Integration and entrepreneurship go hand in hand. Interview with MEP Tanja Fajon

Since the beginning of the migratory crisis a few years ago, migrant integration has become a priority for the European Union. The refugee crises and the lack of opportunities for migrants have raised several questions on how to cope with this issue. This magazine has often stressed the role entrepreneurship can play in migrant integration by boosting the creation of jobs and by strengthening bonds with the local community. Nevertheless, migrants still struggle with many hurdles when it comes to establishing a business in their new country.

In order to shed some light to this matter, we interviewed MEP Tanja Fajon, member of the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee of the European Parliament and former rapporteur on the visa liberalisation process for the Western Balkans.

There is a widespread belief that migrants constitute a threat to the economic stability of a country. What is your opinion on that? Is it possible for you to point out at some economic advantage brought upon by migrants?

I will start answering this question bringing us a memory after the World War II. In Germany there were 12 million refugees and Germany is today the strongest European economy. So this gives us a clear understanding that migrants, if they are well integrated in the society they can contribute a lot to our societies. When I say ‘well integrated’, I want to point out that integration is a huge challenge for Europe, especially in the times we are facing: when going through economic crises, they can turn to social crises, where high unemployment, mainly among young people, is a challenge for our society.

Therefore, the question on migration does not have one single answer; what we need to do is to have a well-established migration asylum system, we have to fight illegal migration and actually work for more legal and safe ways to Europe. We need to manage migration in a better way than we did in the last few years.

Migrant integration is one of the main challenges Europe is facing. Which solutions do you propose to integrate migrants? How do you rate entrepreneurship as a tool to foster integration?

The integration of migrants should actually happen on all levels of the society, starting from the local. The best examples are quite familiar to us when communes take migrant kids to the schools, give housing and create opportunities to find jobs. The best example of integration is when people don’t find themselves in a limbo situation when they come to Europe.

It matters also if they are in a very uncertain situation, where they wait at least for half a year or longer to get a response on whether they get protection or asylum status. Not to mention, that during this time they have not been active.

It would be ideal to imagine a system with legal and safe ways that would allow migrants to bring their family, perhaps in a commune that is already well prepared and that has room for them. This would facilitate a fast integration of migrants in the society.

That would be an ideal situation; but of course we don’t live in an ideal world, and therefore we have a lot of migrants on the streets unfortunately. Many people got into an illegal situation because either they don’t have their status or they have disappeared somewhere in other European countries, which is a problem.

Channelling integration is also a domain of national states, they need to have good integration programmes, with a very holistic approach; where different ministries are involved, such as education, household, social rights, equal rights and it is also important to give migrants the opportunity to work.

Do you think women entrepreneurs encounter many obstacles while creating a business? How could the European Union foster the presence of migrant women in business?

In the current migration situation, normally women are exploited, especially when it comes to trafficking with human beings or sexual exploitation. As a general comment, we can say women are part of a very vulnerable group of the migrant society.  So they need specific forms of help, together with children special care.

The first and crucial form of help is family reunification: we need to make sure that families manage to live together. Often we see situations when men are those who travel first for a better life, and are able to earn some money, while their women and children only came after a while.

Concerning entrepreneurship, as it is often the case it is not always for everybody: but for those women who have the chance and the desire to start a business, we should of course create conditions of discrimination anywhere in Europe, making sure that women can have equal access to opening business and through different measures, such as financial support. It is important to ensure that they can start this programme and at least be placed in the market and be given the opportunity to start; because quite often these migrants that are part of our society are very important contributors as a diaspora with their money back to their states. If this money is channelled well, it can help boost the economy and foster development back in their states. Therefore, it can be beneficial for both sides.

MolenGeek, a coworking space in Brussels where young migrant entrepreneurs can work, is an example of the benefits of fostering entrepreneurial skills. Do you think we need more initiatives like that? And what can the European institutions do in order to foster that?

MolenGeek is a fantastic example in Brussels. I never met a similar project that is run by young entrepreneurs, supported financially with public funds from the Belgian government and private money alike, with a concept or main idea to bring young potential people together that never have had an opportunity or are part of the very poor suburb of Molenbeek. It gives them the opportunity to create and develop their ideas, in order to establish their start-up companies.

MolenGeek, in fact, incubated some of this youngsters who really developed successful applications or start-ups. This is a wonderful idea that connects people together in a part of the city that is rather really poor and has a very bad image in the society. With these positive examples and stories, you can create a new narrative, curbing the wrong perception of the neighbourhood. Youngsters have to have an opportunity to develop their potential: with a project like MolenGeek they can find their place.

So I would always say we as politicians, Europeans or nationals, have to boost young entrepreneurship, because it prevents youngsters from being radicalised and instead, provide them with new, exciting opportunities. I am certain that when young people have their opportunity and some vision they can contribute really good to the society and we have to stimulate that.

Some migrants still have significant links to their countries of origin. This gives them the chance to transfer their know-how to citizens in that countries. What is, according to you, the role of this transfer in the development of third world countries? Can this be used as a tool to improve the relationship between the EU and those countries?

We certainly have to do and can do much more that we are currently doing. Because we have a lot of migrants in the European society that are really important, as diaspora, contributors in terms of sending finances to third countries. If we try to help them to develop by themselves, as a consequence, we could empower small businesses and companies that would contribute to their society with this money that is channelled there.

With that, I believe we could provide much help to the countries that are poor or where there is instability ongoing. So it is really important, that we try to act on the ground in third countries, acting together as a European Union- we are in fact doing that-, creating conditions for healthy economy, functioning institutions, democracy and of course for developing business, especially SMEs where people are doing what they are good at, thanks to the money that their relatives are earning in Europe. In this way, we could see real development in those societies.

There are many projects currently ongoing: it is not just a question whether the European Union is contributing with a lot of money for this development, but the fact that one big part of the money comes from these diaspora migrants that are trying to earn a better life here, with the exact purpose of helping their families at home. Here there are many opportunities. Nevertheless, in order to be able to meet those opportunities, we have to help them with the education learning process back on the ground.


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