Nardella: With Afghan refugees, Europe must rethink social inclusion

24 August 2021

As more Afghans are expected to flee their country following the Taliban takeover, cities in Europe can play a leading role and offer a decisive contribution to EU and national authorities in dealing with new migrants, Eurocities President Dario Nardella says.

With their long-standing experience, cities have set up a new model to give refugees not just humanitarian assistance but a path to integration, the Mayor of Florence adds.

In an interview with Eurocities, Nardella explains why the EU and European governments should look no further than their cities in finding the key to the new emergency.

Dario Nardella, Eurocities’ President and Mayor of Florence
Florence is getting ready to host 48 Afghan refugees, a preliminary number set by the Italian Interior Ministry, that may be increased in the future. Who are the Afghans coming to live in your city?

The first is a group of Afghan families who have helped the Italian diplomatic and military mission in Afghanistan; these are people with whom we already have ties, and our first goal is to bring them to our country. We’re also hosting a group of women and young people; many of them are skilled or are about to finish their studies. We want to give them an opportunity based on their talents and make them feel an active part of our city.

You said that some Florentine families have stepped forward and offered to host Afghans. Who are they? 

Yes, some families have already contacted us. They’re people who live and work in Florence and who have already helped in the past, during the war in the ex-Yugoslavia and the 1991 mass exodus from Albania. We have a strong model in our Florentine community that allows us to welcome refugees in a planned and orderly way. We should also include businesses in this model so that they can offer work to skilled migrants and those who are willing to work. This, of course, without taking away jobs from local citizens. This could be a win-win situation.

What role can cities play to face the current crisis in Afghanistan? 

Europe is torn between different positions and hesitant about taking on an unequivocal role. This is why I believe cities can play an important part, and that the EU should seize this opportunity. Cities can persuade member states to assume a clearer and unambiguous stance at this critical junction which might lead to a full-blown humanitarian emergency. After twenty years of war, Europe and the whole Western world are responsible for helping Afghanistan. Think about all the economic, diplomatic and military efforts that many European countries have made and that risk being nullified. Why did we sacrifice hundreds of lives – European soldiers and Afghan civilians’ lives – if we’re back to square one in Afghanistan? This should help us avoid making mistakes. Europe must have a strategy, bring humanitarian aid to Afghanistan and prompt the United Nations to set up a humanitarian mission as soon as possible.

“We need to go beyond our failed migration policies that were based on a passive approach”

In an interview with Italian media, you said that it’s not enough to give Afghans a roof over their head; that, rather, we need to offer “a path to inclusion in our society”. How to achieve this?

I believe this step is not only possible, but necessary. We must move away from a dated approach based on a purely compassionate view of migrants. We must follow the brilliant examples set by European cities – such as German, Northern European, Italian and French cities – that have become social laboratories and offered new inclusion strategies using the resources at their disposal: school, culture and work. We need to embrace new models of social inclusion that make the best of refugees’ skills, talent and resources in a mutually beneficial exchange. We need to go beyond our failed migration policies that were based on a passive approach. They’ve only resulted in the ghettoisation of migrants and produced social tensions, discrimination and racism. Once and for all, Europe needs to completely rethink its model of social inclusion. Look at the ghettoisation going on in our continent’s big cities and what that has produced.

One of the challenges of this approach is to overcome localsfear that migrants from different backgrounds may change our cities’ cultural and social identity.   

Once again, we can draw lessons from our cities’ history that, by definition, are open cities. European cities’ identity is not exclusive, but inclusive. Our cities are an ethnic and religious blend that has formed over the centuries. In Florence we’ve set up a school for inter-religious dialogue with the three Abrahamic communities – Islamic, Jewish and Christian. Historically, cities are prone to having an inclusive identity, in opposition to some states’ nationalist inclinations. This is why EU bodies – I am thinking of the European Commission and Parliament, for example – can not only find concrete examples of inclusion and social innovation in our cities, but also allies against the disintegrating force of nationalist movements.

“Cities can be allies against nationalist movements”

Are there other European mayors who agree with this new approach to migration?

Our association, Eurocities, is constantly working on issues such as migration, migrant reception and social inclusion. We have a continuing exchange about experiences and projects. The EU can help to finance our cities’ activities. European cities offer examples of successful integration and inclusion, from Spain to Germany to Italy. In Italy, for instance, we’ve asked the government to finance the so-called ‘Reception and Integration System’ in relation to the situation in Afghanistan. The programme isn’t limited to receiving migrants in large centres, but proposes their rapid integration into our communities’ social fabric, with the help of local families, businesses and NGO’s. This can serve as a useful model of integration and be replicated, but it must be supported with adequate resources.

As president of Eurocities, what message would you like to send to other institutions?

I want to appeal to the EU Commission, Parliament and Council to build a pact with European cities so that we can face migration emergencies together, starting from this latest crisis in Afghanistan. I also call on European states to look at all those cites that over the years have worked toward social inclusion and innovation, inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue.


Daniela Berretta Eurocities Writer