“We are committed to building an inclusive and tolerant society” – An interview with Mayor of Setúbal, Maria Das Dores Meira

Also in... (Français)

Setubal mayor photoThe Mayor of the Portuguese city of Setúbal talks to Efus about the actions undertaken by her municipality to foster integration of migrant communities

What are the characteristics of immigration in Setúbal?

Maria Das Dores Meira: During the last few decades, the strong industrial growth in Setúbal made it an important destination for immigrants from former Portuguese colonies such as Cape Verde, Angola and East Timor, and also for internal migration, especially from the bordering region of Alentejo. More recently, Setúbal has become a destination for immigrants from other countries, mainly from South America, Brazil in particular, and Eastern Europe. Currently, there are approximately 121,200 inhabitants in Setúbal, 5% of which are foreigners; however these figures do not take into account illegal immigrants. There are also large gypsy communities. Although there is no official data on the size of these communities, several estimations put Setúbal as the third or fourth city with the highest gypsy population.

Given such an ethnically diverse population, were you faced with issues of social cohesion?

We consider the management of diversity as a challenge and are committed to building an inclusive, tolerant and cohesive society to which citizens of Setúbal, regardless of their origin, feel they belong. We also feel that this will contribute to the economic, social and cultural development of the municipality.

What practices have you put in place to encourage social integration?

We created the Office for Immigrants and Ethnic Minorities to create a network between immigrant communities and the police, the Foreigners and Border Service, the Authority for Working Conditions, as well as the job and health centres. The Office provides information regarding legislation and formal procedures, human rights, employment, health, education, housing, associations, culture and leisure thus granting immigrants access to these basic requirements. The team consists of people of different origins, which is reassuring for the immigrant population. It also makes it easier because it eliminates language and cultural barriers.

How do you tackle the lack of social participation among immigrants and ethnic minorities?

In order to fight prejudice and racism, which are usually based on a lack of knowledge of the other, lots of events are organised in collaboration with migrant associations, where people – immigrants and local population – get together, such as fairs, exhibitions, gastronomy shows, concerts, debates, etc. We also provide spaces such as our Multicultural Centre where associations and informal groups can get together for cultural, religious, sports and educational activities. This encourages positive interaction, which strengthens intercultural relations and social cohesion.

Tell us about your project Intercultural Mediation in Public Services

Intercultural Mediation in Public Service is one of several projects undertaken in conjunction with the High Commission for Immigration and Intercultural Dialogue to promote social cohesion. A team of municipal intercultural mediators, amongst whom a number come from minorities, provide a focal contact point and access to public services and public or private resources. They also support citizens in matters of individual qualification, and they prevent, mediate and resolve conflicts.

How did you improve living conditions in the neighbourhoods of Setúbal? How did this improve the feeling of security among the population?

Our neighbourhood, our city is a very successful project that we carried out in five social housing areas in order to improve living condition. We believe that it is of paramount importance to make residents responsible and autonomous for their areas in order to change the way they perceive the space they live in and what they can do for it.

222 interlocutors were elected to represent some 7,000 residents of 2,000 housing complexes. They act as a bridge between the municipality, the residents and other institutions working in that area. Together, they have transformed the cityscape by painting, cleaning and rehabilitating public spaces. They have also helped young people through education, training and employment; the image and visibility of the neighbourhoods; the life in the community and by promoting active participation among residents.

This is the first time that a concerted action between municipality, residents and local institutions has ever been carried out in these areas. There has never been such intense citizen participation. We believe that this kind of popular movement is a foundation for improving living conditions. It has strengthened the social network, added value to interculturality and helped dispel the feeling of general insecurity.

February 2013.