Barcelona is one of the most popular destinations for travelers visiting Spain. The capital of Catalonia is considered a cosmopolitan city in which 23% of its inhabitants have been born abroad. This supposes a series of situations that, in the crest of the migratory wave in Europe, forced the conformation of a municipal program of attention, known as SAIER (Service of Attention to Immigrants, Emigrants and Refugees of the City council of Barcelona), which brings together a team of over one hundred people, led, paradoxically, by a Colombian migrant.
Gloria Elena Rendón Toro is an anthropologist from Cali, Colombia, who coordinates the public service of attention for immigrants and refugees in this city since 2012. Rendón considers the arrival and departure of the migrant population as a global challenge. "People migrate to improve their quality of life and their families", she says. Rendón, as an expert in migration policies was invited to the first International Migration Symposium, held recently in Bogotá, with the support and participation of UNAB. There we talked with her about this phenomenon, which has increasingly reproduced in different parts of the world, and has a special chapter in Colombia due to the continuous arrival of Venezuelan migrants.
How does a Colombian woman end up in a country like Spain and in a city like Barcelona, providing attention to immigrants and refugees?
I went to study and the transfer was relatively easy. Here in Colombia I used to work with black and indigenous people, I am an anthropologist, and when I worked with them for me they were "the others". Once I moved to Barcelona to study it turned out that I was "the other". This way I realized that we, immigrants, have many difficulties, many problems. At the time, the big wave of migration was starting in Barcelona so I started to get involved in the subject. I believe, that the fact that we Colombians have lived such hard stories, helped me, using the methodologies I used here in Colombia, propose projects that have been recognized in the European Union.
You are the only public official of a team supported by 110 volunteers. How did you articulate all migration care initiatives in a single effort?
We have to be very realistic. You´re not going to agree with the NGOs in a hundred percent, so you have to agree on one, two or three of the key topics of the project, the others will follow the usual problems and conflicts, but if you manage to agree to the common goal that you are going to work with, it is much easier. This doesn´t mean that in the day-to-day there´s not going to be conflict, what you have to learn is to manage that conflict.
Volunteers have to prepare themselves because they bring their own prejudices. How is that?
I think it is very important to know what is the responsibility of public administration, so you must search the Constitution and the law, there are things that the administration can´t delegate to civil society. The reception of migrants and refugees has taken great efforts in Europe. You can volunteer if a previous work has been done by the public administration with the people, and when the volunteer has been previously trained. There are training programs for volunteers in which we show them what is our expectation of their work and how to act in several situations.
How do you manage to change the mind set to people who see immigrants as a threat, as a problem, or associate them with security issues? How do you make this an opportunity?
Some of the studies around racism and xenophobia show that where these phenomena occurs less is where there are more migrants. When people approach immigrants, they start seeing them as a real person. The first exercise is to approach and see them from equality and understand that just like anyone else, they suffer and make mistakes. We have to remember that as Colombians we´ve also had to migrate.
So we either work together or sink together?
I believe that in the social moment in which we actually are, and taking into account the complexity of our social realities, none of the social agents will be able to answer by themselves making no mistakes. As powerful as the public administration and the civil society can be on their own, if both sides work separately, efforts can be contradictory, and can generate even more racism, xenophobia, social exclusion and conflicts. The only option is working together, including immigrants.
How do you analyze this phenomenon that occurs, not only in Venezuela, but in the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America (Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala), and also in Nicaragua?
We have a global challenge, the figures may not be in large contexts but we´ve been having important movements, and I believe there will be more for climate issues. What we have to do as a civil society is to apply pressure for action globally. Pushing country by country, will not be enough. We either work together or we sink together.
Lea este artículo en español aquí.