State-sponsored friendship: the city using flatshares for refugee integration

Antwerp gives subsidised rent to locals who live with newcomers

For most children, turning 18 is a moment of celebration. But for unaccompanied child refugees, it marks the end of the special protections they’re given by national and international law.

“You’ll have two months to find a house,” said Jolien De Crom, who manages a project in the city of Antwerp, in Belgium, which aims to plug the gap in services for a group that is still particularly vulnerable and has unique needs. “Otherwise you’re sleeping on the street.”

The scheme’s biggest innovation is having young refugees share apartments with local Flemish youth, to help ease their integration into Belgian society. But can a government-run flatshare really spark the kind of social relationships new arrivals to the city need?

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Seventeen, going on eighteen

In 2016, officials in Antwerp realised that hundreds of unaccompanied children were becoming legal adults and losing access to dedicated forms of support. Even though they remain entitled to standard Belgian social assistance, young refugees need further help: help claiming welfare benefits, but also looking for housing and employment, for example.

“You’ll have two months to find a house. Otherwise you’re sleeping on the street”

The city’s response was the CURANT project, funded largely by the EU. One important element is more intensive and personalised support from social workers — social workers on the project are able to dedicate an hour a week to each case they manage, rather than as little as 30 minutes a month for regular cases, De Crom said.

But the “most effective” element of the project, according to the EU-appointed expert who monitors it, Fabio Sgaragli, is its co-housing initiative. Refugees who participate in CURANT are given accommodation, initially for a year, at the highly-subsidised rate of €250 ($284) per month.

They share it with locals, usually a few years older, who are selected to be “buddies”. The Belgian residents get the same discounted rent and are expected to informally help refugees with challenges like learning Dutch and finding work.

“It gives those youngsters the chance to spend some time with locals, buddies that can support them in a very difficult integration,” Sgaragli said. Building that kind of social network is widely recognised as vital to new arrivals settling in.

The right people

The key to making the system work is picking locals who are willing and able to help their refugee buddies. The city works with a partner organisation, Vormingplus, experienced in recruiting volunteers, De Crom said.

They conduct outreach and information days where people express their interest in joining the project. Those volunteers are screened to make sure they have the right motivations — wanting to help refugees, not just get subsidised rent — and given training sessions on the situation of refugees in Belgium, before being introduced to a potential buddy.

But careful selection can’t eliminate the potential sources of tension inherent in a government-run co-housing scheme for people from vastly different backgrounds.

Around 80 pairs of buddies have moved in together since the project launched. “I can’t say that the 80 were perfect,” De Crom said. Some problems are the same as those experienced by all sorts of flatmates — different standards of cleanliness, or someone leaving suddenly to move in with a partner — but can be more difficult to manage for young refugees.

“Some refugees are calling their buddy the brother they never had”

Project workers have sometimes stepped in to establish ground rules for an apartment, De Crom said, when refugees have found it difficult to speak to their buddy directly.

Other issues have arisen because of cultural differences. Some male refugees have felt uncomfortable living with a woman. Locals have complained of their buddies smoking with friends in a bedroom, rather than socialising with them.

And in some cases, according to De Crom, the Belgian buddies have been disappointed because they had “very idealistic” expectations of how important their help would be.

“They thought, here’s a person who can’t do anything and I’m going to be there for him,” she said. “But they moved here alone — you can’t expect them to not be independent when they’re 18.”

The buddies’ idealism is connected to an unintended consequence of the selection process. The first formal evaluation of CURANT found that more than 85% of buddies said they found it fairly or very easy to make ends meet. These relatively well-off locals benefit from heavily discounted rent, while — according to the project’s own website — 17,000 people in Antwerp are on the waiting list for social housing.

Blossoming networks

For all its difficulties, however, the scheme has generally succeeded in improving young refugees’ social networks in the city.

It can take two or three months for refugees and their buddies to connect, according to De Crom. But after that time, she said, “some refugees are calling their buddy the brother they never had, or the only person they can rely on — some really nice things.”

More difficult is expanding refugees’ group of Belgian friends beyond their own buddy. As that challenge became clear, the project has moved away from its original model — 2-bedroom apartments for a single refugee-local pair — towards larger shared homes, which encourage more broad socialising.

There is still something odd, Sgaragli admitted, about a concerted government project to help refugees make friends. “But I think that given these youngsters’ starting point, it would be very difficult for them to organically integrate,” he said. “So the push they get with this program really is valuable.” — Fergus Peace

(Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons/Fuss)


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