A Person to Person Approach to Hosting Refugees in the City of Antwerp
If you were to Google, “Ukrainian refugees in Antwerp,” the articles at the top of the list would not be about Belgian hospitality. They would not be about the effective infrastructure that has enabled Antwerp to readily absorb 38,000 refugees.
Instead, you would read articles about how long these refugees must wait—usually, months— before they can get an appointment with Belgian authorities to arrange for such essentials as work visas, financial aid, or a bank account.
You would also see articles about the strain this delay puts on Belgian host families, who are obligated to financially support these families—many of whom have needs that go beyond the merely material.
it’s a Person to Person approach that takes the best of the current recommendations, and goes beyond their shortcomings
There is a solution to this problem, but it’s not either of the recommendations that have been put forward by government officials. Rather, it’s a Person to Person approach that takes the best of the current recommendations and goes beyond their shortcomings.
Consider first the different approaches to handle this crisis, put forward by government leaders. Bart de Wever, Mayor of Antwerp, suggests the responsibility of accommodating refugees should be solely controlled by the government. He warns against giving local hosts lump sums of money to help provide for the needs of their Ukrainian guests; such an arrangement, he argues, would incentivize “bad actors”: people with evil intentions could easily abuse vulnerable refugees for their money.
For example, they might arrange a rental agreement to secure government funding for themselves, and then place the Ukrainian refugees in a slum house. Instead, he argues, the Government should organize refugee-villages where kids can be schooled in their own language, healthcare can be provided by the government, refugees can be integrated, and ultimately led to the job market.
De Wever’s argument is valid: there need to be adequate controls to ensure the safety and wellbeing of refugees in their resettlement. However, de Wever’s centrally-planned solution also has some shortcomings: it takes all agency away from the refugees, making them entirely dependent on the government—which may or may not meet their needs in an adequate, timely way. It also takes agency away from the Belgian citizens who genuinely want to help, and prevents most interactions between locals and refugees. Finally, it poses an unrealistic strain on government resources—something which de Wever himself has complained about.
Another leader, Sammy Mahdi, Secretary of State for Asylum and Migration, has what initially seems to be a friendlier approach: citizens can volunteer to offer shelter to refugees, while the government searches for and organizes adequate shelter facilities. “Who has a spare room to share?” he asks—implying the solution is as simple as a guest bed and a set of extra towels.
However, many Belgian hosts who have volunteered their spare rooms are realizing it’s much more complicated than that. Their guests have no means of financial support until they can get one of those elusive appointments with the government, which may be months away; in the meantime, the hosts must provide for them. Imagine that a man with a disability benefit and a spare room has opened his home to a family of three.
The family’s appointment with the government to arrange aid is not until July; their disabled host must plan to feed and provide for them until their appointment, with no financial support—meaning all four people could end up in financial jeopardy. Most of the Ukrainian guests have significant emotional needs as well, struggling with profound loss and grief. There are also the challenges of basic assimilation: learning a different language, culture, and customs to get along.
Mahdi’s “simple question” belies the reality he’s asking of his well-intentioned citizens: Belgian hosts are taking on a complex commitment in caring for the needs of these war refugees. Local hosts should be given a clear idea about the kind of commitment they’re agreeing to, along with the resources they need, so that they can fully invest and commit to caring for their Ukrainian neighbors in a sustainable way.
a Person to Person solution which combines the protection of government oversight, with the good will and investment of both Belgian and Ukrainian citizens
That’s where a Person to Person solution enters in, which combines the protection of government oversight, with the good will and investment of both Belgian and Ukrainian citizens.
A Person to Person approach can still include centralized government organized villages: these allow for efficiency and provide needed resources and infrastructure.
It also can still put government money into the hands of refugees, not directly but through the use of a dedicated local currency, giving them agency to care for themselves and contribute to their host city.
However, the Person to Person approach ensures that all refugee service providers—from housing landlords, to healthcare providers, to educators—are vetted. Money streams should be controlled between trusted parties, so that any malicious participants can be avoided. The only exchange of money should happen between the government and the vetted service providers. This process allows Belgian citizens to contribute in a meaningful way and put their good intentions to work, while still establishing protection for the vulnerable refugees.
Not only would this help them care for their own unique needs more effectively, it would decrease the strain on the government
By allowing Belgian citizens to directly serve and work alongside their Ukrainian neighbors, there is a natural blend that will occur between refugees and locals. Friendships will form. Relationships will develop. Stories will be shared. The result will be a new community which will increase the acceptance of the new refugees, help them integrate into Antwerp, and—at the same time—open Belgians to the rich lessons of the Ukrainians’ life experiences. This is equally beneficial for all stakeholders.
This model would also allow refugees the free choice of housing and selection of what other services they might need. Rather than being limited to the options handed to them by the government, they could research an array of vetted service
providers and take agency over their own quality of life. Not only would this help them care for their own unique needs more effectively, it would decrease the strain on the government.
The Person to Person approach is easy to deploy if a population is recruited to participate and contribute, ensuring increased of quality of life for all involved. Rather than be publicized for its red tape and delays, wouldn’t Antwerp prefer to be known as a leader in mutually-beneficial refugee resettlement?