Diaspora communities as actors of integration for newly arrived migrants at local level: new reports capture the distinctive traits and lessons learnt from the NEAR project in four European cities
The NEAR project aims to foster social orientation of migrants in the initial period of arrival and settlement in the local communities of destination. Diaspora stakeholders are some of the actors that the project empowers to act a Community Agents (CAs) for newly arrived migrants. Part of the work done by NEAR is specifically aimed at providing these actors with the right knowledge and network to convey quick, context-specific and ready-to-use information and support through thematic trainings.
With this in mind, between March and December 2021 NEAR partners developed and implemented a number of activities directly addressed to diaspora members the four target cities, Milan and Perugia (Italy), Lisbon (Portugal) and Nicosia (Cyprus). The practice developed was eventually modelled into a number of tools under the NEAR National Stakeholder Reports, a set of publications taking stock of a year-long outreach, training and engagement of diaspora stakeholders. In doing so, they aim to facilitate the transfer of experiences, tools, knowledge and practices for organizations, practitioners and other interested groups to build the capacity of and empower diaspora communities as actors in the integration of newly arrived migrants at local level.
The reports follow the steps undertaken in the project, offering practical suggestions, templates and checklists along on how to:
- take into account diaspora communities in selecting target areas
- reach out to and engage diaspora communities preliminarily
- identify needs and select the right stakeholders for projects and initiatives
- organise content for training programmes
- use the most appropriate training methods and tools
- engage with community agents in a sustained way
- co-create communication campaigns and tools with community agents to best target newly arrived migrants
The four reports highlight the distinctive traits and lessons learnt that characterised the NEAR implementation in the respective European cities and that could be transferred in new integration contexts.
To identify the right stakeholders and area, partners combined different data sets such as data on foreign citizens registered in the cities’ administrative districts or statistical reports compiled by regional and national authorities. When data was scarce or outdated, partners worked with migrant-led groups or local civil society groups that brought together associations and residents interested in social issues of migration in the territory. At the same time, they mapped existing private social institutions, public offices and local institutions, volunteer and local organisations, diaspora organisations, reception centres for asylum seekers and refugees, schools and informal local groups. This step was key to identifying and building a network of stakeholders in the area that were actively supporting those coming to a new city while verifying how the NEAR project could develop synergies.
In selecting key diaspora stakeholders to involve directly, partners targeted people that were deemed as very active and as playing a key role in their migrant community due to their personality, personal interests and professional background related to integration. The gender dimension was strongly considered in selecting diaspora stakeholders as it is a key variable for migrant reception and orientation to local services. After identifying people with key roles in their communities, partners created informal opportunities (info sessions, informal talks) to get to know them better and brief them on the project to maximise participation. This phase allowed both to create a bond of trust between the project and diaspora stakeholders and to identify the most pressing knowledge gaps and needs to structure training content and tools accordingly.
The training designed under NEAR addressed immigration and visa policy and access to basic services (work, housing, education and training, and healthcare), leveraging the expertise officials working for public services and/or in the non-profit sector. This allowed community agents not only to get legal/policy updates, feedback and answers to concrete problems by trainers who usually deal with them in their daily work, but also to visit the offices of some service providers, learn about their daily practice and expand their social network. In other terms, partners did not want simply to provide individual CAs with updates but also wanted to build their capacity as a group to act as new, cross-cutting support actors within migrant communities. For this reason, partners always prioritised meetings that could be in-person and using group work methods.
The final training module was strongly participatory and allowed CAs to systematise information and suggestions on neighbourhoods into “unconventional maps”. This kind of maps combined traditional integration-relevant landmarks, e.g. city offices, schools, healthcare venues and public employment services, with unconventional landmarks, such as parks, squares, libraries, and ethnic food stores, that echoed the emotions community agents experienced at personal and collective level when moving into the city. In this activity the flow of emotions was stimulated both by personal stories and by means of music associated to the places and experiences. In some cities, the development of the map was supported by a tour of the target districts, with stops in most significant places, allowing community agents to see familiar areas under a new light while also discovering new ones through history and anecdotes that took them into the “soul” of the districts.
The community agents said the whole training was very useful for their daily activities and on several occasions expressed the immediate applicability of the knowledge and insights acquired. Besides providing valuable information and enhancing people’s social network, the training also boosted their self-esteem through an enhanced sense of impactful and relevance for their community. For instance, in some cases project gadgets like a NEAR T-shirts saying “Are you new here? I can help!” written in different local languages were actively used by community agents, who could connect with the identity of the project because they felt they could support, guide and be recognized by newcomers, becoming reference actors in the territory.