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What is This Thing About Refugees’ Integration?


People’s Assumptions on Integration

While achieving integration is commonly known as moving to a new place, learning a foreign language and having access to work and housing; from a refugee’s perspective, integration is a much deeper and a more subjective endeavor, which includes rights and responsibilities, but above all, the feeling of being at home. People’s views regarding refugee integration are influenced by the concerns and stereotypes regarding Muslims in the Western World. There is a widespread assumption – most prominent amongst older, less-educated people – that Muslims would like to be among the communities they live in, but also be distinctly different than the rest of the society. Those who are religiously affiliated, in addition to those on the right side of the ideological spectrum, tend to be the most skeptical about the possibility of integration, highlighted by their fears of the refugee crisis becoming a top security threat. (Stokes, Wike and Poushter, 2016) Here, it is important to examine the expectations of integration from the welcoming society itself while understanding past and present integration patterns on a circumstance-specific multi-faceted level.

The act of migration by definition does not simply constitute the replacement of one’s existing culture with strong connections and cultural ties to the receiving society. The ability to coexist through Understanding, tolerance and education is essentially the desired outcome of any international community. Although, many misconceptions have been formed based on interpretation of various E.U. governments’ alteration of the concept of rights to duties to the obligations of immigrants and self-responsibility. (UNHCR, 2013, p. 36) This change in attitude has shifted the responsibility for community-migrant integration off of the government in regards to policy on to the individual migrants and communities, which in turn has left integration efforts to become one-sided leaving many foundations and programs under-funded. (ibid. 37) This lack of integration efforts on behalf of the government has unfortunately stalled integration efforts in some societies further perpetuating stereotypes and fears about unfamiliar cultures.

On a larger scale, the European Union has not created any solid mandate to take on a particular integration approach, therefore relying solely on soft law. (Sunderland, 2016) However, the E.U. does provide allocated funding for integration measures. The motivation for E.U. support in the integration process is based in the E.U. Common Basic Principles, adopted in 2004, which defines integration as “a dynamic, two-way process of mutual accommodation by all immigrants and residents of Member States”, going on to also state the importance of employment, education and active participation in society to incorporate diversity. (UNHCR, 2013, p. 35) Norms set out by the E.U. lay the basis for all Member-States to abide by, yet, it is at the discretion of the Member-States and governing bodies to allocate support and funding to initiatives in addition to basic protections and aid given to newly received migrants and refugees.

The host society can essentially take on the characteristics of 5 different approaches of integration with occasional overlap based on the makeup of the society. (Montreuil and Bourhis, 2001, p. 700) These methods of integration can be defined below:


· Integrationism – when the host society accepts the value of the heritage of migrants and the belief that migrants can adopt features of the host society;

· Assimilationism – when the host society expects minorities to relinquish their cultural identity and absorb the host society’s;

· Segregationism – when the host society expects that minorities keep their distance so that they do not transform or contaminate the host culture – in this case, communities must be created separated from the host society, since they are not seen as rightful members of society;

· Exclusionism – when the host society believes that migrants can never be incorporated into the host society;

· Individualism – when individuals see themselves and others as individuals, rather than members of certain groups.


Through analyzing integration based on the five possible scenarios in the chart, it can be deducted that the more exposure a culture has in a society, the better the outcome for integration will be. For example, if a society is exposed to prized art, food or culture of a particular country in the form of a tea salon or through music, then the community will associate migrants coming from this area as citizens from a culture that could add positive contributions to what already exists in their society. These new cultural ties can create bonds and commonalities between people from different backgrounds.

The more exclusion and separation there is between the society and the migrant, the larger the chance is that integration will be more difficult. The goal of creating a “melting-pot” community, where cultures co-exist over a “mixing-bowl” society that keeps cultures equal yet unique, can be achieved as a gradual two-level process.

The process of integration is all inclusive and can be measured in terms of housing location, opportunity for employment, education level and other social and cultural adaptations in the host society. It can also take place at the collective level of the immigrant group.

Furthermore, legal and labor market integration provide a means of achieving stability, which new migrants can embrace as a part of their fresh beginning in their new home. While there is a popular focus on these two aspects of integration across countries, there is another equally important element which is socio-cultural aspect of refugee integration. This aspect cuts across all other aspects of integration, and to a greater degree than the other two aspects of integration, it requires efforts from every member of the community. Proper socio-cultural integration in theory ensures that not only will the refugee maintain his cultural identity while adapting to the new host culture, but that the host society will understand and tolerate the differing aspects of the refugee’s culture.

