Speak to better integrate

Photo © LSN
Photo © LSN
Irene Amodei, Viola Krebs; English translation; traducción española Brigitte Witzel
05 September 2007

In a globalizing word, languages and migration is a topic on the agenda both at the international and local levels. ICVolunteers is leading an initiative entire focused on linguistic services for new migrants. Currently our teams in Catalonia (Spain), Geneva (Switzerland), France and South Africa are participating in this initiative.

Languages and linguistic diversity, as well as communications and interpretation, has long been one of ICV's main areas of work. This is also the path through which goes the integration process of migrants, at a time where integration is one of the key topics on the agenda in a globalizing world. In its common basic principles, the European Union defines integration as "a long-term and two-way reciprocal compromise between all migrants and residents of the host society". With roughly 4 million new permanent immigrants in the OECD in 2005, ground work is thus urgent and continuous.

This is the context in which ICVolunteers decided to contribute, with an initiative entirely focused on linguistic services for new migrants. ICV's national offices in Spain, France, Switzerland and more recently South Africa are working with the local contexts to develop "Speak to me, speak here". It starts off with a local inventory of institutions and associations providing linguistic support and primary care to immigrants and to foreign refugees hampered by the fact that they neither understand nor speak the local language of the country in which they reside.

After this preliminary study phase, ICVolunteers plans to offer targeted and adapted support to associations which already work in the field of immigration. Through volunteer effort, ICVolunteers can in particular provide language services such as the translation of legal documents, simultaneous interpretation during the migrants' daily administrative undertakings and assistance throughout the person's regularization process.

Convinced by the capacity building approach which aims to provide opportunities, ICVolunteers aims to train already well-integrated immigrants. In turn, they will serve as bridges and effective cultural links between newcomers and the host society.

The project "Speak to me, speak here" also aims to enhance the image of these populations, by giving a new image of migrants: human citizens who are fully integrated in the host country and able to provide their time, like any other volunteer around the world.

Projects already underway

Spain: the pioneer

Spain has been transformed from a land of emigration to one of immigration at the end of the nineties. In fact, it could presently be considered as one of the main immigration countries within the European Union.

Every year, during the summer months, thousands of people are leaving various African countries. They risk their lives in hopes of reaching the Canary Islands. In 2006, they were over 15,000.

Barcelona, capital of Catalonia and headquarters for ICVoluntari(o)s-Barcelona welcomed a large number of migrants these past years (starting with 74,019 in 2001 and reaching 260,000 in 2006, according to the Catalan Department of Statistics). Unfortunately, this caused a number of cultural clashes, primarily due to the predominantly assimilationist approach. Indeed, the immigrants are expected to abandon their linguistic, cultural and social specificities, to adopt the values and practices of the welcoming society and to blend in with the host country's population, reserving "other" languages and religions to the private sphere.

Benefiting from the close collaboration with Linguamón --the House of Languages--, and the collaboration with the Catalan Federation of Social Volunteering (in particular, its Immigration Department), the Immigration Office of the Catalan Government and the Technical Cabinet of Immigration, ICVoluntari(o)s-Barcelona thus became acquainted with the entities handling the initial welcoming to the municipality (44% of which do not offer any language services). ICVoluntari(o)s-Barcelona assessed both the needs and requirements, then moving on to a more operational phase of the project: it currently is training volunteers interpreters and mediators, offering targeted support to migrants and working on the creation of a tool kit, in order to make this project duplicable elsewhere. Primarily geared towards the Faubourg and Ciutat Vella neighborhoods, the project is now focusing on immigrants, most of whom are women, for the most part originating from Morocco, Pakistan, Romania, Ecuador and Chile.

Switzerland: the multinational environment of Geneva

With nearly 40% foreigners, Geneva is not only the Swiss Canton with the highest percentage of foreigners, but also the most cosmopolitan one: of 194 possible nationalities, 184 are represented (source: Cantonal Statistics Office). As a result, French is not the main language for 25% of the population living in the Canton. Learning this language therefore remains a key factor for a successful integration. The large majority of migrants who do not speak French or have benefited from little schooling are taking basic French or literacy classes. However, some of them, not working or on unemployment, cannot find any place where they can practice the newly acquired skills. Housewives, elderly people, recently arrived immigrants, the unemployed or those who have not benefited from sufficient language training and are thus left to themselves.

The feelings of exclusion and isolation -- whether real or perceived -- can be reduced with increased communication abilities and possibilities. ICV's Swiss office is currently carrying out an inventory of existing interpretation and accompanying services for migrants in Geneva. Based on this inventory, ICVolunteers will propose additional services, in order to offer linguistic support to migrants, provided by mediators and voluntary interpreters.  The aim is to enhance confidence, resolve conflicts and favor positive and fruitful exchange.

France: migration and health

Because of its tradition and due to its geographical location, but also in order to deal with the development of its industries, the Rhône-Alpes department and Pays de Gex -- home of the French antenna of ICVolunteers -- have always been a welcoming land for foreigners (Italians, North Africans and Turks). With over 471,585 immigrants in 1999 -- that is 8.4% of its population -- it is the French region with the 6th highest immigration rate after Ile-de-France, the three southeast Mediterranean departments and Alsace.

Inspired by the Spanish model, ICV-France's project is designed to better welcome people in France, using integrated immigrants and volunteers as facilitators and interpreters throughout the daily administrative processes they have to deal with and to help newcomers grasp the importance of mastering the host-country's language in order to understand its social system and to quickly reach a good level of integration.

The support work is designed to assist with administrative processes, access to social services, healthcare and schooling, job seeking, writing resumes, preparing for interviews, putting together the paperwork to create one's own business, and looking for housing.

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