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Rethinking “Integration” and “Assimilation” of Refugees

Syrian refugees strike in front of Budapest Keleti railway station. Refugee crisis. Budapest, Hungary, Central Europe, 3 September 2015.

The number of international migrants has increased by 41 percent between 2000 and 2014, and it reached 244 million in 2015, with 20 million of those migrants being refugees. To prevent this humanitarian crisis from turning into a humanitarian nightmare, the governments of the EU have been forced to collaborate in order to address the boats upon boats of people appearing on their shores. So far, however, teamwork has not worked and the response to the refugee crisis has been plagued by chaos and vitriol. Countries bicker over responsibility for the refugees, and many have focused on closing borders while pointing fingers at each other. The only consensus is that, if member states are to accept asylum seekers at all, asylum seekers need to be “integrated” into their host communities for this project to work. And integration is no simple task. Crafting programs to help newcomers settle into a new community requires planning and resources, and pushback from right wing xenophobes has been unhelpful. The question of how countries can most effectively include refugees and asylum seekers into their community looms. There are essentially two approaches in dealing with the problem: assimilationism and multiculturalism. Assimilationists  want newcomers to adopt the dominant values and common identity of a host country, while multiculturalists value respecting the identity of the newcomer and protecting cultural diversity.

The difference between integration and assimilation is significant. Assimilationist policies imply the loss of one’s distinct cultural identity. These policies often include an evaluation to determine whether the refugee or migrant has successfully adopted cultural customs — examples of this include a test imposed by the French government in the early 2000s. Meanwhile, integrationist policies promote multiculturalism and encourage exchange of cultural values between the two societies. Integration is the preferred course of action as it allows for a mutual relationship between refugees and the host society, which will eventually lead to successful integration in the future. These policies include access to education and language training, vocational training, access to health care and housing, and actions to support cultural exchange.

It should be obvious that long-term integration is only sustainable if diversity is valued, but in recent years the rapid influx of refugees has led to a fear-mongering campaign on the far right. Governments are consequently emerging as increasingly assimilationist, wherein policies that claim to be focused on “integration” are in fact promoting the dilution of the cultural identity of the newcomer and replacing it with that of the host country.  In 2011, for example, British Prime Minister David Cameron, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared the end of multiculturalism in Europe. Racism and discomfort had caused an increase in far-right extremist parties and political candidates. It had even led to violence, but the solution — per these three leaders — was to appease the violent right and encourage assimilation at the expense of cultural diversity. To these leaders’ credit, international human rights law does not address the issue of integration. Both international and European law establish the right to equality before the law, but there is no “right” to be integrated into another country. This leaves immigrant and refugee communities vulnerable to forced assimilation at the hands of the receiving state. There are no legal apparatuses to protect refugees and migrants from xenophobia-fueled assimilation attempts, and therefore these people’s fates are left to the discretion and ethos of the recipient country.

The Migrant Integration Policy Index ranks countries based on how they invest in opportunities and rights for newcomers, focusing on the job market, education, political participation, health, residence, and family reunification. These researchers have determined that integration policies create more national unity. Countries with far-reaching integration policies usually provide the optimal environment for social cohesion, which benefits both the newcomers and society in general. Meanwhile, restrictive, assimilationist policies reinforce xenophobic attitudes and general division. These policies provide fuel to racist far-right political parties. This is not to say that positive integration policies immunize countries from racist extremism. Sweden — which the Migrant Integration Policy Index ranked first out of 38 developed countries — has experienced increased support from far right parties. Belgium — which also scored well — was used as a home base for many of those involved in the attacks in Paris in 2015. This simply proves that integrationist policies do not exist in a vacuum. Social norms need to be taken into consideration when implementing these policies.

The ideal refugee policy, which strikes a balance between integration and not just tolerating, but embracing multiculturalism, involves a series of policies that begin as soon as the newcomers cross the border into a new country. It is important for countries to implement an effective and efficient procedure for deciding who gets to stay, which requires multitudes of capable officials, so that recipient supply may be responsive to incoming demand. Many European countries have hundreds of thousands of refugees waiting to be seen for their first interview. According to one report, the average wait time for an initial asylum interview exceeds two years. Germany has responded to this problem by increasing its number of adjudicators, but many other countries are failing to follow suit.