The Netherlands


According to the Dutch government: integration and learning basic Dutch is compulsory to those outside the EEA, Switzerland or Turkey – though other nationals are not obliged by law to integrate. ( The government then monitors the effort of the newcomers to integrate and if the government does not judge the migrants’ effort to be adequate, their residence permit can be revoked. Since refugees and newcomers are expected to integrate independently, they are responsible for finding and paying for their own integration courses and language tests, with the option to request a loan of up to €10.000 in order to finance these processes. (Ministerie Van Algemende Zaken, 2016; International Catholic Migration Commission Europe, 2013) Additionally, controversial clauses that allow for refund requests to be made after passing the exams have since been revoked. (

Due to these standards, Human Rights Watch has criticized The Netherlands for their "extensive use of detention for migrants and asylum-seekers, and the lack of support for rejected asylum seekers who cannot be returned to their countries of origin”. In order to tackle these issues, it is necessary to re-visit Dutch government policy towards migrants and refugees and where improvements can be made to provide adequate support.

The Problematique?


Despite the most up to date Refugees Convention (1951) stating that the state should facilitate the integration and naturalization of refugees, integration policies have become streamlined and the specifics of refugees’ situations including hardship and personal loss are often overlooked in integration policies. (UNHCR, 2013, p. 11) It has been proven that insensitive integration policies requiring people to give up fundamental aspects of their identity are not prone to success. (Phillimore, 2015) It could be caused by a simple difference that hinders understanding between the government and refugees. There can also be cases of an individual being integrated in one area of the receiving society, but not in others. This has led to the concept of everyday integration; different from the big issues such as employment and housing, it includes: leisure, consumption and access to childcare.

Governments’ philosophies of integration can vary from facilitation and forms of encouragement to coercion, however the goal of integration is always inclusion. (UNHCR, 2013, p. 13) In the European Union, national integration policies have relied on coercion: from religious-dress bans in France, Belgium, Italy and Spain, to the Netherlands’ practice of overseas integration tests. (UNHCR, 2013, p. 120)

Barriers to integration have surfaced overtime including language and citizenship tests as well as compulsory orientation courses, which moves policies toward the process of assimilation. The UNHCR calls for flexibility within the E.U. regarding such requirements in order to make naturalization more achievable.

Another barrier to integration is the time spent in the asylum system, which limits access to education and the job market, thus reducing the readiness of a refugee to integrate. Language ability, uncertainty of cultural norms, fear of racism and concerns about family separation are some of the aspects that might jeopardize the building of relationships. This can be countered by the creation of support networks in civil spaces such as religious communities or through efforts to include refugees in activities by the receiving society. Social interactions might be influenced by negative views amongst the receiving society, where the media can play an important role in painting an accurate picture of the migration and integration processes. By facilitating dialogue and interactions, the focus of integration policies can shift from the current stance of preferable assimilation to more inclusive and multi-level approaches. (UNHCR, 2013, p. 96)

Types of Integration

Sociocultural Integration


Social integration is based on emotions and the aspect of the “human element” in creating the feeling of belonging in a place and in a particular community. Refugees are faced with difficulties when it comes to breaking down barriers and connecting with members of the receiving population due to factors such as uncertainty regarding cultural norms, lack of language ability and poor emotional health. The social integration of refugees is in large part made possible by co-ethnic and co-national support networks in addition to proactive efforts of the host society to include refugees in activities, in additional to work and re-location assistance.

Since social integration is a two-way process, the openness of the receiving society is equally important to social integration. Yet, it cannot be assumed that contact will happen automatically between newcomers and their new community.

In bridging the gap between the newcomers and the society, active citizenship participation, promotes community-wide activities in civic and political processes as well as influencing decision-making. The participation of refugees in these processes increases their sense of belonging and empowerment towards improving all aspects of their integration in The Netherlands.

Another key element in social integration is housing, which can act as a barrier or an opportunity for social contact. If an individual is kept away from the society in housing projects or with refugees or migrants from their own country, then it can inhibit the individual from feeling a part of the Dutch society. On the other hand, if a refugee is placed into a mixed housing complex for instance, then by social interactions such as meeting neighbors or participating in neighborhood activities, the newcomer can immerse themselves as an integrated individual.

