Shaping and Reshaping Identity on Immigrant and Refugee Receptivity

Europe is in a “polycrisis.” That was the theme of a workshop I recently attended, along with colleagues from Kennesaw State University, at the Europäische Akademie Otzenhausen, in Germany. “Polycrisis” in this case refers to the challenges faced by European Union (EU) member states, including financial problems, terrorist threats, and, in particular, the increase in refugee arrivals. A common question throughout the program centered on how Europe, the EU, and its institutions can collectively address these shared challenges. In the past, as I describe below based on observations from our trip, populations in Europe have come together around remembering shared past events, leading to a reshaping of local and regional identities. Populations in Europe have also come together to shape and reshape a European regional identity—through structures, policies, institutions, and ideals—around common challenges and opportunities. Today, Europe is again challenged to shape and reshape an identity on how best to address migrant and refugee settlement through the way in which the EU and places within the EU are receptive toward newcomers.

Near the beginning of the program, we visited the site of the Battle of Spicheren, in France just across the German border from the city of Saarbrücken. The battle occurred in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War. This visit, with its memorials to the past, laid the foundation for our discussions on the current real and perceived crises and the future of Europe’s ability to collectively solve regional challenges.

Site of the Battle of Spicheren in France. Photo by Paul McDaniel.

Site of the Battle of Spicheren in France. Photo by Paul McDaniel.

Remembrance of an event changes over time. In the case of the Battle of Spicheren, remembrance was first German because the Lorraine region became German soil after the battle. Later, the location of the battle became part of France. Subsequently, remembrance became joint among Germany and France. Today, the site represents shared European remembrance for a particular past event/crisis. The site also contains examples of international remembrance, represented by a memorial to U.S. soldiers killed in the area during World War II. A shared European remembrance represents Europe’s shared identity today and potential to collectively solve common challenges such as financial crises in EU member states, terrorist threats, and an increase in refugee arrivals. And joint Europe-U.S. remembrance symbolizes transatlantic cooperation to solve similar challenges.

Schengen, Luxembourg. Photo by Paul McDaniel.

Schengen, Luxembourg. Photo by Paul McDaniel.

Throughout the program, we visited examples of ways in which countries in Europe have come together to address common challenges, sometimes turning those challenges into opportunities. We visited the small town of Schengen, in Luxembourg but adjacent to the borders with France and Germany. Schengen was the site of the 1985 signing of the Schengen agreement, which led to the creation of Europe’s borderless Schengen Area. Today, 26 European states are members of Schengen with a population of over 400 million people. The Schengen area operates with common external border controls, a common visa policy, and no internal border controls among member states. No doubt, the Schengen agreement has been part of present discussions among its members about the response to an increase in refugee arrivals in Europe.

We also visited Strasbourg, France, and the Council of Europe (an organization distinct from the EU), which consists of 47 member states, representing over 800 million people. The Council focuses on promoting democracy, rule of law, human rights, economic development, and integration of regulatory functions. It includes the European Court of Human Rights.

Council of Europe, Strasbourg, France. Photo by Paul McDaniel.

Council of Europe, Strasbourg, France. Photo by Paul McDaniel.

In the case of the European Union, shared European identity is forged through structures and processes. EU institutions help the region interpret and address common challenges within and outside of Europe. In the past, Europe sat mired in civil wars for hundreds of years. Today, despite the prospect of the United Kingdom’s leaving the EU—including the upcoming June 23 “Brexit” referendum—much of Europe sits together in the EU. As such, these institutions and structures are elements of European identity formation. Part of EU identity includes a focus on human rights—internally and worldwide. The EU itself states, “the European Union is based on a strong commitment to promoting and protecting human rights, democracy and the rule of law worldwide. Human rights are at the very heart of EU relations with other countries and regions. Promoting human rights work can help to prevent and resolve conflicts and, ultimately, to alleviate poverty.” Specifically, EU policy is supposed to:

  • work to promote the rights of women, children, minorities and displaced persons
  • oppose the death penalty, torture, human trafficking and discrimination
  • defend civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights
  • defend the universal and indivisible natureof human rights through full and active partnership with partner countries, international and regional organizations, and groups and associations at all levels of society.

