Aspiring to a Welcoming Europe

Aspiring to a Welcoming Europe

On a rainy December evening, a bright and hip cafe tucked into a courtyard near the center of The Hague filled with an audience interested in hearing about local solidarity initiatives in Europe. The event was a celebration of the launch of the publication: “A Welcoming Europe: Exploring Local Solidarity with Refugees,” produced by the human rights organization Justice & Peace.

I was invited to speak about my recently concluded fieldwork research with associations operating in deprived neighborhoods at the outskirts of Milano. Although my research was not focused on refugees, I did examine local solidarity initiatives that addressed newcomers—both migrants and refugees. These initiatives included citizen-organized volunteer projects as well as associations that provide community welfare services within a more institutional landscape.

Other speakers focused more specifically on refugee issues: Machiel Salomons, a policy and evaluation officer at the UNHCR, Paul Driest and Yonas, founder and participant, respectively, of the local solidarity initiative Eritrea Fietst (Eritrea Cycles). The moderator, Leila Prnjavorac, also contributed to the discussion by sharing her experiences as a child refugee from Bosnia to the Netherlands in the early 1990s.

Salomons' talk set the context for the global issues that local solidarity initiatives attempt to address by reminding the audience of the scale of forced migration, which today includes 65 million people who are displaced globally. While in Europe, and in the Global North more generally, a rhetoric of siege and burden over the hosting of displaced persons is gaining political momentum, the five top refugee hosting countries are actually Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, The Islamic Republic of Iran, Uganda, and Ethiopia.


Those who succeed in (and survive) their attempts to enter the European Union to claim the status of refugee or asylum seeker still face a series of challenges. These range from the reaction of local residents, to institutional and procedural barriers, to the uneven and sometimes substandard conditions of the reception centers in which they are held, to the lack of opportunities available to them even if they are granted asylum. Local solidarity initiatives have been crucial in recognizing the needs and gaps in available resources and programs and in imagining better practices and opportunities.

In Italy, a prolonged economic crisis and the politicization of migration make struggles over state resources all the more intense. While they differed in many ways, non-profit local solidarity initiatives and institutionally organized and funded projects in Milan shared a common goal: finding ways to address both the needs of newcomers and the fears and suspicions of Italian citizens.

The projects I researched aimed to generate sociality and facilitating relationships. Whether through free, volunteer-run Italian language training and childcare to mothers of young children, through a space for mothers to discuss parenting and other challenges, an after-school program for neighborhood children, or, in the most institutional intervention, through a project rethinking welfare all-together in the context of austerity and resentment over migrants and refugees—they all sought to generate new ties of solidarity and to counter local suspicion and fear with sociality, participation, and reciprocal community-based welfare. These projects generate sociality, bringing together people of different ages and backgrounds to play, chat, and exchange stories and ideas, making livable what are otherwise empty spaces in neglected neighborhoods. In the best cases, they produce friendships across unlikely boundaries and provide alternative forms of welfare to underserved communities, without discrimination based on immigration status. This is part of the hope of such an approach.

The moral economy of responsibility for others’ welfare (see Muehlebach 2012) is compellingly seductive, particularly at a time when nationalist politics of exclusion and hate are resurgent. Yet, these interventions also pose a number of challenges. An urgent sense for the need for social renewal and reconstruction in Italy intersects with the austerity state. Citizens are called upon to generate social cohesion and integration, to identify the causes of obstacles to “living together” in their neighborhoods (Vollebergh 2016), and address them on their own--for example, as in one of the projects I studied, by focusing on the language barriers among Italian and migrant origin mothers.

In this dense cauldron of social urgency, intensely felt ethical projects that manifest in longterm volunteering commitments coexist, at times in the same person, with resentment and contestation of the increasing burden on citizens to take on the social responsibilities of the state. I have seen highly engaged volunteers push back with sarcasm or outright refusal against interpellations by public entities to contribute more unpaid labor to various initiatives.

Another challenge of these projects is that the intensive and gendered affective labor required of volunteers and professionals is often unrecognized and unaccounted for by policy makers and experts who assume that relationality and sociality are renewable and regenerating resources just waiting to be harnessed. Finally, some of these projects provide high quality services for free, or a very low fee, yet they are unequally spread over the territory, a departure from the aspirations and potential of universalist social welfare.

The question of how to tackle systemic problems from the ground up is not a new one for social organizations. The strategies required generally involve community organizing and the building of networks and alliances. The “A Welcoming Europe” publication is an effort in the direction of making connections among organizations and projects throughout Europe, which often work within limited networks.

I found a great interest and desire to hear and learn more about what other associations were doing in other parts of the city as well as in other European cities. This interest is borne of very high expectations in the face of daunting challenges. In a sense, it reflects an awareness of a mismatch of scale between this emerging preferred model of community solidarity based on citizen initiatives, on the one hand, and the complex and large-scale crisis it must address, on the other.

Questions of coordination, power relations, knowledge, impact, continuity of projects, preparation and professionalism of volunteers, evenness of services, access, and political positioning are some of the key challenges of this new model even as it provides a human face and new paradigms for hospitality and welfare.

Literature Cited
Justice & Peace. 2017. A Welcoming Europe: Exploring Local Solidarity with Refugees. December. Available at,
Vollebergh, Anick. 2016. “The other neighbour paradox: fantasies and frustrations of ‘living together’ in Antwerp.” Patterns of Prejudice (50)2: 129-149.
UNHCR. 2017. “Figures at a Glance.” June. Available at,