Refugees, migrants and integration – what level of support can they expect?

22nd March 2016
I am using the term migrant to refer to all people on the move who have yet to complete the legal process of claiming asylum. This group includes people fleeing war-torn countries such as Syria, who are likely to be granted refugee status.

Migrants fleeing war and persecution are not a new phenomenon. In this blog, I consider to what extent and how host countries have previously sought to integrate and support large influxes of peoples driven out of their native states.

Migrant Mother

Since 1948 Palestinians have sought refuge in neighbouring countries. However, their experience of integration (citizenship, access to goods and services) varies dramatically in the Middle East. Syria and Jordan were historically the most accommodating, with both giving the same rights as their citizens to work, education and healthcare. This is in direct contrast to Egypt and Tunisia who officially treat Palestinians as foreign nationals, with no rights to any of the former. Lebanon, the largest recipient of Palestinians as a percentage of their population (10 percent), houses the majority of them in camps, and because they are not ‘formally citizens of another state, they are unable to claim the same rights as other foreigners living and working in Lebanon’. Paradoxically Palestinian children are getting a good level of education through the UN schools based in the camps in Lebanon, however they are educated separately from Lebanese children and when they graduate have little access to the local job market – Palestinians are excluded from as many as 20 professions.

The Gulf States have been generous financial donors to the current Syrian migrant crisis and early recipients of Syrian refugees. There is, though, a wide variation of ‘host’ support within the region. In Saudi Arabia, Syrian children are able to study in government schools; all Syrians in the Kingdom are said to receive free medical treatment; and allowed to work in the private sector like other expatriates. Kuwaiti authorities have granted residencies to Syrian refugees who hold short-term visas (or over-stayers) which should allow children to enrol legally in it’s school system; however, Syrians in Qatar do not fare as well with reports suggesting 20 000 are on visitors visas which bars access to employment and education.  

Education, as alluded to here is right at the centre of refugee needs. It not only invests in human capital for the host nation; but provides livelihood opportunities and crucially an opportunity for integration. Research from the University of Toronto is unequivocal on this point asserting that ‘without social integration, possibilities for political, cultural, and economic stability are limited for displaced children and their families, both in the present and in the future.’ 

The high numbers of migrants in the current crisis, hosted in countries such as Lebanon and Jordan make integration both a greater challenge and a more compelling imperative. Recent experience in Europe and the West, with far fewer numbers, is though useful to draw on in order to detail difference in approach.  

European engagement with the Roma community, a marginalised and displaced people, varies. In Slovakia 40 percent of Roma children go to segregated schools, with a recent study stating that between 65-80 percent of students in reduced-curriculum schools for children with learning disabilities are Roma. Given that Roma are estimated to be around eight percent of the Slovakian population, this is a huge overrepresentation—and one that is put down in part to controversial diagnostic tests, which do not pay any attention to Roma children’s linguistic or cultural background. 

Efforts to address and facilitate Roma children’s – and more widely Roma community needs – in the UK have been more encouraging. Recent research details practice where mainstream state schools, under the supervision of qualified teachers, and working with a Roma-speaking teaching assistant assessed and inducted new arrivals into all year groups. They were then taught phonics and English language. Furthermore, attention was given to building good relationships with Roma families, via the school’s home-school links worker and a Roma support worker.

Fostering school-community linkages are key to successful integration. Experience from Canada highlights how crucial, in urban settings, school-community linkages are for displaced communities further isolated and stigmatized in underserved and deprived (areas).’ Research into Somali student attainment in the U.K. – traditionally below the national average – concurs, whilst also pointing to the importance of a broad curriculum which incorporates aspects of pupils’ own culture adding relevance and building self-esteem. 

A recent study on refugee integration in the U.S. education system highlights the need to consider past education experiences of students in their countries of first settlement – particularly pertinent due to the journeys taken by those in the current migrant crisis. The authors stress the need for teachers and school staff to understand such ‘resettlement histories’ which can impact on students’ approaches to learning and behaviour.  

Refugee ‘integration’ is a “dynamic, multifaceted two-way process which requires adaptation on the part of the newcomers, but also the society of destination” according to the U.K. Home Office. Recent news commentary points to emerging faultlines within countries, such as Germany, who are hosting large numbers of those caught in the current migrant crisis. However, for societies to benefit from their ‘new citizens’ it is clear that all parties must adapt and integrate... as countries around the world have done for millennia.

Photo copyright David Erickson 2007 (CC BY 2.0)