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Promoting active citizenship among immigrants

Promoting active citizenship has become an increasingly important issue on the political agenda at local, national and EU levels. With the growth of immigrant populations in recent years, more attention has been given to better engaging immigrants and ethnic minorities in gove...

Promoting active citizenship has become an increasingly important issue on the political agenda at local, national and EU levels. With the growth of immigrant populations in recent years, more attention has been given to better engaging immigrants and ethnic minorities in governance activities and other participatory processes. Now the results from POLITIS, an EU-funded project, are helping to shed light on the drivers behind active citizenship among immigrants. It conducted the first ever study that focused exclusively on first-generation immigrants, who were highly engaged civically and politically in their host countries. Dita Vogel, coordinator of POLITIS, explained the impetus of the project: 'Not a lot of research has been done on highly-active immigrants. We don't know much about how they start participating in the receiving societies and what the encouraging and discouraging conditions are that they face, from their point of view.' To increase understanding, the consortium developed what Dr Vogel claims was a very innovative interview process. A total of 75 students and PhD researchers (both immigrants and temporary residents), coming from 40 different countries in Africa, Asia, America and Europe, were selected to conduct the interviews in their own mother tongue. This was the first time that a research project had made an attempt to recruit such a diverse group of interviewers from a variety of host EU countries, claimed Dr Vogel. Following recruitment, the interviewers underwent training at a summer school on issues related to EU immigration, intercultural dialogue, civic participation and interviewing techniques. A total of 176 individuals, living in 24 European countries but coming from 54 non-EU countries, who were deemed to be highly active, were then selected. Using a one-page questionnaire, they were asked to describe in their own words how they got involved in civic and political activities in their host countries and what the factors were that helped or inhibited this participation. 'The interviews were not done in a question and answer format; it was more open ended,' explained Dr Vogel. 'The interviewers were trained to engage the individuals in the topics and tell their stories, so that they were able to raise issues that were not on our agenda so far.' In analysing the interviews, the researchers noticed some commonalities between the interviewees. They tended to be well-educated individuals, many of whom had already been active in civic and political activities in their own countries. 'In many ways these active immigrants tend to have more in common with highly active natives than with other immigrants. So, although not for all those interviewed, activism is often a part of a self concept,' explained Dr Vogel. When asked to describe the conditions that had encouraged them to get involved in their new host countries, many said that it was this previous experience and interest in civic activism in their own countries that had prompted them to continue similar initiatives. Also, their educational background had made it easier for them to gain a position where they could become more engaged. Other interviewees found that negative experiences in their home countries, where civil strife and oppression were rife, had encouraged them to engage, for instance, in human rights activities. Some sought to use their negative experiences in the host country to help support other incoming immigrants or asylum seekers. Religion also functioned as a strong triggering mechanism for these individuals to become active. The project also found that immigrants tended to be more active in countries which had a strong history of activism. As for the factors that discouraged participation, interviewees pointed to the lack of recognition that they received from within their own communities for the work they were doing, and the lack of state financial support they received to sustain the activities of the organisation in which they were involved. Other problems included open discrimination by organisations or inadvertent neglect. 'Immigrants might approach an organisation at a public event for example to offer their services. They could be recruited but no-body realises,' says Dr Vogel. Interviewees were also asked what they would do, if they were the political leader of the host country, to increase immigrants' civic participation. While the responses were very diverse, several major concerns were raised. One was the need for authorities to seek to understand the needs and priorities of immigrants prior to formulating policy initiatives. One interviewee remarked that 'they consult you, just a minute before, because they are going to Rome for a conference on immigrants, what do we think. Afterwards it ends when the conference ends.' Granting voting rights to immigrants was for many interviewees the number one action that would improve civic participation. Currently, all EU Member States grant voting rights for local and European elections to resident EU citizens, with some extending the agreement to third country immigrants in local elections. Another significant way of improving activism would be by improving immigration, employment and social policies. Having legal residence gives people security and long-term prospects, while having a job improves their standard of living and social integration, interviewees remarked. Many participants also pointed to access to education and integration programmes as sure ways of increasing immigrants' involvement. Dr Vogel believes that the results of the project will help to raise awareness of the importance of bringing immigrants onboard in civic and political society. To facilitate this process further, the POLITIS project consortium has set up a training course called 'WinAct' to help officials from trade unions and political parties recruit immigrants as active members. Often these organisations do not know how to approach immigrants adequately and how to motivate them for long-term membership and collaboration. The results are also being presented to officials at the European Commission and to members of the European Parliament.

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