Integration: A Two-Way Street?
Refugee journeys continue beyond finding a place of safety. Adjusting to resettlement is an ongoing process for individuals, families, and communities. The UK Home Office considers integration to be successful “when refugees are empowered to achieve their full potential, contribute to the community and access services to which they are entitled.” But as stands, there is no UK-wide framework for integration. Housing, employment, language-learning and social networks are diverse factors which determine integration outcomes. This makes integration a complex issue. Societal structures and attitudes can either obstruct or foster feelings of belonging. How does the UK provide opportunities for integration? Are current schemes for integration adequate?
Two-Tiered System, a One-Way Street
In March 2021, The UK government proposed a New Plan for Immigration policy. According to the UNHCR, ‘at the heart of the plan is a two-tier approach to asylum’. Those entering the UK by legal routes will be treated differently to those arriving spontaneously. Spontaneous arrivals will be transferred to other countries designated as safe. If this proves impossible after 6 months, asylum is considered, but successful claims would only offer temporary status of up to 30 months. This approach penalises refugees with reduced rights and the threat of removal.
What impact might ‘temporary protection status’ have on integration?
This poverty of status punishes refugees simply for their mode of arrival, denying them full access to rights granted by the 1951 Refugee Convention. Temporary legal status pushes those most vulnerable into precarious and even exploitative situations. Forcing refugees to live in constant fear of expulsion will inevitably risk psychological harm.
In the UK, restrictive asylum policies already affect integration outcomes. Even prior to the government’s ‘New Plan’, refugee status tended to be temporary, lasting 5 years. Such transience is not compatible with the government’s desire to have citizens engaged in all aspects of life. Short-term windows do not allow for long-term goals. The 5-year deadline can make employers reluctant to invest in refugee candidates, particularly for roles which require training.
Dina Nayeri, author of ‘The Ungrateful Refugee’, has said that ‘the ground is never solid beneath the feet of the displaced.' Uncertainty may be an unavoidable by-product of displacement. Nevertheless, a more consistent, compassionate approach to integration policy could mitigate its severity.
Language skills have a significant bearing on integration and achieving independence. Acquiring English makes interacting with the general population easier. This in turn increases wellbeing among refugees. Studies show that refugees express an overwhelming desire to learn English or develop existing language skills. Personal motivations range from employability, ease of communication and helping children thrive in school.
‘English for Speakers of Other Languages’ are classes provided by local authorities. There is no national ESOL strategy in England and as a result, current provision is inconsistent and ill-suited. It compounds social exclusion rather than increasing the likelihood of successful integration. Tuition hours vary considerably between regions. Funding for ESOL was also dramatically cut from £203 million in 2009 to £104 million in 2014. This exacerbated issues with access and in just 10 years, participation has dropped by 100,000 learners.
For refugees, there is a glaring gap between their longing to learn and the system’s ability to meet their needs. Today’s model of ESOL delivery homogenises them instead of recognising their individuality. It places those who have had little schooling or interrupted education in the same classes as those with university degrees. Instead of tailoring services in such a way to enable all refugees to flourish, the current system is failing both ends of the spectrum. Further barriers to learning include trauma's impact on concentration and the expense of converting qualifications. At-home family learning or befriending initiatives can provide additional support. English conversation in a familiar environment can be of particular benefit to those with childcare responsibilities.
A more holistic approach to integration is needed. When indicators of successful integration - such as employment - are taken in isolation, they can be misleading. Lower language levels are presumed to be the predominant barrier to employment. Findings show that, paradoxically, getting a job is in fact a key barrier to improving English. This is because roles initially open to refugees are largely entry-level jobs such as work as cleaners or night security. These often leave refugees isolated with little opportunity to practice.
