Pope Francis spoke to reporters on his way back from a two-day trip to Sweden this Tuesday. He elaborated on, or rather "corrected his position" on welcoming refugees into Europe. He had previously urged Europe to open its doors to refugees and decried the selfishness of the states that didn't. This week, his message was more nuanced.
The Pope is now recommending that European governments exercise "prudence" and advising them not to accept refugees beyond their hosting capacities. Proper hosting entails providing refugees with "a roof, work, school, language courses" in order for them to "integrate". If not, states will "pay a political price for an imprudent calculation in welcoming more refugees than they can integrate" since non-integrated refugees will then form "ghettos", which is "very dangerous".
When asked what he thought of countries that closed their borders to refugees, the Pope said:
In theory, we cannot close our hearts to a refugee. But there is as well the prudence of leaders: they have to be very open to the idea of welcoming refugees but they also need to be aware of how to receive them. Because we shouldn't just receive refugees, we need also to integrate them. And if a country has a capacity to integrate, let's say 20, let it do that. If it can more, let it do more..." [Emphasis added]
The Pope concludes:
What's the danger? If the refugee is not integrated, allow me this neologism, he "ghettoizes", he becomes a ghetto. And his culture does not develop in relation with the other culture [the hosting one]. Which is very dangerous. I think that fear is the worst advice for countries that tend to close their borders. And that the best advice is prudence.
That is indeed a good positioning, one I defended last year, noting that the debate about refugees mainly revolved around numbers – how many should be allowed in? – while little attention was given to the issue of integration.
But integration (not just for refugees but for migrants in general) is key, as a failed one can lead to isolation, resentment, unrest, riots, and in extreme cases, to radicalization.
We can look across the Atlantic for vivid examples. Molenbeek, the neighborhood in Brussels was recently made famous for being a jihadi hideaway. The French Minister of the Urban Affairs noted that there were a hundred or so neighborhoods in France that could be Molenbeek.
Marseille – a city in South of France with a large population of immigrant descent mainly from Algeria – is one of those. Training camps are set up inside many of its neighborhoods. Samia Ghali, French Socialist Senator and the mayor of the city's 15th and 16th arrondissements, asked for help from the government to disarm these areas, adding: "After all, we are in France, in the 21st century and I am asking for a wall to be built in a school so that bullets from Kalashnikovs or guns do not reach the playground."
While such extremes have not been reached (yet) in the United States, the risk of failed integration and isolation is important – especially among resettled refugees. Many, if not most, do not speak English, lack skills and qualifications to compete in the U.S. job market, and are foreign to this country's customs and values. It is hard for them to integrate but it is even harder when they are resettled into closed communities to begin with.
Refugees do need mentors and translators to help them get accustomed to new institutional cultures. Strong peer networks are important as well; they provide familiar outlooks, common culture, and much needed support for new arrivals.
The nine voluntary agencies or "volags" that work with the Office of Refugee Resettlement know that, since they tend to resettle nationals of similar cultural background, religious faith, and language into specific localities. Practical reasons are also at work here, since available resources, trained employees, and hired translators are already on the ground.
But these "regroupings", especially if continuous, can backfire.
John Iceland, Professor of Sociology and Demography at the Pennsylvania State University, noted in a report on residential segregation that "the concentration of ethnic, national origin, or socioeconomic groups in particular neighborhoods of a city or metropolitan area is widely perceived as the antithesis as successful immigrant integration" and "tends to be problematic if it is associated with overlapping inequalities that persist across generations." In such cases, feelings of social distance and alienation are reinforced, especially among later generations.
Of course we should be driven by our humanitarian sensibility and compassion. But failed integration can lead to resentment against the hosting country and, in extreme cases, to complete radicalization. When the refugee's culture develops against that of the hosting culture, it is, as the Pope said, "very dangerous."
So, yes, "prudence" is key and open borders definitely a bad idea. Even the Pope has come to realize that.