Global Analysis from the European Perspective. Preparing for the world of tomorrow

Multiculturalism or assimilation? A plea for considering refugees as ‘Europeans in the making’

The refugees have arrived by the score. And there will be more. According to the figures of the UNHCR, 60 million people worldwide have fled their home country. Of those, some millions will manage to migrate into the European Union. As we have written in an earlier article, the policy of building the “fortress Europe” has utterly failed. We need a total reshaping of our refugee policy with a view to fight the flight causes in the countries of origin. But that will only improve the situation in – at the best – the midterm future.

The prevailing issue now is: what will be our attitude in relation to the people that are already on European soil? Considering the situation in their home countries, it would be totally illusory to believe that their stay will only be temporary and that they will eventually return home. We have to provide them with a prospect of permanent residence within the European Union. But that permanent residence can take quite different forms according to the degree of integration we (and the refugees) consider to be desirable. The spectrum of refugee integration is actually enormous: from their mere presence, living segregated, barely if at all speaking the language, working in jobs that only require the minimum of qualification, a new “reserve army of unemployed,” to their becoming fully-fledged members of our societies, with their children speaking perfectly the language, acquiring the best education according to their talent and ambition, and turning into ‘normal’ Europeans with the mere difference to other Europeans that their parents have arrived more recently.

It is a range between multiculturalism and assimilation, between ghettoization and an open society built on the proposition that all men are equal and should be granted the same opportunities in life. The choice is not as obvious as it seems. For refugees assimilation is equivalent to giving up their language and culture of origin, accepting the fact that what was home for them will be ‘abroad’ for their children, that the culture of their ancestors will be ‘strange’ to them, that they might marry someone with whom the parents will have to communicate in a language they had to acquire at a later stage of their lives and which they might not master perfectly. The range of choices depends on the values the receiving society is built upon. A society with a low level of solidarity, i.e. social security and mandatory military and/or civil service can accept rather a lower level of integration. In such a society, refugees who fail will just end up homeless or in prison or barely get by in their national ghetto; which is the case in a country like the USA.

In European countries, though, built on higher standards of solidarity, a refugee who fails is not just a security issue, but a social issue. And solidarity is never a one-way street. If a member of society can count on its support in case of need, they also have to accept certain demands of that society: paying higher taxes in order to finance the social system, and to adhere to common values, which include also the capacity to communicate with other members of society and to understand and to respect their culture. A solidarity-based society cannot accept a fragmented population that defines itself only as members of the national or ethnic community of their origin. But in exchange, the receiving society has to fully accept and respect those whose parents were born somewhere else and speak the language with an accent. An open society requires an attitude of accepting someone as an equal member of society whoever speaks its language and respects its culture, disregarding the color of skin or name. If we fail to do so, we might have to pay an extremely high price for it.

In the night of November 13, 2015, Paris was hit by murderous terrorist attacks. It is not clear yet who committed those atrocities. As a result , the French police closed the borders. As if the perpetrators had come from outside. That is a total nonsense and a continued denial of a failed French immigration policy where immigrants from the former colonies where segregated in living quarters, denied access to French society, where Arabs stayed Arabs irrespective of what they achieved in and for France, a reality of life which Karim Benzema, the star football player with an Arab family background resumed in the bitter statement: “When I score goals, everyone cheers me. If I miss, I am the dirty Arab.” I will take any bet that the assassins where French, born in France, raised and educated in France, but who still felt Arab and Muslim, because the French society treated them as such. It is a result and the disaster of a policy and a society that rejected “communautarisme” and multiculturalism, but in a day-to-day life stayed divided along cultural and ethnic lines.

Like solidarity, so is assimilation and integration a two- sided approach, a will to assimilate and a will to accept immigrants as parents and family of fully-fledged Europeans. If the two sides of this equation do not live up to these standards, our European societies will run an enormous risk of disintegrating. Multiculturalism is not an easy solution in the current refugee influx, but a short-sighted attitude which disguises its unwillingness to truly welcome new members into our society and home behind a hypocrite attitude of liberalism, a pretense of accepting cultural foreigners on our soil and amongst us behind which lurk discrimination and xenophobia. And yes, assimilation comes at an important loss for the immigrant population, but the truth is, their major loss occurred when they left their home country, and assimilation is the only chance for their offspring to have a country to call home again one of these days. There is a price to pay for a new chance in life. And the receiving societies have to demand that this price be paid if they mean to survive as a coherent, consensual and peaceful community.

Thanks to Harald Greib

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