In September 2021, the government announced a new integration policy for Afghan refugees. It expects them to enter a comprehensive programme which will replace the ‘patchwork of policies’ previously in place. Minsters intend to emulate other European nations in their approach to English lessons. In the spirit of the “two-way street” approach to integration, migrants will also be offered mentors for skills training. This signals a departure from the plan released in March. But will the policy extend to all refugee groups or an exceptional few? Making high-quality teaching available to all refugees is a priority. Policy changes that set a more hopeful tone for the future of refugees’ education, though welcome, are overdue.
SGBV and Integration: Breaking A Traumatic Cycle
Sexual and Gender based violence (SGBV) can impact integration. Equally, integration experiences can impede or assist recovery from SGBV. Structural inequalities can expose refugees, who have already suffered greatly, to further suffering. Unemployment, uncertain legal status and inadequate housing may heighten distress in SGBV survivors. Alternatively, supportive infrastructures can protect people from further abuse and aid recovery.
The extent to which refugees feel at home is understandably influenced by housing. Findings indicate that many SGBV survivors rely on public housing and shelters. Often separate, these types of accommodation make establishing links with locals difficult.
Communicating trauma is hard, potentially more so for refugee SGBV survivors. SGBV can result in memory loss or lead survivors to avoid discussing traumatic events. Yet, according to Sabina Gušić’s 2017 study, ‘a positive outcome from an asylum claim is frequently predicated on being able to offer a consistent and coherent self-narrative.’ Expecting refugees to recount trauma as part of the asylum process can retraumatise those who have encountered SGBV. While some choose to employ silence as a coping strategy, reluctance to seek help also stems from mistrust of local services. Despite efforts to respond to SGBV, current support services can be ill-equipped or lack cultural sensitivity. This provides an inadequate safety net for survivors.
Not knowing the language of destination countries is a proven risk factor for refugee SGBV survivors. Victims of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) can face homelessness when information about shelters is not available in their language. When communicating in English is not yet possible, interpreters are invaluable. But survivors struggle to build relationships with interpreters constantly changing. Many women also feel uncomfortable disclosing sensitive information to male interpreters. Language skills enable survivors to understand their rights, access services and become independent. It is well established that access to language-learning is fundamental to integration. For refugee SGBV survivors, it is patently an urgent need.
‘No debt to repay’
Social networks form the backbone of integration. Political discourse and media coverage hold great sway in shaping public perception. This is key, as levels of welcome or resistance to refugees play an integral role in integration. Consideration must also be given to the expectations people have of refugees. Must refugees embrace a new identity to be embraced by those around them? Dina Nayeri was just a child when she fled Iran and sought asylum. She describes the period following the euphoria of escape as ‘a plunge into fog, a burning of an old life, a murder of a previous self.’ Reconciling their former lives with their present reality can be difficult for refugees. Integration policy must be less prescriptive and more sensitive to this internal conflict.
Host nations put ongoing pressure on refugees to express gratitude for their fulfilment of a basic human obligation. Even as they present asylum as a gift, it is simultaneously portrayed as one that must be earnt. If we look at citizenship, there are two models: the assimilationist model and the multicultural model. The first regards citizenship as a reward offered to individuals who have benefited society. How can contributions to society be measured? Should eligibility for citizenship be based on these grounds in the first place?
The multicultural model views citizenship as a tool to encourage integration. While this second model may allow refugees to better integrate, UK legislation has tended to emphasize a need to earn citizenship. Dina Nayeri stresses how ‘glorifying refugees who thrive according to western standards is just another way to endorse gratitude politics.’
Increasingly, integration is seen as a two-way process between resettled refugees and residents. But the focus remains, in both policy and practice, upon refugees themselves. Disproportionate emphasis is placed on how well individuals or groups integrate. Instead, we must interrogate the social, legal, and economic context surrounding their integration. A necessary shift in the integration narrative calls for an equivalent shift in policy. We need a structural rethink to make integration in the UK a genuinely mutual endeavour.
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Catherine is reading English and Modern Languages at Oxford. She is working with us on our Refugee Stories Project as part of the Oxford University Micro Internship programme.