‘…when people flee persecution, the flight to safety is only the first part of their journey. The second stage – rebuilding life in a strange land – is equally important. Sometimes settling here can be as hard or harder than the original flight from tyranny. Integration is not about ‘fitting in’, or about refugees becoming ‘more like us’. It is, rather, about equality and inclusion, and ensuring that refugees have equal chances to live full, safe and productive lives.’
From an account of Donna Covey’s speech from the report of the Refugee Council conference, Integration: Building a life in the UK
Integration should start from the moment that people arrived and so support groups would also like people who are seeking asylum to be allowed to work. The stress and poverty of the early stages in the process add to a sense of isolation, but groups such as NICRAS advise people, try to provide opportunities to volunteer and organise social and recreational events.
Asylum applicants dream of receiving a Home Office letter telling them that their application has been successful and they have leave to remain. It is, however, a time of sudden transition because new refugees are then given just 28 days before they lose their asylum support and must leave their Home Office supported accommodation.
Locally, they are assisted by two initiatives. In 2014 the Belfast City Council commissioned the Law Centre NI to produce Refugee Transition: A Guide for People Who Have Just Received Refugee Status and for Their Advisers which covers accessing immigration advice, employment, benefits, and housing. In addition, since 2014, the Extern organisation’s Multi-Disciplinary Homeless Support Team Floating Support Service has refugee support workers. NIACRO also has STEM support workers who help minority-ethnic people to sustain their tenancies when they are experiencing neighbourhood problems.
People with refugee status are entitled under international law to be joined by close family members.
In 2013 the Government withdrew legal aid for refugees seeking family reunion in England, arguing that it was a simple process. Refugees from war zones often lack official documents such as birth certificates and passports and the Red Cross made its concerns known about the complexity of the forms and the process.
In 2015 member groups of the local Refugee and Asylum Forum (RAF) lobbied the Justice Minister who agreed to retain legal aid to assist with the complex process of reunification of refugee families in Northern Ireland.
The Red Cross in Belfast can help to trace family members and also process applications for travel assistance. Many families try to finance family reunion themselves, often incurring large debts, including the money needed for DNA tests and travel costs. Some people who have managed to establish state benefits find that these stop due to the changed circumstances while the authorities reassess the entitlement of the enlarged family and it can be some time before they are reestablished.
These are some of the things that refugees in Birmingham said in 2007 were most important for them. The first are very practical:
Having a job
Going to school or university
Having accommodation and money
Having a national insurance number
Knowing where things are
Others are about belonging, acceptance and equality:
Mixing with British people
Staying in the same place
Knowing how to do things
Having the same opportunities as British people
Having the same status as British people
Being the same as British people
Living a ‘normal’ life
Being listened to
Many people also find it important to find welcome within a faith group.
One inhibiting factor for refugees trying to settle in is the fact that they no longer get indefinite leave to remain. With Limited Leave to Remain (LLR), their case can be subject to Active Review to see if they qualify to have their leave to remain extended at the end of five years. They could be asked to leave the UK if, for example, conditions have changed in their country of origin, or they are found to have deceived the authorities at an earlier date. The Refugee Council has found that limited leave is stressful, making it more difficult for people to get jobs, buy houses or commit to long-term study and there is continued fear of being returned to a dangerous situation.
When people in host communities in Belfast were interviewed about refugees in preparation for the Inclusive Neighbourhood Project (2009–11) they expressed anxieties about sharing resources; the perceived reluctance of refugees to integrate; a desire that refugees should understand local history and culture; and obey the rules.
The refugee interviewees expressed less reluctance about integration and a smaller range of needs. These included a sense of security through gaining the right to remain here, language support and local information. They also described concern about their personal safety, racism, hostility, and the constant questioning of local people. But both refugees and local people agreed that integration meant ‘sharing in community life’ and each group showed a desire and willingness to meet the other group. This initiative and the later Creating Cohesive Community project showed how building trust was not easy, but with good planning, communication and facilitation much can be achieved.
A NI refugee integration strategy
Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK without a refugee integration strategy but the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister (now the Executive Office) stated in the Racial Equality Strategy 2015–25, December 2015, that a draft strategy was being prepared for consultation.
New Scots: Integrating Refugees in Scotland’s Communities 2014–17, Scottish Government 2014.
Refugee Inclusion Strategy, Welsh Assembly Government, 2008.