Imagine being on holiday in a country where you don’t speak the language. You lost your wallet or you were in a car accident and you are trying to explain to the local authorities what just happened. Frustrating, right? Luckily, situations like these are usually resolved quickly and without any serious consequences. Still, the feeling of helplessness you experience at that moment is recognizable to many. But so is the feeling of gratitude when someone tells you what to do in a situation you are not familiar with, in a country where you don’t know or understand all the rules or even the language.

It is exactly that feeling that many newcomers to Bruges experience when they first arrive. These people of foreign origin want to settle in Bruges, but find it hard to adapt to their new situation. When you’re on holiday, your problems are temporary.  For newcomers, they are a daily reality. They need access to essential information, but are faced with barriers like language, culture, and social structures they don’t understand.

The city council wants Bruges to be accessible to all its inhabitants. A warm city offering equal opportunities for all, regardless of their background or origins.

Compared with Ghent or Antwerp, Bruges is an atypical regional capital in terms of cultural diversity. Still, we see a steady rise in ethnic and cultural diversity figures. Today, this city is inhabited by people from 145 different countries. In Bruges, 11,154 residents (or 9.4 %) did not have the Belgian nationality at birth, although some have obtained it at some point in their lives. Their numbers have doubled in the past 10 years and the fastest-growing groups are people who had a Southern European, an Eastern European (both EU and non-EU), or an Asian nationality when they were born. Most Southern and Eastern Europeans (EU) in Bruges are migrant workers, while most people with an Asian nationality are asylum seekers from countries like Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

We cannot be blind to the needs and barriers faced by this specific group. Finding themselves in a new and unfamiliar societal context with language and cultural barriers, newcomers need clear information and orientation. Apart from that, a lot of these new inhabitants of Bruges also lack a social network to rely on. They have little or no friends or relatives they can turn to when they have questions. That is why the city of Bruges fully supports every initiative aimed at the integration of newcomers.

In 2017, the city recruited two diversity coaches, whose job it is to form a bridge between newcomers to Bruges and the organizations and services in this city. Between them, they speak 12 languages and from their own migration background, they understand how important they can be to people arriving in a new city. They provide solutions to the little and big problems newcomers encounter every day, for instance, by explaining to them what their documents say, by helping them sign up for health insurance, or by joining them at school for a parent-teacher meeting.

These coaches help newcomers to Bruges become stronger and more independent, taking away barriers and making the broad range of services and care accessible.

The diversity coaches enter their clients’ questions and problems into a database. In 2018, there were no fewer than 1,201 registered entries, leading to 1,560 interventions or referrals. 

We noticed that the diversity coaches reach the intended, vulnerable target group. Sixty-five percent of their clients with a migration background have lived in the city for less than 5 years. Forty-six percent of the total number of clients come from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, which can be explained by the recent large influx of asylum seekers from these conflict areas.

The database entries can help us give the right signals to the service-providing industry. The most questions the coaches receive deal with administrative issues. Newcomers often have difficulties understanding and replying to official letters or filling out documents and forms. But there are also a lot of questions about housing, education, and leisure activities. By clustering these questions and by turning our findings into recommendations for policy and decision makers, we take a horizontal approach toward accessibility and diversity in all areas of life and for all services provided in the city.

A good integration policy aims at reducing the ethnic gap and adopts a multidisciplinary approach. The project with the diversity coaches supports the ‘leave no one behind’ principle, where we strive to create a city that is inclusive in all areas of life.

We'll be featuring more stories of equity and inclusion with the ICMA international affiliates in the coming weeks. Learn more about ICMA's equity and inclusion initiatives.

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