Upon entering Europe, asylum seekers face significant barriers when looking for a job, according to the European Commission.
Countries need to take swift action to integrate refugees into communities, says the Commission, by providing education and training to ensure they have a chance in the job market. Research suggests that early and active labour market participation is a key aspect of the integration process.
One of the answers to this call for action has come from a group of socially responsible businesses. In particular, co-operative businesses in Italy and Greece have been responsible for helping refugees to be self-sustaining.
With the continent facing the biggest displacement of people since the Second World War, around 165,000 refugees seeking asylum have reached Europe from non-EU countries in the first three months of the year.
Following an agreement between the EU and Turkey last year, refugees have been unable to use the Balkan route into Europe and are now travelling to Italy instead. Around 99,742 have reached Italy so far this year, with 15,230 arrivals in Greece.
The integration process falls upon individual member states with the EU providing support and incentives. But, as social businesses, co-operatives have found a role in helping refugees.
In Italy, social co-ops provide 18,000 refugees, asylum seekers and migrants with services and projects in 220 welcome centres and 170 housing structures.
One of them is Camelot, a social co-operative in Bologna, Ferrara and Ravenna, which offers mentoring, Italian language classes, training courses and internships. Since 2001 the co-op has been working with the public administration to provide information, advice and assistance services concerning migration to Italian and foreign citizens.
Camelot runs a series of projects including Vesta, which offers Bologna residents the chance to host young refugees. Those who want to help must apply via an online platform, with suitable candidates selected for an interview. Those who pass this stage are given training and asked to sign an agreement to respect Vesta’s rules.
On 12 September, Camelot presented its successful integration initiatives during an event at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, themed: A story of experiences for a European vision.
The co-op’s delegation included president Patrizia Bertelli, delegate administrator Carlo De Los Rios and the head of the society and rights department, Elisa Bratti. Joining them were Laura Di Salvo and Francesco Malossi, a couple from Bologna who hosted Becaye, a young refugee who went on to secure employment.
“Becaye relates to the neighbourhood much more than we do and is now part of our group of friends,” the couple said.
Moussa Molla Salih, a refugee who has been hosted for nine months by another couple, is now completing a degree while working part-time.
Speaking at the event, he said: “I’ve been welcomed by Antonella and Fabrizio as if I were part of the family. Now, with my work as an operator in a hospitality facility, I hope I can help other kids to become autonomous and start a new life path as happened to me.”
So far, 28 families from Bologna have taken on refugees as part of Camelot’s initiative. The co-op is looking to extend the project to other Italian regions as part of the Ministry of the Interior’s Protection System for Asylum Seekers and Refugees (SPRAR) system.
The co-op has also been providing more than 8,700 hours of tutoring and 3,400 hours of Italian language classes across the Ferrara and Bologna provinces.
Under SPRAR, local authorities and voluntary sector organisations can go beyond the simple distribution of food and housing by providing complementary services such as legal and social guidance and support and developing programmes to promote socioeconomic inclusion and integration.
SPRAR projects exist across the country and Camelot is also involved in these, helping unaccompanied minors and adults. Through the co-op, children arriving in Italy without adult reference figures receive support from a technical coordinator, a legal advisor, a psychologist, an anthropologist, a counsellor and a case manager. The case manager plays a key role in planning and monitoring the integration activities, educational projects, vocational training and job placements.
For adults, a tutor is assigned to guide them regarding vocational training, CV drafting, skills analysis, active job search and securing job placements. Camelot employs five trainers who help refugees gain the skills and confidence they need to enter the labour market. Internships are a first step in securing long-term employment and in 2016 Camelot has secured 51 internships for asylum seekers or refugees. Four beneficiaries are currently involved in civil service organisations.
Camelot was set up in 1992 by 12 young people and three associations with a background in social work. The co-op has grown to employ 200 people, 20% of whom are migrants.
In addition to these initiatives, Camelot has been implementing a project to help vulnerable refugees, such as victims of torture or disabled people, set up a co-op. Twelve enterprises have been created, 10 of which are co-operatives. The project included the provision of training courses on co-operative principles and how to manage them. In Ferrara, three refugees set up a security service co-operative.
Similarly, in Greece, the social co-operative Wind of Renewal has partnered with the Greek Forum of Refugees, the Greek Forum of Migrants, and ANASA Cultural Centre to develop a co-operative hostel that provides temporary accommodation refugees and promotes their social inclusion.
Named WELCOMMON, the shelter brings together two concepts – “welcome” and “in common”. On a daily basis, the hostel has between 160 and 180 people. Since being set up in 2016, it has been accommodating around 500 refugees. More than 50% were under 18, who stay at WELCOMMON for a few weeks up to a few months. They receive accommodation and food as well as psychological and medical support and help in building their employment skills.
With guests coming from over 15 countries and speaking 11 different languages, WELCOMMON also provides interpreters. Refugees are selected and sent to the hostel by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and are often among the most vulnerable of people. They include pregnant women or women with babies, single-parent families, victims of torture, rape and trafficking, refugees left disabled by war or torture or people with medical and pharmaceutical support needs, such as cancer patients.
