On 25 March, the Refugee Council hosted a landmark conference to discuss ways in which refugees in the UK can integrate into mainstream society and live their lives freely and to their full potential.
Held under the theme ‘Integration: Building a life in the UK’, the conference brought together Government representatives and top experts from leading organisations working with refugees in the key areas of housing, education and employment, volunteering, and children and families.
The Minister of State for Borders and Immigration Phil Woolas delivered a keynote address on the Government’s new integration strategy called “Moving on together: Government’s recommitment to supporting refugees”.
Chief executive of the Council Donna Covey told delegates that in order for it to be a success, integration must start from day one when a person first makes an asylum claim. “All too often, it is the early part of the refugee’s stay in the UK that prevents or delays effective integration,” she said.
“This means access to language training at the earliest opportunity. It means the right to work after six months if your claim is not yet resolved,” she added. The Government currently denies asylum seekers access to English language support for the first six months of their asylum application. Since 2002 the Government has also refused permission for almost everyone claiming asylum to work.
In a film shown to conference delegates about refugees’ experiences of integration in the UK, most refugees made it clear that they considered being able to speak English and having permission to work as the cornerstones to rebuilding their lives and integrating fully into mainstream society.
Akoi Bazzie, who spent twelve years in a Guinean refugee camp after fleeing persecution in his native Liberia before being resettled in the UK under the Gateway Protection Programme, spoke of how early access to ESOL classes and volunteering opportunities greatly aided his path to integration.
“I really feel that because I had NGO (Non-governmental organisation), Local Authority and community support, it really helped my integration path and led me to the job I have now,” he said. Bazzie is now a Community Development Worker with the Refugee Council’s Gateway Protection Programme in Sheffield.
Covey said the Council’s Let Them Work campaign in partnership with the TUC and other organisations sends a clear signal to government that British workers agree that asylum seekers should be allowed to work once they have been here six months, and after they have been refused if through no fault of their own they cannot be returned.
With the economic recession exerting pressure on community relations, the Council sees it as vital that the UK adopts and implements the right policies to ensure that communities flourish and refugees do not find themselves scapegoated as unwanted migrants.
In his address, Woolas acknowledged the hostile reception and rhetoric that refugees often received from the public and the media.
“People who have fled persecution and found sanctuary coming into communities often face hostility and misunderstanding and it’s only right that we should help them to integrate; right for them and right for the wider community,” he said.
Woolas drew the delegates’ attention to the Government’s new integration strategy, which explains how the UK Border Agency (UKBA), other government departments and the Refugee Council are working together to help refugees achieve their full potential in the UK.
The strategy highlights the launch of the Refugee Integration and Employment Service (RIES) in October last year and the expansion of the Gateway Protection Programme as key achievements and, in the Minister’s words, “underlines the commitment to be fair to refugees and to support their integration and resettlement”.
Reflecting input from the voluntary sector, the new strategy involves cross-government participation in delivering on integration. “This pulling together, I think, is a significant achievement in indicating that we’re better joined up across Whitehall in this regard,” Woolas said.
The new strategy embraces closer partnership working between the Government and the voluntary sector at local, regional and national levels. Woolas also promised to work across government and the voluntary sector to identify measures that can empower refugee community organisations (RCOs) as agents of integration and community cohesion.
Chief executive of the Scottish Refugee Council John Wilkes gave delegates an alternative perspective of integration as experienced in Scotland. Wilkes said the Scottish Assembly government had adopted the principle of integration at the point of arrival, which was announced in its refugee inclusion strategy launched last year.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission chair Trevor Phillips closed the conference with a call to begin the process of integration from day one.
“It could take months – if not years – for an asylum application to be fully resolved. Integration matters can’t be deferred until leave to remain has been granted; to do so would reinforce exclusion,” he said.
A report focussing on the key recommendations developed during the conference’s workshop sessions is being produced for presentation to the UKBA to feed into their policy development on integration. The report will also include an indication of how organisations could help to implement the recommendations.