Refugee Integration: A Worthwhile Investment

Bristol job club for refugees

Refugee Integration: A Worthwhile Investment

What is refugee integration? 

Often when we talk about refugee integration, particularly in the mainstream sphere, it’s thought of primarily in terms of learning English. While this is certainly part of it, we would argue that the concept is more holistic than that, going beyond language integration to include social and cultural factors such as physical and mental wellbeing, connection to friends and family, and access to the same leisure and personal development opportunities as native citizens. 

In this article, we discuss the problems, programs and policy around refugee integration, as well as why we believe it to be a truly beneficial investment on both sides. 

The challenges of refugee integration  

As we see it, there’s one clear stumbling block when it comes to successful refugee integration: how do you tell if someone has ‘achieved’ integration? As it stands, there’s no simple and obvious benchmark that can be used to measure success.

What does an integrated person look like? Does integration ever end – or is it ongoing? 

Use of indicators may pose one solution; to be covered in more detail below. 

What are the best ways to help refugees integrate into society? 

Unfortunately, there are no one-size-fits-all solutions: successful integration means looking at everything. It starts with homes and basic human needs: even the most determined individual will struggle to integrate if they find themselves homeless and destitute.  

Beyond learning English, finding suitable employment is equally important, allowing people to earn a decent wage and cultivate independence. Note the emphasis on ‘suitable’ – at ACH, we aim to place people in jobs that pay a median salary, rather than just minimum wage, allowing for greater financial freedom and development opportunities.  

Refugees come to us from all walks of life; many are skilled professionals with a breadth of experience and much to offer. As such, it’s less a case of ‘any job will do’ and more about finding something well-suited to the individual long-term. 

Cultural integration – going beyond the basics 

What do we mean by cultural integration of refugees? From our perspective, it’s not about what you do, but what you have the ability and capacity to do. Cultural integration means having access to the same opportunities and activities as locals, for example, being able to use the library, visit local museums, or become a member of the gym. It’s settling into the community and making use of the enriching facilities and events that are on offer. 

Refugee integration strategy in the UK 

The UK Government has various forms of funding available for integration projects, but nothing that could be described as a coherent overall refugee integration policy. One such project that ACH helped to deliver was English My Way, an entry-level ESOL program that was highly successful, with a particular focus on supporting women with little or no English language skills to become part of their local communities. 

There’s also the Integrated Communities Innovation Fund offered by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, in partnership with Sport England. This fund is designed to address some of the key causes of poor integration, offering financial support to projects aimed at building integrated communities. 

In addition, when individuals receive refugee status in the UK, they can apply for a refugee integration loan. The exact amount varies depending on circumstances and availability; the minimum is £100. This loan may be used for housing, education or work purposes, e.g. housing deposit, training or equipment.  

What is ACH doing to help integration? 

ACH is a leading provider of integration services for refugees. We work to resettle refugees through labour market and social integration, helping displaced people get access to housing, employment, training and support. We’re currently in the process of developing INTEGRASS: a new system by which we hope to establish more conclusively what works when it comes to integration, solving the #1 problem of refugee integration, which is measurability.  

INTEGRASS will take into account everything from language skills and job satisfaction to physical and mental health, cultural integration, presence of family and friends, and access to personal development opportunities to determine what has the greatest impact on quality of life. 

What could the government be doing better? 

The problem with government intervention for unemployed people is that their barometer of success is extremely narrow. The system as it stands is entirely black and white: either you’re employed (success) or you’re not (failure). There is little to no consideration around whether said job is the right fit for the candidate, not to mention job security or longevity. 

Time and again, we see people being taken on with full-time contracts, only to have their hours dropped and get laid off after six months. Then it’s back to square one. The government considers this a success, but the reality is that people are repeatedly returning to Universal Credit due to lack of job security. This cannot be considered successful in real terms. 

While there may be a surplus of jobs available, quality is not always very high. What’s needed is better in-work support for people around job retention, as well as more career development. Studies have shown that more than half of refugees who get into entry-level employment will remain in entry-level employment – culturally, they are less likely to push for pay rises and career progression opportunities. For the benefit of everyone, this needs to change. 

Is it a worthwhile investment? 

Absolutely. Settled, happy individuals with secure employment can pay their taxes and no longer have to rely on the welfare system. We have a substantial skills gap in the UK, with some industries consistently struggling to fill roles – and with Brexit on the horizon, fewer employers can look to Eastern Europe as they have historically done. Yet here we have these skilled workers (or people who can be upskilled) coming to the UK, some of them highly qualified,  actively looking for work. The investment is more than worthwhile; it just makes good sense. 

Happy endings are entirely possible – read our case studies to find out how it can be done. 

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