Integration is old news. Just ask immigrants.

6 January 2017
Zrinka Bralo

I have been in the business of integration for 23 years, integrating myself and thousands of other refugees and migrants in my work at Migrants Organise.

Just as an example, between 2007 and 2011 we helped more than 3,500 overseas qualified doctors and dentists from 98 countries pass their verification exams and find jobs, and to use their much needed skills to help themselves and all of us. We continue to provide mentoring, English classes, poetry classes, civic leadership academies, volunteering opportunities, and to organise Refugee Welcome committees. In, short we are the place where integration happens every day.

In 2009, I was part of Independent Asylum Commission, the most comprehensive inquiry about the asylum system ever conducted. Organised by Citizens UK, the IAC produced 180 recommendations on how to make that system better. Integration was part of the listening process, and I had the privilege of asking four former Home Secretaries what their communications strategy was when it came to the dispersal of asylum seekers from London. Introduced in 2001, the dispersal policy gave asylum seekers no other choice but to move to places where the Home Office decided they should live. Many of these were small towns that didn’t have the infrastructure to support new arrivals.

All four former Home Secretaries misunderstood the question. They told me about the leaflets they produced in various languages, informing refugees of their rights. I tried to clarify the question. What was their communication strategy for the host communities? Were those communities told who was coming to live there, and why? And were they advised on how could they help welcome the new arrivals?

It was clear that it had never occurred to our government to do something like that. They left integration up to local authorities, which happily took the money required to house people in boarded-up estates, but in most cases didn’t bother to do much more. Charities and faith groups stepped in and are still providing support to people who have been left destitute, dumped out of sight, not allowed to work, not allowed to go to university, not even allowed to volunteer, and with no access to proper legal advice or English classes.

Integration didn’t make it on to the news then, but it has made it on to the news now, and only because MPs have something to say about it in a brand new interim report.

So what’s the fuss? It’s actually worth reading the entire report by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Integration that prompted all this media interest. As always, the talking points (which have been taken out of context) are that immigrants should attend compulsory English lessons, or preferably already be fluent when they arrive. (The report is about immigrants rather than refugees, but such a distinction has little relevance in the real life practice of integration.)

At this point, let me insert a disclaimer – there is nothing wrong with saying that immigrants should learn English. Of course, language skills are necessary to enable people to thrive in their new neighborhoods, new jobs and new lives. The question is – is there really a need to keep saying it?

In fairness, the report does not focus solely on language skills, but the media coverage does. This leaves 99.9 per cent of the population, who will not read the entire report, with an impression that, for some unexplained reason, immigrants don’t want to learn English. Nothing could be further from the truth, but as we are now living in ‘post-truth’ era, how do we have a real, honest, facts-based conversation about integration? And more importantly, after all the media coverage, parliamentary reports and budget discussions, how does integration happen? What does it look like? And who should be doing what to make it happen?

We at Migrants Organise have been the ‘integrators’ for more than 23 years, so we know that integration is a little different for each person. Some need help with English, some with finding jobs, others with accessing further education or verifying their overseas qualifications, and all need help in navigating not only very complex, but also very hostile and unwelcoming, bureaucracies.

This includes not only the adversarial and ineffective immigration administration, but many other institutions that we interact with on a daily basis. Trying to open a bank account is complete nightmare, and for refugees it is mission impossible. Banks will not accept biometric cards issued by the Home Office as a valid ID. For EU migrants, understanding, navigating and filling in complex and long forms to acquire residency permits is a nightmare. Renting properties or registering with a GP is now part of the immigration control process. Landlords are required to check your immigration status to make sure you are not ‘illegal’. Banks have to check bank accounts of existing customers to make sure that you are not ‘illegal’. GPs and hospitals have to check that you are not ‘illegal’. Universities and employers have immigration compliance officers to check that you are not ‘illegal’. You child will come home from school with a form asking you to declare their country of birth.

Unfortunately, people who have to perform all these checks have not been trained properly, so they begin to suspect your ‘foreign’ sounding name or your other ‘otherness’ – the fact that you ‘look a bit foreign’. Nothing in your daily experience of life as a foreigner says – ‘Hey, you are welcome here’. The actual social space and social situation in which you can experience the other side of integration – the welcome from your new country – has shrunk to a few community organisations and faith institutions. All your other interactions with infrastructure systems are at best neutral and at worst hostile to your ‘otherness’. If you are fit and healthy, if you work, and have a place to live, you will accept these daily obstacles and find a way to manage, cope and make the best of your opportunities. You can ignore the negative media headlines blaming you and the likes of you for everything from steeling jobs to causing congestions on motorways that prevented now ex-UKIP leader from attending the meeting, while telling you that you need to learn English and be grateful.

But if anything goes wrong, if you lose your job, if you are exploited, if you get sick, if you get stuck in immigration system, if you try to find good and affordable legal advice – you enter the twilight zone which is beyond the imaginations of Kafka and Orwell combined.

And, increasingly, it is becoming more difficult to ignore the hate speech and hate attacks that have been on the rise since June.

Every day, here at Migrants Organise, we hear horror stories of injustice from refugees and migrants who turn to us for help. This degrading treatment is the result of hostile policies designed to reduce the number of immigrants in order to appease those who wrongly blame immigrants for the lack of social housing, the failing economy and low wages, the underfunded NHS, and the lack of investment in other social infrastructure such as school places.

The truth is that integration is happening all the time and both immigrants and British citizens are constantly conspiring to make it work.

Despite all the obstacles that are placed in their way, immigrants tend to keep calm and carry on. They put up with such unjust treatment because they have no other choice. Most people, including immigrants, will turn to their friends and family, to their communities and faith groups, to charities, to their neighbors and colleagues at work and in schools, to share their lives, joys and worries and to make the best of it. They are survivors.

They are the true integrators and the welcome committees.

So here is a revolutionary idea – it is called accountability. The media, as well as the politicians, could take a long, hard look at themselves for a change and report on what is that they are (not) doing to advance social cohesion and integration. To analyse how the laws that they have been making and the rhetoric they have been utilising in their efforts to get power or remain in power, or to sell newspapers, helps or hinders social integration.

The inquiry could start by looking at the impact of harsh immigration polices, stop and search, Prevent, cuts to ESOL provision, cuts to legal aid. It could also look at how the English language is used and abused when talking about immigrants, minorities, refugees and Muslims.

As always, the voice that is missing from the debate on immigration and integration is the voice of those that are most affected by it. So, here is another revolutionary idea – if you are in doubt about whether integration works or what else needs to happen to make it work, ask the migrants and refugees themselves, for us integration is a fact of life, even when it is not newsworthy for politicians and media.

Zrinka Bralo, CEO of Migrants Organise

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