Integration is the delicate, critical transition of the migrant from outsider to insider - the process by which migrants become a part of their new community. Successful integration is hard to measure because it is multilayered, touching every part of the migrant experience, from education to housing, political participation and civic engagement.
We might not be able to capture it well, but few doubt its importance. While many migration issues remain hotly contested, integration is widely considered to be a good thing for migrants and for the societies they have moved into.
Why then is it so hard to discuss, debate and agree on both the big picture and the specifics of integration? An indication of the sensitivities around this issue can be found in the final draft text of the two Global Compacts which are slated for adoption in December 2018 by almost all UN Member States. The Global Compact for Migration contains four, largely non-substantive references to integration. The Global Compact on Refugees is only slightly better, dealing briefly with integration over three of its more than 100 paragraphs. What happened?
Integration is difficult for states because it exposes a truth that many are reluctant to acknowledge publicly. Despite the overwhelming international focus on return and reintegration of migrants back into their home communities, many migrants will not - often cannot - go home. The 325,000 refugees granted protection in Germany in 2017 are now establishing new lives for themselves in that country. Fewer than 3% of the 12 million migrants living without legal status in the US are returned in any one year.
And questions about integration are not just for wealthy countries. It is possible that the more than one million refugees fleeing sectarian violence in Myanmar who entered Bangladesh over the past 12 months will need to call that country home for generations to come. Nobody can predict when - indeed if - the refugees from Syria and Palestine who currently make up around 30% of Lebanon’s population will be able to leave. The collective silence around these awkward realities is understandable, but it’s not helpful.
Integration is also difficult to discuss and deal with because it is not amenable to anything resembling a quick fix. Building a wall, establishing a camp, creating a new border force, stopping the boats - these are all political shorthand for decisive action. Even if they don’t amount to much in the end, they give the impression of control amid chaos, and they hold out the hope of immediate results.
By contrast, if it is to be done properly, integration of migrants is a long and often fraught process for all involved. It requires migrants to yield to the reality of their new lives and to agree to taking those lives forward in ways that may not have been their choice. It requires receiving communities and governments to accept new arrivals, to accommodate their presence with material and spiritual generosity and to be open to the possibility of enrichment.
The consequences of ignoring integration, or doing it badly, are devastating. Across the world we see evidence of failed integration in vast refugee camps that have long abandoned any pretence of impermanence. We see it in ghetto communities that are separated, in all the ways that matter, from the society to which they have been nominally attached. We see failed integration in the metrics that show migrants lagging far behind established populations across a broad swathe of quality of life indicators including academic achievement and workforce participation.
And integration failures have deeper, darker effects that are too often ignored. For example, public opinion about the value of migration appears closely tied to perceptions about integration. Gallup’s Migrant Acceptance Index confirms that attitudes to migration are much more positive in the US and Australia, which both have a strong record when it comes to integration, than in Europe, where integration has been much more problematic.
The message is clear: those seeking to promote more open and liberal migration policies need to be playing a long game. They need to pay close attention to what happens to people after they have moved. If things don’t work out well, the goodwill that enabled their move in the first place can quickly dissipate, further complicating their journey from outsider to insider.
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Support for generous migration policies crumbles where migrants exist (or are perceived to exist) outside the social and cultural fabric of the receiving community. It is no surprise that integration failures have been widely cited as a major force behind the growing influence of malign political movements. Populist parties ascribing to a policy of exclusive nationalism are still hovering on the fringes in most countries. But even when outside government, their capacity to influence immigration and integration policy can be profound. In the Netherlands, for example, nationalist political movements have successfully weaponised concerns around integration, manipulating mainstream parties into adopting policies that are much less friendly to migration and to migrants.
So how can we do better? Common sense and recent experience point to the following.
Receiving communities need help
The costs of integration are not evenly shared, either within or between countries. It is unfair that those who are being called on to exercise the greatest generosity are too often those with the least to give and the most to lose.
At the country level, central governments should ensure that towns and cities tasked with the real work of receiving and integrating migrants are adequately supported, not just in terms of direct integration expenses, but also to guard against the erosion of existing services that can easily fuel resentment within the broader population.
At the international level, the idea of ‘burden sharing’ between countries on migration matters must extend to integration. It's a collective good and a collective responsibility.
Success requires planning
Recent analysis of large-scale resettlement of refugees has demonstrated the 'power of place'. In short, where new migrants end up can determine both their future and the long-term health of the society into which they have moved.
For example, we know that employment is critical to integration, bringing individuals and families into their new communities while exerting a positive effect on public perception of migrants. When resettlement is carefully planned to maximise real employment opportunities and, more broadly, to match migrant with destination, the experience on both sides improves dramatically. Technology is helping to make this kind of targeted, locally relevant policy-making a reality.
Honesty and genuine partnership are rewarded
Integration is difficult and problems are inevitable. Receiving societies, and indeed migrants themselves, deserve the respect of honesty. Anything less represents an indefensible betrayal of the trust that should exist between a government and its people.
It is also a strategic mistake. The now common strategy of pretending that everything is fine when it is not too often backfires. Communities that are suffering the effects of inadequate integration - for example strained services and social tensions - rightly feel ignored or patronized when their concerns are dismissed or mischaracterized. In the same way as migrants, those who are receiving them deserve attention and compassion.
Most importantly, integration must be presented and experienced as a two-way process - a partnership between the community and the migrant. We have seen that when partnership is the agreed starting point, relationships are transformed. Migrants become more than the passive objects of charity, and communities become more than unwilling cogs in a policy machine of which they do not feel part.
Our knowledge of what works, and what doesn’t, is still very limited, not least because it may be years before the impact of a particular approach can be properly assessed. This means that the evidence base for integration policies and practices is often shaky.
Most immediately, it is very difficult to work out how to invest for maximum return. We can’t afford to make big mistakes, but we also can’t afford to wait. Policy-makers should be brave enough to acknowledge gaps in our knowledge and forward-thinking enough to support initiatives that will help close those gaps. They should be tapping into recent work that is finally helping us to understand integration better, such as the role that cost-benefit analysis can play in deciding where to focus attention and resources, and the ways in which big data can be used to improve our understanding of how integration happens.
The two Global Compacts acknowledge a truth we all know: human movement is the lifeblood of human progress. It cannot be stopped, but it can be managed much better than we are doing at present. The Compacts lay out a vision for the future, one where countries, working together, succeed in making sure that migration is overwhelmingly safe, legal and beneficial for all. But for that to happen, we need to keep integration - the long-term health of our migrants and the communities that are receiving them - front and centre.