accelerated procedures; B) a call to ensure social support; C) considerably more cost-effective construction.

In Scotland, an operational task force has been set up, bringing together Scottish governments ministers, the Scottish Refugee Council, the UK government, local government and key stakeholders to coordinate Scotland’s humanitarian and practical response. Its first meeting in September considered issues including housing, health services, language support, and social services for refugees.

This is no time for fences and barricades. These are part of a past we all want to forget 25 years after a milestone in the recent European history, namely this of the reunification of Germany. We have the responsibility to protect our common home (i.e. Schengen) while respecting values and rights that are sacred. History seems to be already ahead of us. Let us not fall short of expectations.

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