Interview with Mario Striano, from European federation working with Homeless.

Mauro Striano works as policy officer in FEANTSA, the European Federation of National Organisations working with the Homeless. FENANTSA was established in 1989 as a European non-governmental organisation to prevent and alleviate the poverty and social exclusion of people threatened by or living in homelessness.

 

Europe has been facing a very significant influx of refugees’ arrivals for many months now, generating intense political debates but also dramatic situations for many human beings. According to you, what are the main challenges we need to tackle regarding accommodating refugees in Europe?  

I think that one of the main challenges is the full respect of a number of standards for the reception of asylum applicants imposed by EU law. Several Member States – some more than others – have violated these legal standards by not  providing advice and information to asylum seekers, not guaranteeing access to education for  minors, not allowing access to the labour market, which should be granted no later than 9 months from the start of the application procedure, and not guaranteeing access to basic health care. There are also a set of standards related to material reception conditions which must be respected and which prevent asylum seekers from being forced to live in inadequate housing or sleeping rough. Many countries violate these standards.  Emergency accommodation is not sufficient. EU law requires accommodation that allows for an adequate standard of living and that is adapted to the needs of people with different cultural backgrounds and  who have lived through some very traumatic experiences.

As far as FEANTSA members are concerned, the main challenge is that in order to fulfil their legal obligations and provide the necessary accommodation and basic services, public authorities of several EU Member States rely on homeless service providers which often struggle to make the necessary number of beds available and which often do not have to expertise to cater for the specific needs of asylum seekers. Also people who have obtained international protection risk ending up on the streets and turn to homeless service providers for help.  There is the problem of a structural lack of adequate housing along with the discrimination of migrants by certain landlords. Moreover, the pressure on refugees to leave in a very short time the accommodation provided by the State during the asylum procedure when their dossier is closed, makes them even more vulnerable to homelessness. Those whose asylum application are refused and therefore reside irregularly are in an even worse situation: low threshold services are often their only recourse, if national legislation allows for it.

The reality in several countries is that homeless services are important players in securing accommodation for refugees – not only during the asylum procedure but also at the end of it.  This creates some challenges and problems. First of all, in some countries, emergency shelters for homeless people are not available at all in certain regions and therefore the basic needs of persons entering the EU cannot be catered for. . Secondly, capacity problems push service providers, including homeless services to rely on emergency solutions such as tents and containers, which do not allow for adequate living and therefore could be considered as a violation of EU law. Thirdly, a lack of resources and effective strategies can lead to a downward spiral that lowers the quality standards of services provided, meaning for instance, the acceptance of overcrowding and of inadequate accommodation. Last but not the least in importance, homeless services that provide accommodation to asylum applicants, refugees and irregularly residing migrants in many cases do not have necessary intercultural skills and legal competence and human resources to deal with such specific needs.

Certain parties oppose, in their discourse, the help given to asylum seekers and homeless people originating from the country. What do you think about it? What solutions do you propose as an organisation in order to tackle this potential tension?

I think that these parties have been playing a dangerous game that exploits fears deeply ingrained in a significant part of European citizens. It is sad but some people prefer to blame those who are in a weak situation – such as asylum seekers or destitute migrants in general – rather than those who are effectively jeopardizing their well being by taking decisions and implementing policies that do not actually reply to people’s needs.  People can be afraid of the poor because they irrationally think they are going to take their wealth away – they do not take into consideration or maybe do not know that while the EU annually spends only 12.5 billion Euros for the reception of asylum seekers, around 1,000 billion Euros is the annual loss in the EU because of tax evasion. Politicians make political calculations and know they can ride on these fears especially when it comes to migrants who are seen as foreigners and their cultural differences considered as a danger. On top of that, in these difficult times, the amalgam between religion and extremism can be easily made: just think that after the Brussels attacks, according to a survey carried out by Ceci n’est pas une crise, 50% of Belgians who were questioned consider that closing the borders to asylum seekers would be a good thing to prevent terrorist attacks in Belgium.

Addressing xenophobia requires a long term strategy and unfortunately needs time: on one hand we need information and education and, on the other hand, social inclusion of migrants. We need to focus on providing adequate accommodation for asylum seekers and access to housing for refugees. By doing this we need to be careful not to create competition between different categories of people in need: social inclusion should be for all, we cannot afford to feed vicious dynamics whereby service providers get more funding if they provide accommodation to people with a specific administrative status. It is not only about tensions between homeless people and asylum seekers but also between relocated asylum seekers and third country nationals who have been waiting for regularisation for too many years. Member States and the EU need to take into account these dynamics; they cannot just shift priorities according to the emergency of the moment.

Even without the current humanitarian crisis, it is well understood that structural problems in Member States’ housing markets generate housing exclusion amongst people facing poverty. The humanitarian reception crisis further adds to the urgency of addressing this. In the medium-term, pressure on housing markets is set to increase. Structural challenges vary between Member States but include a lack of affordable supply and a stock of inadequate quality and regulatory contexts that fail to ensure adequate security of tenure to vulnerable people. Solving these problems would have a significant positive impact, not only on newcomers but also on those who have already been facing homelessness and housing exclusion in the EU. Moreover, by addressing structural housing problems, the EU could develop a long-term strategy that would help avoiding other humanitarian crises in the future.

Many citizens have shown their willingness to open their door to refugees, or to help them in other ways after last summer. Can you tell us about interesting initiatives in Europe related to accommodation of refugees and cooperation with local populations?

I mainly work with homeless service providers so I am afraid I do not have enough expertise to properly tell you about this kind of private initiatives. However, I was positively struck by the solidarity shown by many citizens and I believe that the Refugees Welcome online platform that allows privates to host refugees in shared flats or houses is a good idea. Over the last months I have been in contact, here in Brussels, with the Josefa Foundation which aims at integrating vulnerable migrants through housing. They own a house with around 50 places in which they will soon host refugees for a limited time, and accompany them in their inclusion project, taking into account the physical, psychological and spiritual dimensions of each individual. Most importantly, refugees will be living side by side, even though for a limited time, with people with other backgrounds: European citizens, professionals of different kind, students, artists and so on.

I would like to stress two points: firstly, it is paramount in order to lay the foundations for an effective process of social inclusion to provide newcomers with an environment in which they can live together with different social and cultural backgrounds – we need housing solutions that allow for a constructive exchange; secondly, the private initiatives, the solidarity shown by citizens, should not give room to public authorities to step back and not to take seriously their responsibilities with regard to reception of asylum seekers and generally integration of migrants.

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