France protests pose valuable questions about immigrant integration in Korea

Posted on : 2023-07-28 09:11 KST Modified on : 2023-07-28 09:11 KST
France and Germany provide contrasting examples of residential integration of immigrants
Graffiti in Nanterre, France, reads “Justice for Nahel,” written for an immigrant teen who was killed by police on June 27. (Noh Ji-won/The Hankyoreh)
Graffiti in Nanterre, France, reads “Justice for Nahel,” written for an immigrant teen who was killed by police on June 27. (Noh Ji-won/The Hankyoreh)

On June 27, a 17-year-old immigrant of Algerian descent named Nahel was shot dead by police in Nanterre, a suburb of Paris. Anti-government protests that erupted in Nanterre soon turned violent and spread across France, shining a light on France’s long-standing problem of discrimination against immigrants.

The incident drew attention to “banlieues,” or suburbs of large cities, like Nanterre, where immigrants live in large numbers. Many immigrants from less affluent backgrounds live in these neighborhoods for economic reasons, since they offer more affordable rent and costs of living than the urban center, but the proximity to the city makes for an easy commute.

Many immigrants, who at around 7 million in number accounted for 10.3% of France’s total population as of 2021, live in peripheral cities like Nanterre, about 10 kilometers from Paris. The problem is that these areas have long been marginalized by government development plans and welfare policies.

Protests that erupted because of Nahel’s death soon became violent due to the poor conditions of these neighborhoods, society’s obliviousness to discrimination, and government inaction and neglect.

Amid widespread sentiment that the lives of immigrants will never improve, police misconduct only added fuel to the fire, converting immigrants’ pent-up emotions into anger that boiled over into indiscriminate violence.

A tendency toward ethnic segregation among immigrants

South Korea, which is facing a population and labor shortage due to a declining birthrate, has said it will actively welcome immigration. As such, it cannot afford to think of these issues as totally foreign.

More than 1.3 million foreign nationals live in South Korea (as of 2022), and they too are clustered in certain areas.

The Seoul, Gyeonggi, and Incheon metropolitan areas alone are home to 63.4% of all foreign nationals in the country. For example, Korean Chinese working in the service industry, such as catering, domestic and childcare workers, and caregivers, are concentrated in the Garibong, Guro, Doksan, and Daerim neighborhoods of Seoul, where the costs of housing are relatively low. The clustering of migrants in certain areas is nothing new in Korea.

What should we make of the phenomenon of immigrants clustering in certain neighborhoods? Germany offers a valuable example. Known for its relatively open immigration policy, immigrants made up 17.3% (14.2 million) of the German population as of 2021.

Local governments and the housing industry have long sought to achieve ethnic incorporation in their cities, with the goal of promoting integration by having immigrants live among the predominantly white local population.

This has led to policies such as quotas for immigrants in residential areas and bans on additional transfers to ensure that immigrants are evenly distributed throughout cities.

Land use planning in the German building code also requires special consideration to “create and maintain a socially stable residential structure,” aimed at keeping single ethnic groups from living together in certain regions.

But Germany’s policy is not without its critics, who argue that the very act of physically mixing immigrants and natives carries its own dangers.

Germany’s anti-discrimination law, the General Equal Treatment Act, allows for measures to create “stable social structures” in housing leases, but in 2022, the German Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency issued a revised opinion, saying that this provision could be used to justify discrimination.

This means that discrimination can occur when governments or housing providers artificially create a mix of residents.

In addition to the potential for discrimination, it is also realistically difficult to prevent immigrants from ethnically separating themselves into certain regions if that is their intention.

In general, immigrants’ residential options tend to be restricted to lower price ranges due to their relatively weaker economic means, above-average household sizes (often with greater numbers of children), and disadvantageous rental practices. This means their choices for whether to live are constrained from the outset.

Poverty islands an issue that cannot be neglected

Such segregation is not necessarily damaging to immigrant integration. According to a 2005 Schader Foundation study entitled “Immigrants in the City: Recommendations for Urban Integration Policy,” the presence of family members and people of the same ethnic background living nearby can offer various advantages to immigrants.

Social networks are important to immigrants, who tend not to be familiar yet with the local labor market, social services, and other social systems — and those networks are more easily formed in situations of cultural and social homogeneity and spatial accessibility. Immigrants are also more effectively able to organize and represent their own interests when they live in close proximity.

Some analyses have even suggested that voluntary segregation for housing choice reasons helps to promote integration. To begin with, this allows them to avoid conflicts based on cultural particularities, while also providing economic assistance due to the greater ease of providing infrastructure tailored to immigrant needs.

This can be easily understood if we consider how Chinatowns and Koreatowns in various countries have contributed to boosting the political, economic, and social standing of immigrants.

Germany’s efforts to prevent areas with high immigrant populations from turning into “poverty islands” are also valuable references for South Korea as it looks ahead to a future of increasing immigration.

The Schader Foundation study advises that integration efforts targeting children and younger generations are of paramount importance — and have a high chance of succeeding.

The fact that minors accounted for 1,200 of the 4,000 or so people arrested during a week of disturbances in France that started on June 27 indicates how urgent it is to implement integration measures for younger age groups.

To support language acquisition, the Schader Foundation recommended mandatory language classes for small children and providing leisure activity benefits to young children and adolescents in immigrant families.

Another approach would be for local schools to not only provide courses in the educational curriculum but also fulfill other key educational duties with apprenticeship classes and internship support to help young residents find work.

Also essential are efforts to combat the stigma associated with hailing from a particular neighborhood or having graduated from a particular school. The establishment of well-regarded schools in such regions could be another approach to supporting integration between residents and immigrants.

Improvements to residential environments are crucial as well. The “broken windows theory” suggests that even minor acts of disorder can lead to a proliferation of crime if left unaddressed.

The Schader Foundation study advises that integration can be hastened if residential providers operate renter advisory groups with immigrant representatives to focus on residential stabilities and environment improvements.

By Noh Ji-won, Berlin correspondent

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