Integration in the UK : why the silence?

Well founded suspicion of ‘integration’ policies in civil society has let government off the hook, leaving a vacuum in national policy towards those arriving to live in the UK and public debate open to those who argue integration is solely the responsibility of migrants themselves, argues Sarah Spencer

Sarah Spencer
6 April 2011

‘Integration’ is not a popular word. Defined by the British government in the 1960s as ‘not a flattening process of assimilation but as equal opportunity accompanied by cultural diversity in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance’, the focus of policy was on addressing discrimination, incitement to racial hatred and race relations. Nevertheless, a two-fold suspicion remained: that race relations was government’s first priority, not equality; and that the underlying intention was assimilation: that the Commonwealth immigrants to whom it was directed should lose their distinct cultural identities and adopt the values of the majority population. That impression has recently been reinforced by critics of multiculturalism identifying ‘integration’ as the alternative, Blair endorsing that view shortly before leaving office in a lecture reflecting on the terrorist attacks in London entitled ‘The Duty to Integrate: shared British values’.

The Home Office had earlier been keen to counter the perception that integration was primarily about culture or that it imposed responsibilities on migrants alone. Consulting on a Refugee Integration Strategy in 1999, it insisted ‘inclusion in our society does not mean that a refugee is required to assimilate’ and subsequently, in Integration Matters: a National Strategy for Refugee Integration in 2005, defined integration in terms of empowerment and participation: ‘the process that takes place when refugees are empowered to achieve their full potential as members of British society, to contribute to the community, and to become fully able to exercise the rights and responsibilities they share with other residents’. More recently, however, the Department for Communities and Local Government returned to a narrower race relations focus, defining integration within its community cohesion agenda merely as ‘what must happen to enable new residents and existing residents to adjust to one another’.

Ad hoc campaigns

Devoid of any analysis of the barriers migrants face to full participation or a strategy to address them, ‘integration’ has understandably not been an area of policy attracting strong civil society support. Campaigns have been fought to save free English language classes for low income migrants or to strengthen advice and support for refugees (for which funding has now been drastically cut); but no one is calling for a fully fledged integration strategy – perhaps for fear of what it might entail. Yet we know that some migrants face significant challenges in accessing the labour market, essential services, social and civic participation and experience poverty, poor housing, health and social exclusion as a result.

There is room for debate on the extent to which migrants should be expected to participate. There is likely to be greater consensus that they should have the opportunity to do so. That means addressing the barriers they can face - from lack of information, non recognition of qualifications, ignorance and discrimination to overt hostility. Much has and is being done at a local level, not least within the voluntary and community sector, providing advice, support, targeted services and access to social networks (a contribution now threatened, like so much else, by public expenditure cuts). It is rare for such initiatives to be labelled ‘integration’. Yet all involved have struggled to find an alternative label on which to agree.

At the national level, the Refugee Integration Strategy was never extended to family or labour migrants, international students or EU citizens who can equally face challenges in securing jobs and decent accommodation, be exploited or face hostility because of their country of origin or immigration status. Yet there has been no debate on whether it is appropriate to exclude whole categories of people in this way from the limited strategy that exists.

EU policy on integration has had limited traction in the UK, not withstanding governments’ willing acceptance of EU integration funds to use for language tuition and civil society projects. Agreement by all EU states on Common Basic Principles on Integration in 2004 was followed by a modest programme of activity largely focused on sharing good practice, including an integration website that cites initiatives in the UK. The EU’s most significant intervention has perhaps been the Directives on discrimination in 2000. In the Equality Acts of 2006 and 2010 UK policy moved ahead of the requirements of EU law, not least in establishing a duty on public bodies to advance equality of opportunity and foster good relations that came into force in April 2011. Yet in its pre- 2010 form an existing duty to promote racial equality scarcely impacted on migrants and refugees, so marginal are they in practice to the equality agenda.

Government let off the hook

What is lost in the lack of consensus on the goals of public policy towards migrants living in Britain and on the terminology with which to have that debate? For one, it has let government off the hook. There is no pressure on government to articulate its vision for the inclusion of migrants, to spell out its strategy, to identify which department in Whitehall has lead responsibility and the policy levers it will use to achieve it. There is little pressure to consult, to involve migrants in devising the strategy, or to resolve contradictions in policy that hinder rather than promote participation. Restrictive conditions of stay attached to immigration status, for instance, limit access to jobs, social housing, health care and voting with no assessment whether those restrictions are proportional or counter-productive. There is no framework in which employers or local media can be encouraged to play their part, and contributions acknowledged. Without that framework it is possible for key areas of policy relevant to marginal groups, such as equality and the ‘Big Society’, the shift to localism and reform of the NHS, to move forward without any thought to their potential significance in tackling the exclusion of those members of the community who have come to the UK from abroad. While data is regularly collected on ethnic minorities, there is limited data on migrants to inform policy and service provision, nor are the outcomes of policy intervention relating to migrants routinely monitored.

Migrants take the blame

More serious, however, is the vacuum in public debate. With low public and political awareness of the barriers migrants face it is open to detractors simply to blame migrants for ‘failing to integrate’. Lack of motivation can be seen as the underlying cause of poor outcomes and self-help the solution.  Across Europe that perception has led to an increasing emphasis on compulsion, requiring migrants to demonstrate through attendance in programmes and tests that they understand and respect the society’s history, institutions and values. In the UK we have seen the beginning of that trend in language requirements and ‘Life in the UK'  tests for those seeking permanent residence and Citizenship. In the absence of a clear narrative on the alternative, we might expect to see more. It is easier for government to put the onus on individuals to adapt and participate than to shift the obstacles in their way.

More than 1500 people have on average arrived in the UK each day in recent years intending to stay for at least a year. That number may now fall but labour migrants, refugees, international students and family members will continue to be part of our shared future. Their participation and the challenges they face begin the day they arrive. Their experiences play out in the localities where they live but national policy sets a framework which can facilitate or impede their inclusion. It is national government that determines the extent of migrants’ rights to participate, has the capacity to lead media and public debates, funds most English language tuition, can incentivise civil society leaders to prioritise this agenda and can ensure that local services have an evidence base to inform their interventions. How it fulfils that role is a concern for us all. ‘Integration’, given its history, may not be the best word to use to debate this policy agenda, but debate we should have.

Sarah Spencer's forthcoming book The Migration Debate will be published by Policy Press in June 2011 


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