In a report for Human Rights Watch, Judith Sunderland outlines the most important components of successful integration to be accommodation, access to employment and education, and family reunification. By encouraging immediate integration into the host community, these tasks are essential in encouraging multiculturalism. Newcomers immediately feel welcome and capable to tackle the social settings of their new communities.

Housing is essential when establishing integration into a host community. There are no EU or international laws about what kind of housing should be provided for an asylum-seeker. Housing that allows for interaction with the host community is ideal, but such a feat requires intense amounts of planning. It also requires a reallocation of resources. This could be achieved by constantly updating census information to confirm funds for education and other services in neighborhoods in which asylum-seekers are living. But this also requires resources that are unavailable in the host country. Many European nations choose to house asylum-seekers in camps, but this has negative implications for integration. Although it seems like the only option given the hundreds of thousands of migrants that are crossing borders, it has profoundly negative impacts on a refugee’s chances of integrating into the host country in the long term. Providing basic needs to asylum-seekers promotes integration rather than assimilation through fostering a positive relationship between the newcomer and the state from the very beginning. Housing asylum-seekers in camps until their claim is processed and their residency permits are awarded (perhaps after an assimilationist test) is detrimental to this relationship, and demonstrates that the state favors the breakdown of one’s cultural identity for replacement by that of the state.

Pretty much all asylum-seekers are eager to work, and helping them enter the workforce is beneficial to both the newcomers and to the host society. An EU law that passed last year requires countries to let newcomers work nine months after they file their application for asylum, but many countries still have not accepted the law into their national legislation. This is a detriment to the future of their workforce and to the future integration of asylum-seekers into these countries. Between the time at which these refugees arrive and when they find work, they are highly reliant on NGOs and other forms of external aid. This solidifies the fact that the government of their host country is not on their side.

It is nearly impossible to attend school during wartime, so it is essential that children have access to education once they relocate to new countries. Many news articles and think pieces on the Syrian Civil War are referring to children as the “lost generation.” Although it is possible to provide education in reception centers through volunteer programs, it is best to integrate children into the national school system. This can easily be done with the help of language classes. This is no small task, so it is important for governments to invest in training and support for all educational professionals involved in the process.

Family reunification is equally essential to successful integration. Many asylum seekers left their countries of origin in search of a better life for their loved ones. Reuniting with these loved ones is often an asylum seeker’s first priority. This poses a logistical problem for countries already struggling under the strain of refugees on their government system, but family reunification is essential to a refugee’s integration into the host country.  

Overall, successful integration is based on providing services to asylum seekers as soon as they reach their destination. Only through mindful integration can multiculturalism prevail. Newcomers need to feel that their identities — and more importantly their humanity — are being respected. Assimilationist policies do the exact opposite. They deny the cultural heritage of the asylum-seeker, leading to division and unrest in the future. Although international law does not address the issue of integration, the EU Common Basic Principles of Integration define integration as “a dynamic, two-way process of mutual accommodation by all immigrants and residents of Member States.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel has shown important leadership in heeding the definition from the Common Basic Principles. She has accepted over one million asylum seekers while facing tremendous political dissent. But despite this seemingly positive action, Merkel’s words are still strongly in favor of assimilation over integration. She has insisted that newcomers must adopt German values and culture. Her choice of assimilationist language is a calculated, sensationalist choice. She is giving in to the pressure from the far-right and employing their conceptions of xenophobia to her refugee policy. It is possible that Merkel is taking this lukewarm stance to appease those on the far right: If she were to be seen as too enthusiastic about integrating refugees into German society, she might be met with harsh pushback. However, this doesn’t mean that multiculturalism should be blatantly ignored. If the Chancellor was interested in long-term success of integrating refugees and migrants into German society — and therefore reaping the benefits of their societal contributions — she would be emphasizing the need to foster cultural exchange.  

People sometimes forget that the people depicted in images of camps or inflatable boats are still people who have the same wants and desires as any other citizen. They want to work, to be successful, to be educated, and to see their loved ones.



About the Author

Isabella Creatura '18 is a staff writer for the Brown Political Review.