Likewise, employment will usually bring refugees into situations where contacts can be made and gradually, the familiarity and connection with their new society will increase. While sometimes difficulties lie in finding suitable job placements for the newcomer, when efforts to combine employment and social connections are made, then naturally ties can be made between the employers and co-workers including refugees.

As the individual builds confidence, they are on their way to fully participate in society. As an active citizen, it is expected that the refugee has the willingness or ability to participate; the receiving society must similarly show willingness to facilitate participation. Hence, to become an active citizen in the host society does not depend only on participation such as through voting and naturalization, but it also depends on the individual’s commitment to the society that they live in.

The degree in which refugees integrate on a social level depends partially on structures and also on individuals within the receiving society including the refugees themselves and their ability to interact in the settings they are placed in.

Though the process may take time. To achieve the complete feeling of being “at home” and to encompass the freedom to interact in any of the spheres of the receiving society, complete integration may unfortunately only occur in the second generation. (UNHCR, 2013, p. 96) Children of migrants grow up and generally take on double identities involving that of their citizenship and of their parent’s culture. Children may provide assistance to their parents through their language skills and community involvement, which builds onto the integration efforts that their parents have already made. Consequently, it is important that the parents have integrated and are a part of an integrated community in order to avoid integration complications with future generations as they come to understand their own identities.

Legal Integration


On a more technical level, legal integration is a process carried out at the local level, entitling refugees to rights commensurate to those enjoyed by the citizens of the host society. The 1951 Refugees Convention outlines basic rights such as: freedom of movement, access to education and the labor market, assistance, identity documents and family reunification. Naturalization is another aspect of the legal integration process, which contributes immensely to a positive integration process, since it facilitates the implementation of their rights and access to employment, public relief and family reunification. Lack of sufficient conditions, rights or a durable status able to secure the local integration of refugees can lead to serious issues caused by the lack of integration, which may have been preventable. (UNHCR, 2006, p. 41-67).

Labor Market Integration


To equip migrants and refugees with working skills, integration into the labor market must take place. Labor market integration includes skills assessment, professional language training and on the job training; and migrant entrepreneurship. It is proven that having timely accessibility to the labor market is beneficial to both refugees and the host country. E.U. Member States are additionally advised to assure refugees’ effective access to the labor market no later than 9 months after their application for international protection has been submitted. To facilitate this, the European Commission has taken action by developing vocational training programs as a means of integration. Complementing these measures is the revision of the European Qualifications Framework, which aims at creating a better understanding of qualifications acquired in developing countries.

In some countries, employment services such as language courses, guidance counseling and civic education are offered as part of broader programs. There are also incentives for employers to hire refugees, but these incentives vary from country to country. Moreover, certain pre-conditions to placements are sparingly taken into consideration. For instance, proximity to jobs is not yet considered during the housing process, which hinders refugees’ prospects of being close to a desired area for work or to be close to family. (Eurofund, 2016) By understanding the entire picture of the difficulties and needs of settling refugees into working life, it can help programs to make holistic approaches that both aim at problem solving and creating better opportunities for refugees.

Observations and Remarks

Since one of the most important tools for refugee integration is language learning, ideally, refugees should have access to language classes from the beginning of the asylum procedure. Helping local people understand refugee experiences as well as the development of intercultural communication skills and flexible approaches to service provision is crucial for a positive reception of refugees.

Due to the importance of social networks in refugee’s integration, individuals should be given the option to choose a destination, which allows for them to live near others who can offer support as opposed to dispersal techniques often employed, which results in further isolation. Accommodation should facilitate interaction with the host communities, debunking the practices of keeping refugees in isolated camps or unprepared communities, which out of fear act out and exhibit practices of discrimination and xenophobia.

Orientations should also be offered as to help ease refugees’ transition to new cultures, since refugees can be faced with difficulties and opposition. Importantly, integration initiatives must surpass the local level and receive more resources in order to allow for a strategy that is not only short-term, but for the long-term duration. Integration can be achieved more seamlessly if refugee reception policies aim at promoting social inclusion rather than isolation from the host communities. Equal access to the job market, integration support and family reunification must be cemented.

Aside from respecting the most basic rights awarded to asylum seekers, states must also provide good conditions for the duration of the asylum claims, while providing the host society with accurate information on refugees, who they are and what they are facing, so that an inclusive society can benefit from both refugees and the host community.


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© Unity in Diversity 2017.

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