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Integration: a two way process

Unless the barriers to integration are reduced in the UK, in another twenty years a new wave of migrants will be accused of having failed to integrate

‘Multiculturalism has failed’ stated Angela Merkel over the weekend, the most recent amongst European leaders to express concern over the long-term integration of migrants. In a pattern that is now becoming familiar across Europe, Merkel’s comments follow recent remarks by public figures against migrants, especially Muslim migrants, and opinion polls that show a growing percentage of voters are concerned about immigration. In France, the UK, the Netherlands, Italy and now Germany, the reaction of mainstream politicians has been to develop a tougher rhetoric towards migrants and refugees in an attempt to allay public concern and to weaken support for the far right.

The alternative to multiculturalism? Inevitably a call for ‘more integration’. Across Western Europe, in Canada and the United States and in Australia ‘integration’ has become a key issue in the last few years. However, the integration of migrants, refugees and their descendants is hardly as straightforward as it could seem. Integration has become a slippery word with different people giving it different meanings. In some uses it means old style assimilation: the belief that migrants should abandon most of their culture and adopt the language, culture and practices of the host country. In other cases integration is constructed as requiring a two way process in which migrants and natives adapt to each other. This, for example, was the view that the UK Commission on Integration and Cohesion put forward in its 2007 report ‘Our Shared Future’.

In most cases, however, the onus of ‘integration’ is placed squarely on migrants as if it was all down to their own will. It is migrants who are called to integrate and it is on them that blame for the failure to do so is placed.

Most people would agree that migrants should be equipped with the necessary skills and know-how that will enable them to succeed in the new place of residence, and there are multiple examples of initiatives that try to do just that. At the beginning of October a group of practitioners got together in the Cities of Migration conference at The Hague to share their practical experiences of integration projects in cities throughout the world. They were very conscious that national governments design immigration rules, but that integration is a process that happens at the local level, mostly in cities. There were some great examples of initiatives that aid integration, ranging from projects that help migrants to find employment that reflects their skills to inclusive planning application processes for Mosques which led to community support for their construction.

However, integration is not just about giving migrants the tools to be able to succeed and fit in the new society, but also about removing the barriers that stop them from doing so. These barriers are multiple and can include language barriers, racial or cultural discrimination and restrictions arising from immigration rules. Unfortunately, in the current context, at the same time that many worthy initiatives help migrants in their process of integration, tightened immigration rules mean that many migrants and asylum seekers face increased barriers to this process.

The journalist Doug Saunders who has done research into worldwide migrations recently published a blog where he compared the relative success of the integration of Bangladeshis in East London with the relative failure of the integration of Turks in Berlin or North Africans in Paris. He noted that two key factors in London’s success had been a regulatory environment that made it easier for migrants to start up new businesses, and the fact that most Bangladeshis had obtained British citizenship soon after arriving in London. This meant that they could make use of full rights and entitlements as they were settling.

More recent migrants have not been so fortunate, many having only restricted rights and needing to wait longer periods before accessing a wider range of rights. Asylum seekers, for example, face restrictions as to where they live if they are to receive housing support, and are barred from working while their applications are being processed. Other migrants face a host of restrictions depending on what visas they have. Many of these migrants will eventually settle in the UK, yet exclusions of this sort delay the integration process.

In a way, the most radical initiatives showcased in The Hague were those in which local authorities took measures to counteract the negative impact of national policies that limit the options of migrants. One surprising case was that of New Haven in the United States where a municipal identity card was issued to all residents who wanted it, including undocumented migrants. This gave undocumented migrants access to multiple services that required some sort of identification, including access to libraries, government services or opening bank accounts. While this sort of initiative did not solve the immigration status of undocumented migrants, it did improve safety and relations between residents in the area.

In the UK the tendency in the past few years has been to restrict the rights and entitlements for holders of many visa categories, to make life more difficult for those without documentation and to extend qualifying times and requirements for citizenship. Simultaneously, the Migration Impact Fund, a programme that funded projects that helped local areas adapt to recent influxes of migrants and support their integration, has been scrapped even though it was funded by levies on visa applications and was therefore self financing.

This approach of further excluding migrants and asylum seekers and reducing the support for local integration projects may pay political dividends in the short term. However, in the long term it may end up hampering efforts to achieve the integrated society that politicians say they aspire to. The risk is that unless the barriers to integration are reduced and support is provided where it is needed, in another twenty years a new wave of migrants will be accused of having failed to integrate.

This article is part of our dialogue on migration: People on the move


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