Migrant integration: Can we learn from European experiences?


An announcement on a new UK policy on migrant integration has been expected for some months past. According to press reports this has been working its way around government departments to ensure that whatever form it takes, the strategy will be ‘joined-up’, with civil servants and other stakeholders working to the same agenda.

We are also being warned that the policy will break with the previous government’s preference for integration outcomes which could be demonstrated in concrete terms of community cohesion at the local level. Instead we should expect to see the issue being tackled infour separate strands, which are likely to be the task of establishing common ground; increasing social mobility; improving participation and countering intolerance and extremism.

Worryingly, it seems that ministers from the various departments working on the issue want to see migrant integration being linked to the drive to push down the numbers of newcomers entering the country with the requirement to speak English to higher standards and participate in wider society being used as devices justifying higher refusal rates in the area of family reunification.

The bitter pill on these points will be coated by plans to campaign against “anti-Muslim hatred” and an online integration forum, aimed at “barrier-busting site” and encourage different community and faith groups to come together.

This mixture of soft and hard approaches to integration will be implemented in what has until now largely been a policy void. National strategies aimed at assisting newcomers find their way into British society were limited to the experiences of refugees under the last government. Though important work was brokered in this area it never covered more than a very low percentage of people arriving in the country each year. Plans to adopt a broader approach were flagged up by the department for Communities and Local Government in mid-2008 but never went beyond the discussion stage.

When the Government finally announces it plans groups working to support migrants at local community level are going to need to rush to bring themselves up to speed on the principles which underpin good practice in this area of policy. If rafts of new initiatives are coming down the line on the terms of the four strands which civil servants appear to be working on then community organizations will need to stake out the ground on which they feel projects can be built and supported and which will properly accommodate the interests of new migrant communities.

Some ideas of what those principles might be are set out in a new publication from the European Network Against Racism (ENAR). The toolkit Working on Integration at a Local Level is the product of a three year long project which was concluded last weekend with its official launch at a conference in Brussels. The Migrants Rights and Integration Project (MRIP) involved partners in six EU countries and looked at activities which aimed to implement the standards that had been set within the EU under the terms of the Common Basic Principles on migrant integration adopted in 2004.

The toolkit sets out the case for a values-led approach to integration policies which are intended to keep projects firmly on the track of meeting the needs and interests of the communities immediately concerned with integration. It is alert to the danger that this is an area of policy which is prone to being diverted by larger stakeholders pushing populist messages which often run counter to the things which need to be achieved at community level.

The opportunities and the risks involved in planning migrant integration projects are illustrated from experiences as varied as a campaign to improve mainstream media coverage of migration in Bulgaria, activities supporting domestic workers in Cyprus, the labour market position of African women in Sweden, and community-based initiatives in Belgium, Italy and the UK. The message is that a lot of positive outcomes can be achieved by community-led initiatives providing that they clear about the values they want to push in their activity, they have identified the risks involved in working with stakeholders like government, which are invariably larger and better resourced but more likely to be pushing in directions which do not entirely honour the principles of good practice, including those listed in the EU’s Common Basic Principles which they are nominally signed up to and committed to applying.

The UK government’s approach, which, as far as can be seen, is being developed without any input from groups representing the interests of migrants is likely to carry the maximum risk of overlooking the immediate community context of this work in order to push the goals it is trying to achieve within the frame of national politics. Experience suggests that this will be a very bad thing and that migrant-led projects will need to develop a full suite of strategies and tactics which can contain and neutralize these risks.

By Don Flynn (MRN)

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