Contestation on Refugee Integration should not Deter Practice


Refugee integration is a big phrase to consider. What does it mean? What does it look like in practice? Is it a durable solution to refugee displacement worth pursuing?

I would say yes, refugee integration into a host nation is a vital concept to understand, pursue and achieve considering the prolonged nature of stay which is typical of refugee displacement. The UNHCR global trends report 2015 highlighted that the average length of all thirty-two protracted refugee situations is estimated to be twenty-six years, with the majority expected to last more than twenty years. Without translating this information into pursuing the required integration mechanisms; the risk remains of creating an isolated and dependent population without the ability to plan for their long-term future or security.

Whilst refugees often yearn to return home and repatriation in a safe and dignified manner makes a significant contribution to the peace of a nation emerging from conflict, there is currently a lack of viable conditions for return to countries of conflict to make this approach worth pursuing as a primary focus of international responses. In 2014, only 126, 800 refugees returned to their country of origin, the lowest number recorded for thirty years. With less refugees returning home and periods of stay in a host nation increasing, refugees tend to establish social and economic ties eventually integrating into their new society regardless of their will to return to their country of origin. If nation states supported this integration which is to happen regardless, then the length of time it takes could be reduced improving social cohesion, reaping the benefits of refugee integration into the labour market and creating an active and inclusive population.

However, the concept of refugee integration is a contested one, with multiple interpretations and understandings of its meaning making planning for this purpose significantly harder. In an academic sense, it is often interpreted as the process which migrants engage in from the day they arrive in a host nation, yet from a policy sense it describes the end goal of policies directly aimed at integrating a migrant population. Additionally, migrants may have a different understanding of what integration will mean to them compared to the integration aims of the government or local communities. Further, migrants may be integrated in one aspect of their lives in a new society but not in others, making the evaluation of overall integration efforts difficult. Whilst this makes integration a contested and difficult concept to approach, together it all reflects the subjective nature of integration and demonstrates that a ‘one size fits all’ approach is not the most beneficial route.

Whilst what integration looks like in practice depends on a case by case basis, the UNHCR have provided an understanding of what integration should look like as an end goal. The UNHCR understands integration as a two-way process whereby refugees must be willing to adapt to their host society and the host community and public institutions must be ready to welcome refugees and meet the needs of a diverse populations. This understanding states that there are three inter-related dimensions to the process; legal, economic and socio-cultural:

  • The legal aspect is the granting of a range of entitlements which broadly commensurate with those enjoyed by citizens,
  • The economic encompasses a growing degree of self-reliance and the pursuit of sustainable livelihoods,
  • And, the socio-cultural reflects acclimatising to the host community, host communities accommodating refugees without exploitation or discrimination and refugees actively contributing to the social life of their country of asylum.

This internationally recognised definition for the outcome of integration allows nations to implement policies which are complimentary to these purposes.

Whilst there is a certain level of control on the side of the migrant in the integration process as they can selectively engage in different aspects at their will, national responses have to provide an integration framework to ensure the creation of a functioning cohesive society where all members can contribute and benefit. Nations must develop a strategy of what effective integration means for their purposes in line with the international understanding of integration, mechanisms to engage and encourage participation in these amongst the refugee population whilst also planning for the barriers which may prevent refugees from interacting with these approaches. These could include mental health, cultural norms which have meant women have engaged less with their host community or care services and increasing anti-immigrant sentiments which are evidenced in heightened xenophobia and hate crime in many refugee receiving nations.

Understanding these barriers and developing mechanisms to combat them and support refugees will ensure that the pressure on refugees to integrate in areas which they are not ready for can be limited, enabling refugees to work at a pace which is beneficial and understanding of their circumstance to produce a mutually beneficial relationship with host societies without further alienating the refugee population.

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