On 12 and 13 September, over 250 participants and speakers from all over Europe and beyond gathered in Brussels to discuss strategies of refugee inclusion and propose innovative and collaborative solutions at the Seminar on Social Innovation for Refugee Inclusion.

“Social change is what matters. The so-called refugee crisis has obviously increased the level of fear and xenophobia in our societies, but it has also pushed forward a strong desire for change. This requires innovators. We are here to discover what is now happening on the ground in the field of refugee inclusion, and to discuss what kind of processes are required to transform our societies into inclusive places”, stated Anne Bathily, ECRE’s Senior Policy Officer and the organiser of the Seminar.

Through plenary sessions and workshops, participants had the chance to hear and discuss what innovations are required for a truly welcoming culture, the role of technology in refugee integration and the role of the private sector in facilitating access to the labour market. The workshops focused on refugee participation, citizens’ initiatives, housing, higher education and the Boldness Project, a special session led by Eric Young, founder of the Social Projects Studio.

“Everything depends on inclusion. The future of refugees, but also the future of Europe. The ‘refugee crisis’ is indeed an integration crisis, not a border security crisis” stated Eric Young in his opening remarks. Setting the tone for the conference, he invited participants and speakers to be bold in their visions. “Every positive story provides inspiration and guidance for others, and this is the way that innovation spreads. This is the way that the world changes. Innovation will inspire those who can’t see it yet.”

Speakers at the Seminar included among others YouTube star Firas Alshater, Mayor of Grande-Synthe Damien Careme, Director of the Greek Forum of Refugees Yonous Mohammadi, Techfugees’ COO Josephine Goube and Corinne Prince-St-Amand from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. Dawit Friew recounted to participants his experience fleeing Ethiopia in an emotional and powerful speech where he invited the audience to drop the idea of labelling people, and to start instead to respect and treat everybody with dignity.

The pitching session counted with the presentation of 17 new or existing initiatives aimed at facilitating refugees’ integration into host societies. Highlights included Kiron Open Higher Education, a blended-learning organisation providing access to higher education to refugees and asylum seekers; Bureaucrazy, an upcoming app developed by refugees in Berlin to help newcomers deal with the cumbersome paperwork on arrival; Ideas Box from Bibliotheques sans Frontieres and Solomon, a Greek magazine in Athens prepared, managed and edited by locals, migrants and refugees together. The municipalities of Botkyrka in Sweden, Zarqa and Sahab in Jordan and Montreal in Canada also presented their work with refugees.

Kilian Kleinschmidt, founder of the Innovation and Planning Agency and former ‘mayor of Za’atari camp’ stated that “freedom of movement should be our ultimate objective. We should be a global mobile community, but we need to make sure that no one is forced to move.”

Ahmad Al-Rashid, a Syrian refugee now living in the UK invited participants to make technology more humane and less discriminatory, reminding participants how technology can be used in the wrong way – such as killing drones and smart weapons. “I hope” he stated “that one day we will be able to have a conference like this one back home, in Aleppo.”

The Seminar was organised by ECRE, funded by the U.S. Mission to the European Union, and in cooperation with the Council of Europe, the Mission of Canada to the European Union and the European Economic and Social Committee. Material from the Seminar, including pictures and presentations, is or will be available at this link.

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This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin of 23 September 2016. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.