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Slovenia: Are we an inclusive society?

On 24 May 2022, an event in Cukrarna in Ljubljana was held, in which we asked ourselves whether we are an inclusive society, what integration is and how we (mis)understand it, what opportunities for (successful) integration the state provides to refugees and other immigrants, which are the biggest challenges and obstacles that hinder the integration of immigrants in Slovenia, which (good) practices were present in the 90s, but we may have forgotten them, which practices in the field of integration we can highlight today, how Slovenia and Slovenian society is perceived by immigrant women who came from different countries, for different reasons, in different periods, what are their personal experiences like and what do they have in common despite all the differences.

In his welcome speech the director of the Peace Institute, Iztok Šori, said: “Every slightest change in the field of migration throws us off track. /.../ With each crisis, it seems as if the country has lost its memory and forgotten all the lessons we have learned so far. One of the key reasons for this is that for decades the authorities have been devoting significantly more resources and attention to the war on migrants than to their integration: wire at the border, police and military equipment, cameras and other surveillance technologies, weapons… Investing in repression takes precedence over integration and investing in people. /.../ It is important that while successfully extinguishing fires, each in his own field, we do not forget the bigger picture and try to achieve changes in systemic policies. And not only that, our goal must also be to change the social Zeitgeist and the discourse that allows institutions like the Centre for Foreigners to even exist. For there has never been any major public resistance to existing institutions and policies. This is also a question of integration."

The moderator of the first panel, Maja Ladić, and her colleague Iza Thaler presented the latest results of the research conducted within the NIEM project (National Integration Evaluation Mechanism). The best-rated Sweden scored 72.5 out of 100 and is also the only country to top 70 points at all. Less than 50 points were scored by five countries: Greece (39.5), Romania (38.5), Bulgaria (37.1), Poland (36.9) and at the very tail of the involved countries was Hungary (32.8). Slovenia achieved a total score of 50.1, which is rather bad than a good result. It achieved the highest score (64.3) in the legislative framework and the lowest (24.3) in the field of implementation and cooperation – which indicates the existing differences between theory and practice.

Since the last NIEM comparative report two years ago, there has been little or no progress in the field of integration of beneficiaries of international protection in the 14 countries. There are even setbacks in various countries, especially in the areas of housing, accommodation and social security. What all the countries involved have in common is the worst scores when it comes to active policies that support integration, cross-sectoral coordination and government support for civil society and local authorities. Although the EU has a key role in coordinating and formulating integration policies, it is the responsibility of each country to implement them. Therefore, in EU countries, integration is neither uniform nor (often) appropriate. Despite the declarative awareness that integration must be a two-way process in order to be successful, it is mostly perceived by public authorities and policy makers as a rather technical, one-way process. It is often even considered successful at the point where a person enters the labour market and / or learns a language.

Sonja Gole Ašanin, Refugee Integration Adviser at the Office for the Support and Integration of Migrants, and Franci Jazbec, a representative of the Association Odnos and President of the Section of Organizations in the Field of Migrant Integration at the Social Chamber of Slovenia, have many years of experience in helping refugees. And we could say they cover different sides of the same coin. They highlighted similar observations and agreed that a period of one or two years is not enough to support refugees in integration. Since 2016, when the one-time financial assistance was abolished upon acquiring the status, refugees are in even greater (financial) distress, which has especially bad impact on finding housing. Employees in various state institutions (e.g. administrative units, social work centres, etc.) often need to be explained the legislation and rights that individuals have according to their legal status. Integration takes place (or should take place) in the environment in which immigrants live, but unfortunately local authorities in Slovenia are still not directly involved and (mostly) not active in the field of integration. Sonja Gole Ašanin confirmed that positive changes have been taking place this year since the arrival of refugees from Ukraine in Slovenia, and there is hope that they will be preserved and enforced for all refugees.

Researcher and associate professor at the University of Malmö, Sayaka Osanami Törngren, presented how the integration of refugees is being tackled by Sweden, one of the best-rated EU countries in the field, which has received a large number of asylum seekers in a relatively short period, but is lately raising the question what went wrong that they are so unsuccessful in practice. They are facing segregation at various levels, and a quote from an interview with a beneficiary of international protection in Sweden is very telling: "I have now learned Swedish, but who should I speak Swedish with?"

The moderator of the second panel, Veronika Bajt, revived historical memory with speakers and put thr event in a broader context. Our colleague Brankica Petković, who was the coordinator of the humanitarian program at the Slovenian Open Society Institute in the 1990s, presented some of the practices they carried out: they provided financial support for cultural activities of refugees (especially children and youth) in Vodnikova domačija, KUD France Prešern, etc.; financed tuition fees for college enrolment, postgraduate studies and specialization of doctors (some faculties waived tuition fees for refugee students from BiH, some did not); help pupils and students with one-time assistance to purchase textbooks and school supplies; financed psychosocial assistance programs for refugee children, and teacher training for such assistance (led by Anica Mikuš Kos); assist legal aid and training legal experts in this field (which was then continued through the NGO PIC); provide financial support to taborniki (scouts) for the inclusion of refugee children in camping, etc.

