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The Debate Over Integration: An Explainer

In this primer, we look at the integration of migrants and refugees, and introduce the key concepts, data sources and policy debates around integration and diversity.

Written by Charlotte Alfred Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Pierre claver school
The Pierre Claver school for migrants and asylum seekers is a place to meet and study to help better integration into French society. Its users are busy at their work in January 2016.Alice Beuvelet/Hans Lucas

The integration of migrants and refugees into the countries where they live has long been the subject of hotly contested political debates. In this year of nail-biting elections across Europe, integration continues to grab headlines and drive politicians’ rhetoric over immigration.

“Britain facing ‘crisis’ over integration of immigrants,” British tabloids proclaimed at the start of the year. In France, Marine Le Pen pledged a tough response to migrants who “refuse” to integrate. “The people who come to France, why would they want to change France, to live in France the same way they lived back home?” asked the Front National leader and eventual runner-up in the presidential race.

In the Netherlands, Prime Minister Mark Rutte, facing a stiff electoral challenge in March from Geert Wilders’ anti-immigration party, sympathized with public calls for people who don’t integrate to leave the country, offering the blunt message: “Behave normally or go away.”

What do they actually mean by integration? The definitions, evidence and policy debates over the issue are often lost in the media and political noise.

In partnership with Migration Matters, which is exploring what it would take to create truly integrated societies in diverse countries in Rethinking Us & Them: Integration and Diversity in Europe, we look at some of the key terms, ideas and data points on integration of migrants and refugees.

What Is Integration?

Integration has economic, social, cultural and political dimensions. Some overarching definitions include:

“Immigrant integration is the process of economic mobility and social inclusion for newcomers and their children” – Migration Policy Institute.

“Integration is about acceptance, participation and having the same chances in society” – Naika Foroutan, professor of social sciences at the Humboldt-University in Berlin and vice-director of the Berlin Institute on Integration and Migration Research (BIM).

“A mutual, dynamic, multifaceted and on-going process. From a refugee perspective, integration requires a preparedness to adapt to the lifestyle of the host society without having to lose one’s own cultural identity. From the point of view of the host society, it requires a willingness for communities to be welcoming and responsive to refugees and for public institutions to meet the needs of a diverse population” – The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) resettlement handbook.

Yet how people define integration can vary widely from country to country, region to region and community to community. It is rooted in complex debates about what defines “citoyenneté” in France (traditionally, the adoption of the values of the French Republic), whether Germany has a Leitkultur (core culture) and whether trying to define Britishness is an un-British thing to do.

Understanding what people mean by integration becomes even more complicated when they build their definitions using different terms with different meanings in different languages. In Germany and the Netherlands, for example, it is common to refer to people “with a migration background,” which includes citizens and people born in the country but with roots elsewhere – a much wider term than “immigrant” in Canada, which refers to people born abroad.

Who Should Be Integrated?

Integration is often assumed to refer exclusively to migrants, refugees or religious minorities, but many societies are diverse in so many ways beyond national origin.

Integration is “not automatically connected to migration,” says Naika Foroutan of the Berlin Institute on Integration and Migration Research. “Don’t put all [integration] ideas and tools on one sector of society.”

What Do Migrants Think About Integration?

Often, they’re not asked. In 2012, the immigrant citizens survey asked migrants in seven countries and 15 cities in Europe for their views on integration. “Although immigrants are at the epicenter of these debates in many [European Union] member states, they hardly enjoy any visibility,” the authors noted in their report.

The survey found that between 80 and 95 percent of migrants are or want to become long-term residents, 70 to 80 percent are interested in voting and immigrants generally speak more languages than the average person in the country.

Who Is Responsible for Integration?

In many European countries, there are national bodies responsible for aiding the integration of immigrants and refugees. In the United States there is no national body, so immigrant integration is primarily the domain of local authorities and civil society, while the federal refugee resettlement program assists newly arrived refugees with integration. The Canadian government has integration programs for migrants and refugees.

Given the concentration of refugees and migrants in urban areas, cities are increasingly at the forefront of integration efforts and engaged in sharing ideas and information about what’s working.

But integration is not solely a top-down, policy-driven process – it depends on communities and community-driven initiatives.

Can Integration Be Measured?

Various data sources can provide information about different aspects of the integration process, although none captures the full picture.

Social scientists often divide integration into two broad categories: structural integration, such as migrants’ access to employment, housing, education and political rights; and sociocultural integration, such as how migrants’ behavior, attitude and identity fit with the society around them.

The OECD, an international organization of 35 mostly wealthy countries, conducted a study of immigrant integration in its member states in 2015, measuring employment, education and skills, social inclusion, civic engagement and social cohesion. It tracked indicators including employment, overqualification, education levels, poverty, health status, voter participation and experiences of discrimination.

It’s more difficult to measure barometers of social integration, such as neighborhood relations, marriages and friendships, or behaviors associated with one culture or another – although anecdotes and generalizations on these subjects fill up column inches and airwaves on the topic of integration.

There’s also the challenge of which groups to measure – first-, second- or third-generation migrants, if integration is understood as a long-term process – and what benchmarks to use.

Another approach is to evaluate government policies rather than integration outcomes, such as the annual Migration Policy Index, which ranks developed countries according to their equal treatment of migrants in eight policy areas.

What Are Some of the Policy Debates Over Integration?

There are many, many debates over each and every aspect of integration. A couple of examples are the speed of labor force integration and the path to citizenship.

For example, the U.S. refugee resettlement program focused on getting refugees into jobs as soon as possible. This has resulted in rapid labor force participation, and refugee men have a higher employment rate than men born in the U.S. But the Migration Policy Institute notes that underemployment is a major problem for refugees in the U.S., calling for more research on whether short-term measures (over long-term support for attaining language and credentials) end up hurting refugees’ earning potential over the long run.

In Germany the commissioner for immigration, refugees and integration, Aydan Özoğuz, recently clarified that immediate employment was not the authorities’ main priority, but rather making sure refugees obtain the language skills and training for an advanced industrial economy. Many of them will need up to 10 years to enter the labor market, she said.

Another key debate is how the relative ease of access to citizenship affects refugees’ integration. Some studies in Europe have found mixed results on how attaining citizenship affects migrants’ economic activity or education levels. Yet in most countries, only becoming a citizen will give you full political and legal rights – something particularly critical for people with refugee status. While the 1951 Refugee Convention requires nations to “facilitate” and “expedite” the citizenship process for displaced people, many European countries have not done so.

Canadian sociology professor Irene Bloemraad partially credits Canada’s high naturalization rates (although it is becoming harder to attain citizenship) with the public’s positive attitudes toward immigration, relative to other countries.

“Part of Canada’s success is its policies of integration, multiculturalism and support for citizenship, including high levels of citizenship among the immigrant population,” says Bloemraad, who works at the University of California, Berkeley. “In Canada, there’s been this feedback loop that as citizenship has been promoted and immigrants become citizens, it makes it much harder for politicians to adopt a very crude or simplistic anti-immigrant discourse.”

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