The government finally announced last Tuesday their new strategy for integration. Why should we care? Although buried behind the news of restructuring of the UKBA and filled with the usual rhetoric about integration, the new document is good news. It praises local action and local solutions. It understands that migrants in west London are different from migrants in Bradford.
But that’s where the good news ends.
This new document confuses good things happening at the local level with a coherent national integration strategy. At times, the new policy aims to inspire and does:
‘Integration requires changes to society, not to the law.’
As an American migrant I take this for granted. My parents’ generation fought hard in the civil rights movement in the US to make everyone equal in law;our generation’s fight is to make everyone equal in society.
At the Migrant and Refugee Communities Forum(where I work), we help some of the most disadvantaged and socially excluded migrants gain equal access to public services. We do it through local community groups, collective action, and strategic interventions.
Sounds a lot like the new integration policy: that’s because it is. This new policy is all about local solutions for local problems, local action for change in our communities. Classic localism. It is not, however, a national integration strategy that provides guidance or, dare I say, leadership.
It is a reiteration that migrants are a part of Big Society without emphasising ‘migrants’ or ‘Big Society’. In the 28 page document, the word ‘migrant’ is used only four times and ‘Big Society’ only once. By focusing on common ground, this new policy glosses over the people who are doing most of the integrating: migrants themselves!
Still, I am excited that civil servants are finally learning.
The policy emphasises that local authorities should listen to our communities to find out what problems affect us most.
There is plenty of evidence that migrants and refugees can and do participate in the co-creation of services and new initiatives but it should happen more, especially within local authorities. This is where the national strategy can help and not in the form of a toolkit.
The stand out initiative for me is the announcement of additional funding to learn English for those who are out of work and unable to afford fees. Every day at the Forum we meet individuals who want to learn English but can’t afford the courses.
The government has identified a real need and will hopefully put sufficient funds to get these people into the classrooms. ESOL funding, beyond those without jobs, is critical and organisations like Action for ESOL lay out in their manifesto why the right to learn our common language is essential for integration.
There are few traps we cannot fall into as this new policy develops.
First is the careful tip-toeing around the August riots. The document states:
‘The disturbances that occurred in a number of English towns and cities in August 2011 highlighted some deep-seated challenges we need to tackle. But it is important not to oversimplify these serious events. “These were not race riots… The challenge is how to respond to the criminality and lack of social responsibility that lay behind the actions of a small number of people.’ [/blockquote]
So why is it being included in the integration strategy?
Second is that this paper is intensely focused on young people.
Yes, young people are our future. Yes, young migrants have the incredible capacity to overcome difference and adapt to new surroundings. Yes, some of these new programmes have potential, but let’s not turn our back on adult migrants. They need help integrating and resources put towards both their education and routes into work.
The third thing I am concerned about is the linking of integration with prevention of extremism, or, as this Government is calling it, ‘outflanking extremism’. Half of this rhetoric is aimed at the far-right and half at Islamist extremists but neither are about integration.
Unfortunately we know that counter-terrorism police are not very good at building community relationships. And we know that community workers are not equipped to stop terrorism. Don’t cast suspicion upon our communities in the name of ‘outflanking extremism’. Profiling any group is bad policing and bad integration policy.
Don’t get us wrong, local migrant organisations are good at facilitating integration. Actually, we’re the experts, because our members have been doing it for decades. What we need from a national integration policy is what we cannot do alone at the local level – the strategic changes to national institutions that are perpetuating inequality.