WELCOMMON currently employs 32 people, many of whom are long-term unemployed Greeks and refugees or migrants who have been living in Greece for many years.
They focus on enrolling refugee children in public schools, involving them in non-formal education and empowering parents to be able to take full care of their children, providing them with the support needed to integrate.
The co-op hostel offers Arabic, English, maths and science courses with Arabic-speaking volunteer refugees, as well as German and Greek courses with native speakers or computer training workshops and painting and photography lessons.
One of the volunteers running the classes, 21-year old Ahmed, is himself a refugee. He found WELCOMMON while looking for help in Athens, shortly after arriving in Greece.
“I decided to do something good for other people,” he said. “I wanted to talk about the hope through education. So, I initiated a children’s school at the centre. Now I am sharing the value of hope with around 15 children, every day, through the maths, English and Arabic language classes.
“I will be relocated to Belgium very soon. I dream about my future as a doctor even more now. I witnessed and experienced how much the world needs doctors who can take care of the poor and the weak.
“I want to be a doctor, and I want to be ‘there’ where I needed them, such as in refugee camps. I will try my best first to learn the language and try to study in Belgium. Deep inside my heart, I dream to establish a volunteers’ community for Syrian people some day.”
WELCOMMON is also looking to create a database of the refugees’ CVs – both for those living within the structure and outside to help them gain employment with businesses looking for particular skills. They are also exploring ways to support the creation of social enterprises with the participation of Greeks, refugees and migrants.
Asked how they helped refugees to find a job, Nikos Chrysogelos, president of the social co-operative Wind of Renewal (ANEMOS ANANEOSIS) and project manager of WELCOMMON centre, said: “It is not an easy process. For the teenagers and adults, with the help of the social workers, we try to build a professional profile based on their skills or past profession that will be used to promote their capacity for job seeking. We aim to provide many activities according to people’s preferences and needs.
“We try to connect demand and offer based on the needs of the Greek market and the skills of our guests. But, even when they have the skills required, the refugees don’t know the language or sometimes they need to understand the environment of an enterprise in Europe. For example, enterprises selling food in Africa and Europe are two different kinds of businesses. Many refugees need a job, but they don’t know what social security means. We want to protect them but also protect the Greek society from the black economy, trafficking or exploitation.”
Wind of Renewal is now looking to launch a workshop for refugee women as well as Greek women who have been unemployed for a long time, to help them get training in designing and sewing clothes out of recycled materials.
“The governing principle is ‘learning by doing’ – it is meant to be a stepping stone to enable the participants to work towards achieving self-sufficiency,” said Mr Chrysogelos. They are aiming to start the workshop in December, provided they obtain the funding needed.
For November, Wind of Renewal is planning a food festival to connect restaurants with refugees who can cook. The long-term aim is to set up a multiethnic restaurant as a social enterprise, but the project is at an incipient stage and likely to face many administrative and capital-related hurdles, said Mr Chrysogelos.
Another initiative led by the co-op focuses on combating energy poverty. Wind of Renewal has applied for funding via the European Economic Area (EEA) grants for energy efficiency.
“A team consisting of Greeks, migrants and refugees will help households suffering from energy poverty to improve the energy efficiency of their house and reduce the cost they pay for the bills and heating/cooling,” said Mr Chrysogelos.
“In parallel, we will empower the households by enabling them to participate in renewable energy co-operatives, self-production and self-consumption schemes, or local grid networks. We have applied to EEA programmes, and we hope our project will be selected for a grant to create a green hub and train 200 youngsters – Greeks, migrants and refugees – to work for the energy efficiency and the empowerment of 5,000 households in Athens.”
Other co-ops like Camelot and WELCOMMON are also making a difference to the lives of the refugees, preparing them for entering the labour market.
A 2016 study by the ILO examined the potential of the co-op model in responding to the refugee crisis. The research concludes that, as people-centred businesses, co-ops provide services and goods, such as social care and housing, which are important for refugees but not as readily available through other enterprises.
Moreover, adds the study, co-operatives have developed integrated practices suited to the refugees’ needs. According to the research, co-operative projects can help eliminate resistance to refugees by involving host communities and bringing them benefits. The ILO study highlights examples of 27 co-ops that participate in responding to refugee needs in different contexts.
RUAH, another social co-operative in Bergamo, Italy, works with refugees, providing and working on housing, labour, literacy, education, training and integration issues. In Germany, housing co-ops such as Gelsenkirchen in the north-west have started reserving larger apartments for refugee families and consciously renting them to Syrian refugees.
Another project in Lebanon has seen the UNDP and the ILO working together to establish the Green House Nursery Cooperative, which treats, grows and sells seeds at an affordable price in the region, benefiting 200 Lebanese farmers and Syrian refugees.
In the West Bank, the Kalandia Refugee Camp Women’s Handicraft Cooperative enables Palestinian women to secure their income by selling handicrafts, dried fruits, tailoring and quilting. They also receive vocational training and can benefit from access to a kindergarten and a nursery via the co-op.
The ILO paper suggests the co-operative enterprise model should be better integrated into refugee response strategies. It adds that co-operative organisations need to be sought out for their knowledge and experience in responding to refugee crises.