Zagreb knows war – and also its consequences. The city has endured two world wars and, more recently, during the Croatian War of Independence (1991-1995) Zagreb was also the target of missile attacks.
Therefore, it’s not a surprise that the Croatian capital decided a few years ago to welcome refugees and create the structure and strategies to integrate them within the larger community.
During the recent migration crisis, with the flow of millions of Syrian refugees, Zagreb set up reception centres and sought to assist those in need – whether they were just passing by or if they decided to stay.
In 2017 Croatia launched a resettlement programme aimed at welcoming refugees from war-torn conflict zones with adequate living conditions and in partnership with local NGOs and volunteers.
A city of just over 800,000 inhabitants, Zagreb welcomed hundreds of refugees not only from Syria but also Afghanistan, Iraq and Turkey.
Today, according to Jana Radic, Head of the Department for the Promotion of Human Rights and Civil Society, Zagreb, the city is working on welcoming and integrating around 450 refugees coming from the Middle East, while expecting a wave of Ukrainian refugees escaping from the war waged by Russia against their country.
“Our focus is the integration of asylum seekers and people granted international protection and most of the people who are currently in Zagreb are from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Turkey,” explains Radic, adding that they are also receiving Ukrainians on a daily basis since the war started.
“Not as much as Poland or Romania, but we expect more people to come,” she said.
The situation is new for them, a conflict being a few hundred kilometres away, but they are using their experience to be up for the task as much as possible. Shelters will be reused, and new ones will be opened. The city is “absolutely ready,” said Tomislav Tomasevic, Mayor of Zagreb.
Within the European funded CONNECTION project, led by Eurocities, Zagreb developed an action plan and received a grant of €50,000 to promote integration initiatives.
They have just started implementing several measures within the project aimed at integrating refugees. Among the services the city is implementing, are translation and interpretation services, offering refugees assistance to search for jobs, for requalification, and to receive food and shelter.
Among the city’s tasks are, “informing persons granted international protection and asylum seekers about their rights and services available in the city of Zagreb, that is, the common actions through social protection, health care, language learning, education, work and employment available,” explains Radic.
The City will be reaching out to refugees using leaflets linked to the official website and is planning on organising workshops and lectures about Croatian traditions and culture, language classes with the support of local NGOs, computer and art workshops for empowering women with the support of the local community as well as traineeship for persons granted international protection to access the labour market.
“If a business owner is not sure about hiring a migrant, the city will cover one month’s salary, which will help the employer to decide if they want to fully hire the worker – and the worker to decide if they want to work for that employer”, notes Radic.
The city also aims to raise awareness about people granted international protection through organising public events, with the celebration of international migrants day and world refugee day, “with activities where all NGOs dealing with integration will come and there will be music, food, a party to get to know each other,” said Radic, adding that there are about 10 NGOs in Zagreb focused on working with migrants.
Radic also explained that the city plans to widen their reach through social media, electronic and print media and through CONNECTION, they will “strengthen the competency of city officials and employees of the city through workshops for people working on social protection and health.” And a public tender for NGOs expressing their interest in participating in integration activities within the project is in its final stage.
Best to be prepared
Shortly, the city will have a website with information about rights and services for asylum seekers and persons granted international protection available in Croatian, English, Farsi and Arabic, but with the expected wave of Ukrainian refugees, the city has started working on a Ukrainian version
“For Ukrainian people coming to Zagreb, we’ll add another section of information about rights and services for persons with temporary protection, the status that the Ukrainians currently have, and it’ll be translated into English and Ukrainian. Because of the situation, we must widen our approach and scope,” she explained.
“This is a new moment for us, we have around 450 persons granted international protection (from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Turkey) and we’re expecting a greater number of Ukrainians, so at this point, everything is a challenge. Not all Ukrainians will stay in Zagreb, some will go to other cities because, in case of a great flow, our capacity is limited.
When we had the migration wave in 2015, there was a big open space at the Zagreb fair, but it was a place where people would come to shower, eat, sleep one-two nights and keep migrating because they didn’t want to stay in Croatia. Now we are talking about people escaping from war not far away, so maybe some of them will decide to stay,” said Radic with a note of hope for the opportunity to help others in such a difficult moment.
“For those who want to stay, we must be prepared,” said Radic. “It is important to treat all refugees the same way, give them the opportunity to use the available services provided by the city according to their status and rights. ”
And looking ahead, the city also decided to join yet another European funded project, UNITES, also led by Eurocities, focusing on the co-design of integration strategies with several stakeholders and migrants themselves. The idea, said Radic, is to be able to provide the best assistance possible, gathering the larger community, NGOs, governments and the migrants themselves to think of strategies to smooth the process of integration.