Anica Mikuš Kos, President of Slovene Philanthropy, who herself experienced and survived the Second World War and has been involved in (especially) psychosocial assistance to refugees all her life, pointed out the losses that greatly affect each individual: the loss of loved ones, home, possessions, faith in the good, faith in humankind, a sense of security... She finds it crucial to normalize the lives of refugees, support them to get on their feet, become active and take care of themselves. Children are the most vulnerable but they are also the most susceptible to new experiences and recover quickly, especially if they are involved in school and are among their peers. She recalled the fact that the majority of the refugee population are women who have specific needs and face special challenges and problems. Ms. Anica recalled several parallels between the situation in Slovenia in the 1990s and today, unfortunately also the fact that both times the state promised a generous reception and support for refugees with a fig in its pocket. She concluded, however, that civil society can be more successful than the state with its apparatuses, as she says that civil society as a social tissue has the potential to normalize society.

Ognjen Radivojević, who implements a program of social orientation at Slovene Philanthropy, noted that unfortunately his role as a "mediator" is not temporary, but tends to become permanent. At all institutions that are crucial for the regulation of new life in the new country, the officials would rather communicate with "mediators" than with refugees. He said he cannot think of many good practices, however one may be continuous learning assistance to children by volunteers, as good relationships tend to develop and children then also progress faster. He wonders how many public spaces there are where immigrants and especially refugees would feel welcome (not feel at home, they will not feel at home anywhere, but at least welcome). He described very well what integration is for him: "integration is coming out of one's comfort zone".

Romana Bešter from the Institute for Ethnic Issues presented the results of a research on the attitude of the majority population towards immigration, immigrants and their integration. The majority of respondents were of the opinion that Slovenia should tighten immigration conditions; most disagreed that Slovenia should be more open to receiving refugees; most believe that Slovenia should pursue a migration policy aimed at attracting qualified and highly educated foreign nationals. As a weakness of immigration, a large proportion of respondents (66.7%) stated that immigrants in Slovenia take advantage of the social support system; many (44.2%) thought that the number of criminal offenses in Slovenia was increasing due to immigration (although this is not the case); many (44.4%) also believe that immigrants undermine Slovenian culture. As most important factors for the successful integration of immigrants they listed: respect for Slovenian institutions and laws, knowledge of the Slovenian language and employment. Therefore, the majority of the population expects immigrants to adapt to Slovenian society, not to participate in the co-creation of common social norms and values.

The moderator of the third panel, Mojca Frelih, talked to immigrant women who actually moved to Slovenia because of their partners. Jovana Mihajlović Trbovc moved from Serbia to Slovenia more than 14 years ago because of her Slovenian partner. For the same reason Marta Rychlewski moved from Germany to Slovenia about two years ago, with the difference that she was a migrant before, as she moved from Poland to Germany at the age of 18. Wafaa Alburai moved from Palestine to Slovenia less than a year ago on the basis of family reunification, as her husband was granted international protection in Slovenia. For the same reason, Aber Algendy moved to Slovenia from Syria four years ago. Jovana and Marta emphasized that they are both in a very privileged position, as they were able to decide to move on their own. They agreed that new beginnings are greatly influenced (or hampered) by the loss of social capital you have at home and you leave behind. Jovana pointed out that the Department for Foreigners of the Ljubljana Administrative Unit (according to its experience and the experience of many other migrant women) is the most unfriendly institution in Slovenia. She believes that the mechanisms of inclusion were established by immigrants themselves, that they created informal networks that give the individual the necessary support and enable a "normal" life. She also emphasized that class differences were still very important and obvious, and that migrants are different and should not be seen as a homogeneous group, although it is true that racism is gendered and that women are the ones facing discrimination on several levels. Marta also agreed with this and said that she was happy that we especially emphasized the gender aspect or the women's aspect, as migrant women face even more challenges than men. In Slovenia, however, she misses space for socializing with the local population. Wafaa highlighted the indispensable support of NGOs on the one hand and the great lack of psychosocial support (especially for children coming from war zones) on the other. Aber says that in Slovenia she still has the feeling that people look at refugees as tenth-class people. Even today, she has no genuine contacts with the local population and does not speak fluent Slovenian. Sometimes people tell her she’s not well integrated. She replies that she has not received enough support and opportunities to be able to integrate and that she is thinking if perhaps it would be easier for her and her children to start a new life elsewhere.

The event was concluded by colleague Lana Zdravković, who is researching the issue of integration in the context of radical equality and also has migrant experience since she moved to Slovenia from Serbia in 1999. She pointed out that integration should be seen as a project of universal egalitarianism, on which the European project of the Enlightenment, which we got with the French Revolution, is based. Thus, the question is not whether we will follow a conservative view that threatens with migrants as those that disintegrate Christian, white, civilized Europe, or a multicultural view that views migrants from the perspective of tolerance (which is the other side of inequality). Rather, we should think of integration as of a project of radical equality, as migration is a global consequence of neocolonialism and migrants an integral part of society. Therefore, it is necessary to strive to expand the boundaries of citizenship, rights and affiliation, not (additionally) limit them.