BRUSSELS, June 8 (Xinhua) -- The Belgian city of Mechelen, about 30 km north of Brussels, is home to some 130 nationalities. As one of Belgium's most international cities, the local government puts learning Dutch as a key priority for migrants' integration.
In a recent interview with Xinhua, Mechelen mayor Bart Somers said more than half of the children under the age of 12 have foreign roots and one out of three newborns in the city has a migrant background.
According to him, in Mechelen, refugee integration begins from day one. Refugees stay at the local shelter regardless of whether or not a decision from the state on their asylum is still pending.
As Mechelen belongs to the Flemish region of Belgium, Somers said refugees can begin Dutch lessons within the first weeks of their stay so that, if they are granted asylum, they have already made progress and do not have to start the integration process from scratch.
In Mechelen, language training is mandatory and free of charge for state-recognized refugees. For those at the shelter whose asylum procedure is still ongoing, classes are optional.
"We are happy to see that most people at the shelter take Dutch lessons. Our main strength is that we always aim for the combination of Dutch lesson with employment in a common language," said Somers.
Refugees have different options to combine work and language study, based on their individual situations. They can have part-time work and part-time Dutch lessons, or work full-time and follow evening classes in Dutch, or have full-time work and interact and communicate in Dutch with colleagues at the workplace.
"We always look for the track that best fits the refugee in question," said Somers, noting that for instance, a young single man is most likely able to combine full-time employment with evening classes, but for a family with small children this is much more difficult.
"Taking the individual situation into account usually provides the best chance for success," he said.
Jobs in both Dutch and English are available in the city, but there are also jobs in other languages such as Arabic, he said.
"When people work in a language other than Dutch this is always done in conjunction with Dutch lessons. We believe that the knowledge of our Dutch language is indispensable to participate in society," he said.
"People who do not want to work here without valid reasons for doing so, will receive no payment. We invest heavily in people and give them many opportunities, but we also expect them to grab them," said the mayor.
Somers said the fund for arranging language lessons or job-hunting help was partly from the northern Belgian region of Flanders, but also largely from local resources.
"Our new initiatives, we even took before there was extra funding from the Flemish government. Simply because we felt they were important. Integration of refugees, to help jobs, fight poverty ... these are all things we strongly invest in. We believe that a strong investment in the short term results in advantages in the long term," he said.
Somers said local governments had an important role to play in directing the integration process as they are the authorities the most affected by the refugee issue and can cooperate with other stakeholders to address this phenomenon.
He said the authorities higher up should particularly support the local government and give them the opportunities to do the work described above.