‘…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.’
Donna Covey, Refugee Council conference, Integration: Building a Life in the UK
Integration should start from the moment that people arrive and so support groups would also like people to be allowed to work while they are seeking asylum. The stress and poverty of the early stages in the process add to a sense of isolation, and it is important to find opportunities to volunteer and socialise.
Asylum applicants dream about getting refugee status. They may then, however, experience a time of painful transition because new refugees have just 28 days before they lose their asylum support and must leave their Home Office supported accommodation. They may become destitute and homeless. To make things easier locally 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, Extern’s Floating Support Service has refugee support workers and NIACRO has STEM support workers who help minority-ethnic people to sustain their tenancies if they experience neighbourhood problems.
People with refugee status are entitled to be joined by close family members. In 2015 member groups of the local Refugee and Asylum Forum 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 process applications for travel assistance. Many families try to finance family reunion themselves, including the money needed for DNA tests and travel costs and they often incur debts. Some people who have state benefits find that these stop while the authorities reassess the entitlement of the enlarged family and it can be some time before they are re-established.
A Home Office Report found that language skills remain one of the most important factors in enabling refugees to integrate and find work. Both refugees and host communities also need cultural orientation. There is mutual benefit in partnerships between refugee community groups and local organisations. Integration projects need to be tailored to specific refugee needs. Attention to the psychological wellbeing of refugees is also important.
Joining a faith group is very helpful.
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 is not easy, but good planning, communication and facilitation can achieve much.
One inhibiting factor for refugee integration is the fact that they no longer get indefinite leave to remain. With Limited Leave to Remain (LLR), their case is subject to Active Review see if they qualify to have leave to remain extended. 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 misled 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.
A NI refugee integration strategy
N 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, that a draft strategy was being prepared for consultation.
New Scots: Integrating Refugees in Scotland’s Communities 2014–17, Scottish Government 2014.
Towards a New Beginning: Refugee Integration in Ireland , UNHCR, 2014. (PDF)
Refugee Inclusion Strategy, Welsh Assembly Government, 2008.