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“We are a welcoming country, but we can improve much in the area of integration”

The Spanish evangelical organisation Diaconía is helping Afghan refugees settle in Spain. Director Conchi Rodríguez speaks about the challenges and opportunities, and how society reacts to the needs of asylum seekers.

AUTOR 16/Daniel_Hofkamp,5/Evangelical_Focus MADRID 13 DE SEPTIEMBRE DE 2021 10:18 h
Arrival of Afghans to the Torrejón de Ardoz airport, Spain, end of August. / Photo: Ministry of Migrations.

Families fleeing Afghanistan are arriving to countries around the world. Many of them face an uncertain future.

Approximately 1,700 Afghans arrived in Spain since the crisis exploded at the end of August. They landed in the military airport of Torrejón de Ardoz (Madrid), where they were received by medical specialists and later re-directed to NGOs working alongside the administration.

Among these organisations is Diaconía (Diakonia), an evangelical entity which works with refugees in the Spanish cities of Madrid, Lugo, Vizcaya, Cantabria, Jerez de la Frontera and León.

The General Director of Diaconía, Conchi Rodríguez, says Spain is a welcoming country, even though there is a long way to walk in the area of real integration. It is in this area that evangelical churches have an opportunity to make a difference: business people can offer jobs to asylum seekers, and owners of housing facilities can rent them to these families.


Question. Afghan families arrived in Spain these days. How are the first days for these people? What type of support is offered to them?

Answer. At the airport, they were received by professionals of the Red Cross. After a Covid-19 test, they were distributed to “rooms” in the camping zone. There, their basics needs of food, hygiene, medical and psychological assistance were covered. Since many minors have arrived, a Red Cross team dedicated to young people welcomed the kids with educational and fun activities.

The NGOs of the Spanish reception system - like Diaconía - are managing the places that Spain has for asylum seekers. We were contacted by the Migrations Ministry of the government and we started doing interviews with the families that were “assigned” to each of our organisations. We could tell them about who we are, where they are going to live, what are the details of the reception system, the professionals and services that will be available to them, etc. In our case, the people that arrived on 26 August only spent 24 hours in the airport camp, quite an achievement!

[photo_footer] The emergency reception presence in Torrejón de Ardoz. / Photo: Ministry of Migrations[/photo_footer]

The needs of the people arriving are mainly rest, calmness, and to feel protected and secure. And there is where we put our strengths. They continually express gratefulness and trust in the entities that are receiving them here.

More concretely, our role is to offer housing, food and hygiene needs, educational support, administrative support, medical monitoring, psychological and legal support, contextualisation about our society, of development of their autonomy, language learning, preparation to access the workplace world, and the schooling of the children.


P. What expectations do these families arriving from Afghanistan have?

R. As we speak, they have been here with us for a very short time still and some are quite confused. They have some disinformation, because obviously their exit from Afghanistan was abrupt. Those who are with us do not speak Spanish and their level of English is basic. This means that we are going a bit slow in the process of learning the information from them and transmitting it, including the procedures that need to be done in the first place with both the adults and the children.

The families we know have shown a very high interest in the schooling of the children and in learning the Spanish language.

But it is also true that we are detecting in some came to Spain because they had to leave, but had not manifested an explicit petition of staying in Spain. We will need some time to work with these expectations and adapt them to the reality.

We hope that they integrate in Spain, this is what our work is all about. Although Spain is a very different society than their home culture, people have a great capacity of adaptation. Experience shows us that most integrate into Spanish culture.

[photo_footer] COnchi Rodríguez, of Diaconía. / J.M. Fernández. [/photo_footer]

Q. The issue of refugees often becomes a political debate. But how is society involved in the welcome of refugees?

A. It has been wonderful to see how people here in Spain were sensitive to the news about the many who were at the Kabul airport trying to take a plane that could take them out of the country. What happens, nonetheless, is that in the beginning, with the news are seen, we all would like to contribute somehow to solve the problem, but later, when the events are no longer in the news and there is less conversation about these people or that country, the desire dilutes and ends up forgotten.

This happened with Syria crisis in 2015, and also with other countries with continued war situations in Africa (Eritrea, Mali, Somalia, Yemen) and crises in Latin America (Venezuela, Nicaragua, Perú, Colombia, Honduras...). Asylum seekers and refugees continue to arrive from these countries.

On the other hand, it is also true that a part of this sensibility leads to concrete actions. Not only with ONGs working in this specific field, but also among people and other social entities which offer resources, give their time through volunteer actions, etc.

In general terms, the Spanish society is welcoming, but unfortunately, there are some people, local governments, etc, who are ok with the fact that refugees arrive but do not want them to come to their municipalities. They are ok with refugees living in Spain but not in the houses they rent because they do not trust them.


Q. The 2015 Syran refugee crisis started in 2015, was a massive challenge for Europe. Have we learnt something?

A. I think both the circumstance and the times are totally different. This has been an emergency situation in which we had very reduced time of manoeuvre. We have very little information about what will happen in the short time and what are the plans of Europe with this contingent of asylum seekers. At Diaconía we have experience with resettled Syrians and Iranians, and of course, it has helped us to learn and improve some processes and even anticipate certain situations.

As a society, however, I cannot appreciate a very significative advance in our reception capacity since the crisis six years ago.

Of course, we do see reactions of the Spanish society, like the presentation to Jesús Perea, the Secretary of State for Migrations, of a document with 3,500 signatures of people offering to accommodate Afghan families in their homes. And there are other examples.

[photo_footer] The families will need support for months in the areas of education, work and integration. / Photo: RTVE[/photo_footer]

Q. How do you evaluate the task of reception that is done in Spain?

Q. I think our country is a welcoming country, it does not look the other way, even tough in 2018 we were much behind compared to other EU countries, having only received 13% of the 19,449 people that were agreed.

Integration is also very important. This is another thing and in it, factors like workplace insertion, access to housing, social integration, etc, have an influence. This all has to do with the model of state in the area of migration, and how we all as citizens behave towards the migrants and asylum seekers who arrive here.

Again, we are a welcoming country, but we can improve much when it comes to the quality of the reception.

Q. What can the evangelical churches do to play a more active role in the reception of refugees?

A. There are enough churches that have mobilised and contacted Diaconía, as they knew we were receiving refugees. They are asking what they can do, how to help, offering clothes and offering to go to the Torrejón airport to help with whatever the families on the camp there needed. This was imposible because the access was restricted. Reality is that, at this point, there is more availability to help than possibilities to do so, but we are trying to canalise this interest in helping.

But my calling to the evangelical churches would be that they continue to be available once this first phase is over, in which fortunately, their reception is guaranteed, thanks to the resources the State dedicates for it. But when this initial stage is over, which lasts for usually 6 months, housing to be rented will be needed so that they can continue their lives here. And also finding a job will be a priority.

Let me insist, finding people ready to rent houses to asylum seekers is not easy, not only in the case of the Afghan families that just arrived in Spain, but also the other refugee persons from other nationalities. Neither is it easy to find businesses who would be open to hire them to work. That would be a very needed and useful way of helping.

I use this chance to urge any business people who have availability to hire in their businesses and people who have properties to rent, that they let us know. It would be an invaluable help.

Learn more about Diaconía by visiting the organisation's website (in Spanish).





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