The 8th European Migration was held on the 4th and 5th of December at the European Economic and Social Committee in Brussels. The forum provided a platform for stakeholders from across Europe to discuss the specific needs, skills and communication for stronger migrant integration in Europe in the face of rising anti-immigrant rhetoric.
How do we change the narrative on migration?
Migration has always been there. Migration will always be there. Migration is part of being human. We always have migrants. So, there is not the question of stopping migration. That will never happen, and it’s impossible. And that would actually also be a catastrophe if we did that. But it’s about managing migration. And I think this is important. Migration is nothing to be afraid of. – Ylva Johansson, European Commissioner for Home Affairs.
Opening day one of the conference, Ylva Johansson, European Commissioner for Home Affairs, emphasised the need for us to change our narratives on migration. Migration has been around for all of human history, and we must not repeat the mistakes of the past. As populism grows, we need to shift from the divisive rhetoric of tsunamis and waves of migration and humanise migrants.
The Forum provided opportunities for migrants themselves to speak. Seppe Nobels’ brainchild, Instroom Academy, was chosen to present a positive integration story for migrants in Flanders. After losing his sous-chef of 40 years, Seppe wanted to make a difference and opened a culinary academy to train asylum seekers in refugee centres, nurturing their culinary talents while awaiting asylum decisions.
It wasn’t just about skill acquisition; it was about creating a platform for these individuals to share their food knowledge and cultural heritage. We heard from Faeiq Al-Mamoori, a chef from Iraq who completed the programme and is now opening his restaurant in Mechelen which will serve a mix of Iraqi and European dishes.
The cooks of Instroom make signature dishes brought from their respective homelands. These recipes, passed down through generations, carry immense sentimental value. Instroom allows these refugees to preserve and share their culinary heritage while integrating Belgian ingredients and techniques, resulting in a respectful and innovative fusion. Seppe emphasises that Instroom is not just about cooking. Cooks have to tell the story behind their dish, their story of home. In this way, all dishes are “soul food”.
Vanessa Cotterell, Project Manager at UNITEE, also presented the RIDE project. Co-funded by the EU, RIDE (Reach Inclusion Through Digital Empowerment For Migrant Women) stands as a pioneering initiative aimed at enhancing the inclusion and employment prospects of migrant women through digital skill development, mentoring and networking.
The project supported around 100 women, focusing not only on their digital skills but providing a space for them to network and learn together. This included sourcing funding, mentorship, and training that taught not just technical skills but also intercultural understanding, social inclusion, workplace integration, and entrepreneurship.
The project created a national database housing information on opportunities for migrants and migrant women to develop their ICT skills and held job fairs for migrant women to connect them with employers looking to attract new talents.
Vanessa shared the story of Sara Alkaf, a migrant who found refuge in Bulgaria after fleeing Yemen. Despite her background in interior design and architecture, Sara was employed in a customer service role. The RIDE project helped her gain confidence with digital skills such as design programmes and put her in touch with other migrant women.
Narratives such as these are crucial to show the positive impacts of newcomers in our societies in the face of disinformation and fear that is growing across Europe. These testimonies also highlight the power of integration initiatives such as Instroom Academy and the RIDE project in providing training and opening opportunities.
Skills Shortage and Labour Market Integration
Participants highlighted the struggles migrants across Europe face when it comes to entering the labour market. Breakout groups indicated that migrants and refugees are seen by many employers as cheap labour, with no efforts to tackle systemic racism and discrimination. Calls were made for systemic reform, as structural problems cannot be tackled with individual solutions.
Also noted was the discouragement from entrepreneurship as a viable career path, despite the advantages it provides to newcomers. While natives had access to funding, networks and business support, migrants have less chances to access these business development resources.
Thomas Liebig, an expert from the OECD, highlighted disparities in employment, noting that while low-educated migrants often find work more easily than low-educated natives, highly-educated migrants face challenges in securing jobs that match their qualifications. Liebig emphasized gender disparities, particularly the struggles faced by migrant mothers in finding employment.
Liebig stressed the need for better coordination between various ministries involved in migration and highlighted biases, discrimination, and challenges in recognising migrant skills as barriers to successful integration.
The forum also celebrated milestones—Moussa Sangare from Ivory Coast, now resident in Greece, voted for the very first time in his life during the elections for the Forum Bureau, highlighting the need to remove barriers to migrant participation in decision-making.
Yonous Muhammadi from the Greek Forum of Refugees and Anna Coulibaly from the SHARE Network were elected to the European Migration Forum Bureau signifying a growing recognition of diverse voices in shaping migration policies.
Cristian Pîrvulescu, IMI Group President, noted in the closing of the conference that when it comes to the rise of populism and anti-immigrant rhetoric, “we don’t learn from history”. Razan Ismail of Associacion Kudwa closed the conference with a call for participants to keep talking about migration issues, no matter how many times you have to repeat yourself, until policy-makers listen.