The EU clearly states on paper the sort of identity it envisions. Actions addressing the challenges of a “polycrisis”—including a response to refugees—should also adhere to those ideals. But issues of identity are not only European, they are global. Every place struggles with shaping and reshaping identity. Collective identity also exists at multiple scales at the individual, community, state, regional, and national levels.

Examples of immigrant and refugee settlement and integration are found in Europe as local places react similarly or differently than their national or EU context. In some cases, local communities have responded with warm receptivity toward refugees; other places have exhibited a colder receptivity toward newcomers.

Europe isn’t the only region wrestling with issues of identity related to how best to respond to various issues. Places throughout the United States also confront issues of identity—locally, regionally, and nationally. People and organizations in different places at different levels in the U.S., for example, have been shaping identity around immigration and receptivity toward newcomers. Some cities and states have passed policies and legislation attempting to thwart immigrants from moving there—making life even more difficult for people and families already there in the process. Other cities and states have pursued policies and legislation to cultivate a more receptive, welcoming environment for immigrants and refugees. And some cities have done the latter while located in states that have pursued the former.

Meanwhile, local and state action regarding immigration exists within the broader federal framework of immigration law and policy, all of which creates an environment of multiscalar mixed receptivity for newcomers throughout the U.S. An example of a variety of people and organizations coming together to shape an identity around receptivity toward immigrants is the growing “welcoming cities” movement. An increasing number of cities across the U.S.—all with different histories, contexts, and geographies regarding immigrant settlement—are becoming “welcoming cities.” This is an example of particular places shaping their collective identity around their approach to a particular topic—immigration.

Municipalities cultivating efforts around immigrant and refugee integration isn’t unique to the U.S., however. Cities of Migration, housed in the Global Diversity Exchange at Ryerson University in Toronto, maintains a list of good ideas from successful cities regarding municipal leadership on immigrant integration. And Decatur, Georgia-based Welcoming America, which leads the aforementioned welcoming cities movement, recently launched a new partnership, the Welcoming Communities Transatlantic Exchange, part of their Welcoming Global program. The exchange, focused on Germany, provides opportunities to share best practice ideas to refugee integration:

“Over three years, groups of Americans and Germans will visit each other’s countries, focusing on communities that have had challenges with significant and unexpected migrant influxes or those with unique and successful approaches to addressing integration. The program aims to build the capacity of local integration leaders and, through them, strengthen the welcoming infrastructure of the communities in which they work.”

Why is it important to share ideas about immigrant and refugee integration? “In many ways, the refugee crisis is the new shared challenge of the transatlantic relationship, requiring dialogue and cooperation between the U.S. and Germany,” said William Maier, director of Cultural Vistas’ European Office, one of the partner organizations in the Transatlantic Exchange program. “As the two leading powers in this crisis, the example set by the U.S. and Germany in rising to the occasion will impact the approaches towards inclusion by other countries in their respective regions.” And Germany, as one of the major players within the EU, can set an example for other immigrant and refugee receiving places in the region.

As local communities and municipalities carry out place-making practices to shape and re-shape their collective identity around receptivity toward immigrants and refugees, how will broader states and regions form, shape, and re-shape their identity and practice regarding receptivity to newcomers? Lessons from the past regarding remembrance and identity formation evident on the landscape in many places are important. And examples from the present in many immigrant-receiving societies offer ideas for cultivating shared identities today to collectively address shared challenges—and turn those challenges into shared opportunities. The European Union, in its collective response to a “polycrisis” of challenges, must take a cue from the growing welcoming cities movement in many immigrant receiving countries in North America, Europe, and elsewhere, and stay true to the concepts of human rights and justice on which the EU was founded.

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