‘You’ve had to deal with 30,000 refugees?….in the region?’
‘No…in the city’
This was how a ‘getting-to-know-you’ conversation began two weeks ago, as six senior officials responsible for migrants’ educational achievement at city or municipal level arrived in Hamburg for a new COMPAS initiative. We were meeting at one of a series of short but intensive action-oriented meetings, aimed at bringing together city officials working on migrant parental involvement in young people’s education, in order to develop plans for tangible reform in their policy or practice.
This activity is part of a wider body of new work at COMPAS, the Action for Inclusion in Europe Initiative, funded by the Open Society Initiative for Europe. In early October, we began with an Autumn Academy, for a five day residential workshop that brought together 19 policy officers and practitioners from European city authorities, an International Governmental Organisation and NGO. All were working in various capacities on migrant integration.
Over recent weeks, other thematic working groups were held that engaged senior officials working on migrant homelessness and civic participation, as well as last week’s event on migrant parental engagement in schools. The events have reached 35 participants from 26 European cities, including representatives from Antwerp, Aarhus, Birmingham, Dublin, Frankfurt, Geneva, Ghent, Glasgow, Hamburg, Helsinki, London, Rotterdam, Torino and Vienna among others.
So what were we doing? The process has been guided by a broad principle of ‘knowledge exchange’ central to the work of the new arm of COMPAS, the Global Exchange in Migration and Diversity. This knowledge exchange involves COMPAS researchers or associates (including myself, Ben Gidley, Jonathan Price and Sarah Spencer). Throughout the events, we offer insights from academic research, frame key themes and debates in the topics of the working groups and facilitate city participants to collectively consider their experiences in practice.
The aim is to consider how best participants can overcome challenges within their daily work around ‘integration’ (variously understood). That daily work ranges from our German participants responding to newly arrived refugees in education or healthcare to others facilitating employment opportunities for migrants. More concretely, the goal of the working groups, which will be revisited in two further meetings next year for each theme, is to secure a tangible change in policy or practice that leads to better outcomes for migrants.
What benefits is this initiative expected to bring? The process so far has exceeded expectations. Most palpably, the events have addressed a sense of isolation that some of these public officers face; working to develop solutions to new issues facing cities that are unprecedented in scale, over ground sometimes untrodden. Their work as public servants is carried out in the contexts of an ambivalent public response that ranges from overwhelming compassion for new migrants to a hostile anti-immigrant sentiment that translates into brutal cuts in budgets and services.
As a researcher, the events have offered us genuine new understanding of this work, particularly into the dynamics of the ‘local turn’ in integration policy. This development recognises that although migration is a national issue created by migrants crossing state borders, it is cities that confront the rapid changes in their population. The set of processes understood broadly as migrant ‘integration’ occurs locally (Penninx 2009, Caponio and Bokert 2010). Through the discussions, we have gained a better appreciation of the influence of national government and politics, which translates into varying degrees of agency or powerlessness possessed by participating officials to change policy and practice at the local level.
In recognizing the dilemmas some of the individuals were grappling with over recent weeks, I have been reminded of what Hannah Jones (2013) terms the ‘uncomfortable positions’ experienced by those working in public services. Inviting those working around community cohesion in local government to reflect on their work with her, she invoked Nikolas Rose’s ‘agonistic politics of ethics’ (1999) and Chantal Mouffe’s (2005) call for an ‘ethics of the political’ (2013: 14) to understand officials’ emotional struggles in creating and participating in regimes of governmentality. Jones convincingly describes the interrogations, debates and ‘sociological imagination’ required of individuals to manage the tensions and contradictions of their work within broader constraints.
The Action for Inclusion initiative invites the opportunity for the insights of something of an ‘anthropological imagination’ to be considered within public officer’s reflections, dialogue and theories of their practice. Networks and events such as these are useful on many levels; they give opportunities for sharing practice, borrowing good ideas from elsewhere and getting peer feedback from others facing similar dilemmas. But, more strikingly, they also offer the space for individuals to explain their routine ways of doing things to others, among those working outside the sometimes comfortable shared understanding of ‘how it is’ in local practice. And, sometimes, confronting those presumptions, moving from ‘how it is’ to thinking about ‘what it might be’ is crucial to developing strategies that will really lead to tangible reform for migrants in their cities.