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Integration refers to the process of refugees settling into a new community, country and society. Although much debated, it is commonly understood to be a long-term, two-way process of change. It involves both refugees/migrants and receiving societies, within which refugees adapt to their new surroundings and move towards independence and self-sufficiency, while receiving societies create the welcoming and equitable conditions that enable this process to take place.
Ideas about what it means to be ‘integrated’ and how integration should be measured vary from country to country, and amongst organisations and individuals within different countries. It is generally accepted, however, that integration has a number of practical aspects and outcomes. For example, obtaining a secure legal status, language-learning, equal access to rights, employment, education, and access to affordable and appropriate housing. Less tangible aspects of this process reflect refugees/migrants feeling welcome and having a sense of belonging in their new society. Integration is commonly understood as a process that takes place at the individual, local and national level.
Some refugee resettlement programmes include specific integration support for resettled refugees, while others mainstream support for resettled refugees into integration programmes provided for other migrant groups. Both specialist and mainstream integration programmes are generally provided for a specific period of time - which in Europe can range from a few months to several years - and are delivered by various actors, including specialist NGOs, municipalities and/or national governmental agencies working on integration.
Although integration programme activities differ widely from country to country, both specialist and mainstream programmes generally provide support for resettled refugees in the practical aspects of integration. Activities may include language classes, social and cultural orientation, vocational training, and assistance to access mainstream services such as health and education. In some countries, participation in integration programme activities is compulsory. For example, some countries insist that resettled refugees’ ongoing access to financial benefits is contingent upon their attendance. In other countries, participation in integration programmes is voluntary.
Some integration programmes try to provide a direct link to orientation activities provided to resettled refugees in the pre-departure phase. This is often via staff in local settings in Europe working directly with those delivering pre-departure orientation programmes. Many resettled refugees continue to access integration-related support well beyond the end-date of specific integration programmes through, for example, civil society organisations or mainstream services provided for the wider population in the receiving country.
Outside of official programmes, many civil society organisations provide direct integration support and assistance for resettled refugees, generally together with other refugee and migrant groups. In many European countries, civil society organisations recruit volunteers from local communities – including refugees resettled through earlier programmes – to act as mentors to resettled refugees. Civil society organisations also work to create welcoming and supportive environments in receiving communities, which is a crucial factor in the integration of resettled refugees. This is pursued through activities such as campaigning and awareness-raising on resettlement and refugee issues.
Many resettled refugees choose to naturalise as citizens of the receiving country, an option that is generally available after a defined period of residency. However, this can be inaccessible for some resettled refugees where they are unable to meet specific requirements, such as language proficiency. While some consider acquisition of citizenship in the receiving country to mark the ‘end’ of the integration process, others may consider themselves integrated at a much earlier stage, at a later stage, or perhaps not at all.
Pictures: Courtesy of Horton Housing UK; Save Me Aachen.