Skip to main content
Skip to main content

New academic report examines UK policies for asylum seeker and refugee integration


RESPOND project report finds UK's integration policies are reactive, non-interventionist and fragmented

Date of Publication:
05 August 2020

New academic report examines UK policies for asylum seeker and refugee integration

05 August 2020

An insightful and informative new report was published last month on refugee and migrant integration policies in the UK.

CoverThe 112-page report was authored by Naures Atto, Catherine Hirst and Victoria Hall from the University of Cambridge. It was published by the RESPOND project, which is coordinated at Uppsala University in Sweden and is funded by the European Union's Horizon 2020 programme.

You can download it here.

The authors explain: "This report provides an overview of the legal and policy framework of integration policies in the UK and explains the main contours of immigrant integration. The report looks into policies (macro-level), practices of stakeholders (meso-level) and experiences of immigrants (micro-level) in five thematic fields: a) labour market, b) education, c) housing and spatial integration, d) psychosocial health and e) citizenship and belonging. The report draws on interviews with asylum seekers and refugees at the micro level, and with stakeholders from NGOs and local authorities who are involved in the implementation of integration policies at the meso level. The main contribution of this study lies in its micro empirical focus by bringing in ethnographic insights from the perspective of asylum seekers and refugees based on their experiences visà-vis migration and integration policies. These individual accounts show us how asylum seekers and refugees are struggling to establish a new home in the UK and at a different level, in developing a belonging to a new place of living, while expressing their frustrations and hopes, their secondary traumas and resilience. In other words, they inform us about their integration experiences in society."

The six main sections of the report cover:

  • An overview of the legal, political and institutional framework of integration policies in the UK
  • Labour market integration
  • Education
  • Housing and spatial integration
  • Psychosocial health
  • Citizenship and belonging

The report's key findings are that the UK's integration policies are reactive, non-interventionist and fragmented. In addition, the onus for integration has been shifted on to immigrants themselves.

While the report notes that integration has historically been seen as "a process in which immigrants would become part of the host society and culture following their own efforts and achievements," the authors finds this has now changed.

They say: "In recent years, in the context of the rise of anti-immigrant narratives in many Western societies, the governments' main concern has shifted towards reducing the number of immigrants substantially by all means and introducing a new version of nativist discourse where assimilationist policies are at the core. With this background, immigrants are categorized in a binary fashion (e.g. 'wanted/unwanted', 'deserved/undeserved') and often portrayed as a burden to the economy, and a threat to national solidarity. This is a sharp turn from the multiculturalist policies which was a dominant narrative in Western countries during the 1970s and 1980s, built on an idea of recognition of differences and the 'other'. By breaking this link between self and other, populist discourses have managed to push forward an assimilationist agenda accompanied with a hostile environment for immigrants."

In its overall conclusions, the report states:

"We have identified three cross-cutting features of the UK's approach to integration: reactivity, burden-shifting and fragmentation. We argue that the UK's approach to immigrant integration has tended to be reactive, with long-term planning being overshadowed by more immediate concerns. This short-termism has also made integration policies vulnerable to politicisation, with heightened anxiety about numbers of immigrants arriving, security threats and the prospects of integration for certain categories of migrants affecting the UK's integration approach. Second – the UK Government has engaged in burden-shifting. Both local authorities and the migrants themselves have been compelled to take on much of the responsibility for integration into their new communities. Third – the UK's integration policies are fragmented. Compared to other European countries, the UK's integration policies tend to be non-interventionist, which in turn has resulted in a series of fragmented realities in policy and practice. This fragmentation occurs between tiers of government, within tiers of government, and in terms of different policies for different categories of migrants. The fragmentation of integration policies across the UK's three tiers of Government may be explained as a result of functions and duties delegated to each level. While the UK Government's reserved powers include those surrounding immigration, citizenship and nationality, the national legislatures of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are responsible for the delivery of education, health and social services. Further, local authorities are responsible for some social care, schooling and housing functions. The division of labour between the three tiers means that there is not one, UK-wide strategy, which has led to fragmentation, overlap and sometimes incoherence. Apart from Northern Ireland – which does not currently have a refugee and asylum seeker integration strategy, all devolved administrations have developed their own integration strategies – in some cases more proactive than the UK-wide administration. In Scotland, for example, the New Scots strategy is distinctive in centring its approach on 'integration from day one' meaning that asylum seekers should be considered in its integration policy after they settle in Scotland rather than being required to wait until they are granted asylum.

"A key fault line in the debate on integration is where responsibility lies between the local and the central government. Even though local authorities are closest to many of the issues related to integration, they do not, however, control some of the levers that affect integration outcomes. The central government determines the extent of migrants' rights to participate (e.g. rights to work and to vote); is responsible for key areas of policy such as discrimination law; and shapes, to an extent, national media and public discourse. It can incentivise civil society and employers to contribute to this agenda and ensure local authorities have an evidence base to inform their interventions. Some local authorities across the UK (e.g. Metro Mayors) have recently taken a lead in developing their own integration strategy for refugees and migrants, while others have taken initiatives without referring specifically to integration.

"Integration policies are not only fragmented between levels of government, but also within each level of government. Given that holistic integration encompasses many policy areas – from education to health to community participation – it is crucial that the multiple functions which are currently tangled between several agencies are made to cohere. A third dimension of fragmentation concerns the UK's two different integration approaches to new immigrants. Concerning asylum seekers, the UK Government's approach is one of segregation and marginalisation. Asylum seekers' rights have been progressively eroded and their freedoms diminished under every tightening immigration laws and rules (Hirst and Atto, 2018). The steady erosion of appeal rights, the curbing of support payments, dispersal accommodation, immigration detention and the criminalization of illegal working are all serving to prevent asylum seekers putting down roots, establishing connections with local communities and planning a future in the UK. In contrast to the category of asylum seekers, the integration policy aimed at those who arrive in the UK already as (recognised) refugees via one of the resettlement programmes tend to encounter a much more accommodating integration policy and inclusive approach."