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13th Aug 2022

Belgian mayor invites Orban to migrant-diverse town

  • Bart Somers in Mechelen (Photo: Aleksandra Eriksson)

The mayor of a Belgian town with reportedly more Muslims than Slovakia and Hungary combined wants Viktor Orban, Hungary's prime minister, to visit.

Mechelen mayor Bart Somers on Wednesday (13 June) said his town of 90,000 people has around 20,000 Muslims and that people get along just fine.

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"We are very wealthy, safe and a nice town. So maybe Mr Orban has to come visit my town to see that living together can be done," he said.

The Flemish politician was awarded the 2016 World Mayor Prize for his work on helping refugees and the integration of immigrants.

Speaking to EUobserver in Bilbao, at an event organised by Council of European Municipalities and Regions, Somers said that his town is not without issues, that an open border policy will not work, but that diversity is a reality that needs to be embraced and not shuffled away or stigmatised.

The Flemish city is home to around 130 nationalities. One out of two kids born in Mechelen has a foreign background.

Twenty years ago it ranked as among the worst in Belgium in terms of child poverty, crime, and unemployment. It also had a large extreme right following.

Today, it ranks as among the best.

"We have 20,000 Muslims, that is more than in the whole of Hungary of Mr Orban and whole of Slovakia together," he said.

He describes populists like Orban of being "Western Salafists", of refusing change, and of twisting ideas and values to create walls and divisions.

His approach, he says, is to have the locals involved.

It means, among other things, that migrants or refugees who come to Mechelen to settle take part in a 'speed dating programme' with the city residents.

The two sides then meet every week for six months, which Somers says helps with integration.

"If they have someone from the city of Mechelen, he can or she can explain how the city works, they can practice the language and more important they create a human relationship," he said.

He said both the left wing and right wing are obsessed with reducing people into one identity. The right wing label migrants as criminals or welfare seekers, the left wing label them as victims.

In Mechelen, the approach is to make a distinction between newcomers and people born and raised in the city, he said, and then speak to them as citizens.

Newcomers, he says, have to adapt and learn the language. It also comes with a big investment in security.

He said issues of integration at the European and national level often fail to take into account that the vast majority of people living in cities already have migrant backgrounds.

"This is their society, it is their city. If they have to integrate, we all have to integrate," he said.

Italy and France in refugee spat

His views stand in stark contrast to the broader political discussion at both the European and national level as leaders in France and Italy trade barbs amid spats over refugees following Rome's refusal to allow a NGO migrant rescue boat to disembark people in Sicily.

EU states, in their effort to sort migration policies following the 2015 inflow of refugees, appear to becoming more intolerant as countries like Denmark, Netherlands and Sweden announce ambiguous plans to create migrant camps in places like the Western Balkans.

The anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats are now surging in the polls ahead of September elections, a move that follows election wins of similar parties in Slovenia and Italy.

On Tuesday in Strasbourg, EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos unveiled plans on how they plan to shore up funding on migration from €13bn to €34.9bn for 2021 to 2027.

The money boost is a response to the political fallout after over one million people in 2015 arrived in Europe, most heading to Germany and Sweden to ask for asylum.

It includes setting two new funds, an asylum and migration fund, and a integrated border management fund. Part of the aim, says Avramopoulos, is to create more investments in short term integration, backed by cohesion funds for long term measures.

At the local level in cities and towns, the discussion appears to be more levelled, at least according to Stefano Bonaccini, the president of the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR).

"Steps are being taken in a backward direction and conquests achieved over several decades and goals that have not been completely achieved run the risk of being completely lost or weakened," he said at the opening ceremony of the CEMR event in Bilbao, which brought together mayors and regional authorities from across Europe.

Most migrants in cities

A survey of migrant integration policies across European cities, conducted by the OECD, had also found some two-thirds of foreign born people live in metropolitan areas, while asylum seekers are more dispersed.

Claire Charbit, an OECD official, who conducted the research, said the biggest problem facing local governments when it comes to integration is a lack of information.

The second biggest headache is making sure integration policies and programmes are widespread, she said, noting "you cannot just offer them [migrants] a house and nothing else."

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