Rose Jaji (PhD), University of Zimbabwe, Harare, Zimbabwe
The current influx of refugees heading for Europe has rejuvenated debate on refugees in political, policy making, humanitarian and academic circles as well as among citizens of (prospective) host countries. In this piece, I specifically address refugee integration. There is a lot of uncertainty and perhaps anxiety on whether host countries can integrate the refugees, the strategies to ensure successful integration and how the end result looks like. Questions on how the future of countries that have taken in huge numbers of refugees is going to be like are compounded by confusion of integration with assimilation.
In the current debates mostly in receiving Western countries, there appears to be a mixture of apprehension and panic on the one hand and calm and optimism on the other hand. One also gets the sense that there are opposite positions in which some citizens are for while others are against refugee hosting. Corresponding to these polar positions are divided opinions on integration. One extreme involving those who are anti-refugee hosting and see refugees as inherently incapable of integrating because of their racial, cultural and religious ‘traits’. The other extreme taken by those in solidarity with refugees and encouraging their countries to host them is largely characterized by political correctness to the extent of interpreting as hostile suggestions that refugees have obligations to their adopted country. For example, they see the idea of making it compulsory for refugees to learn the adopted country’s official language as tantamount to stripping refugees of their culture and identity— as quest to assimilate the refugees. Yet, language proficiency contributes to employment opportunities and the nature of jobs that are open to those who can speak the official language.
Meaningful debate on refugee integration is further stifled by mutual labelling between people representing the two polar viewpoints. Specific concerns are lumped together the result being that citizens fall under either ‘liberal bleeding hearts’ or ‘racists’. Labelling as a strategy of silencing the ‘other’ only results in both sides talking over instead of talking to each other and a divided nation cannot pull in one direction. Mutual labelling among citizens has detrimental consequences on countries that host significant numbers of refugees as effort can be diverted from helping the refugees to mudslinging and transformation of refugees from a humanitarian category to a socio-cultural and political problem or battleground for host country politics.
Too much emphasis is placed on the cultural dimension of integration to the exclusion of its economic, social, legal and political dimensions. This emphasis overlooks how the various dimensions are intertwined.
Integration can be derailed by refugees seeing learning a new language as the beginning of losing themselves. While language is an integral part of culture, learning a new language is not necessarily about being stripped of one’s culture.
There are many people around the world who live in their own countries and live by their own cultures but are multilingual in the sense of speaking foreign languages. Why then should learning a new language be seen as losing one’s culture when it comes to migrants or refugees? Learning the host country’s language and laws is not necessarily an ‘–ization’ process in which individuals transform into new persons altogether.
Rather, learning a new language is about taking a step towards rebuilding life in a new country. While learning can be considered a matter of personal choice, failure to learn the adopted country’s language limits migrants’ or refugees’ chances in the job market.
Language is about practical, every day needs beyond the welfare services that refugees should strive to wean themselves from as they settle in their adopted country. Host countries need to appreciate that refugees who refuse to adapt will be left behind and with time, it is from those left behind that words such as racism and marginalization are heard.
Integration is a two-way process characterized by mutual accommodation, adaptation and respect. It cannot work where host countries or communities adapt to refugees without the latter adapting to their adopted countries’ way of life and vice versa. Integration is not necessarily about forcing refugees and their hosts to live in the same buildings or neighborhoods. Refugees can live in their own neighborhoods as implied in ‘Little X [name of country of origin or one of its cities]’ and still feel integrated into the host country.
However, such neighborhoods become a symbol of failed integration where they are translated from the physical spaces that they are into a mental condition characterized by economic, social, political and legal ‘otherness’— a country within another country.
While freedom of association is a fundamental right, this kind of ‘otherness’ creates skewed relations between refugees and the host country that find expression in narratives couched in racism, xenophobia and bigotry. Failed cultural integration can result in failed economic, legal, social and political integration which in turn feeds into discourses of marginalization. A dangerous outcome is resentment and anger which can find expression violence examples being domestic terrorism and riots such as those witnessed in France in 2005. As such, refugees from Syria or African countries currently fleeing to Europe can limit their economic prospects by interpreting their ‘Little Syria’ or ‘Little X [African country]’ as a mental and liminal space in which they are simultaneously inside and outside the host country.
If refugees are to take advantage of the stability in their adopted country, they need to mentally depart from the violent places they fled with the host countries, on their part, going beyond just opening their borders to enabling the process of adaptation and integration.
Depending on their cultural background, refugees may be inevitably different. However, it is possible for cultures to share certain values such as the need to earn an income, raise a family, feel secure and be treated with dignity etc. It is important to emphasize points of cultural convergence rather than just focusing on those of divergence. If people within the same country sharing the same culture and language can differ as implied by categories such as liberal or conservative or engage in violent conflict for that matter as is the case with some of the countries the refugees are fleeing, it does not make much sense to homogenize refugees and blur their internal dissonance simply because they share the same legal status of being refugees.
While some refugees are happy to hold on to the country of origin’s culture and keep it alive even among children born in the adopted country, other migrants see physical mobility and flight to a culturally different country as an opportunity to relax the grip that certain cultural practices may have had on them in the country of origin. These refugees are in a better position to embrace alternative ways of belonging other than culture and they need to be supported instead of being pushed back into their cultural pigeonholes. Host countries or communities that insist that ‘these people’ are different alienate refugees who want to adopt different ways of life from those they would have lived with until flight.
Falling back onto country of origin culture in reaction to real or perceived rejection by the host community can have disastrous consequences for inter-community relations and security of the country at large.
Failure to notice that seeds of this problem can be sown in the host country itself often results in sections of the host population seeing refugees as inherently dangerous agents of insecurity, coming from insecure countries as they do. Host countries have the responsibility to help refugees understand the law.
Cultures and religious values should be able to integrate into the law although this is a sore point for those who cling to the former two without regard to change in physical, social, legal and even cultural space.
At the same time and regardless of how politically incorrect this may sound, host countries have an obligation to remind refugees to abide by the laws of their adopted countries. If cultural practices that are incompatible with the law are tolerated, what would happen if the various communities of immigrants insist on giving primacy to their cultures over the law?
Migrants who easily integrate are those who appreciate the need to create harmony between their culture and the law such that their culture and the law cease to be a matter of ‘either-or’ and become a matter of ‘both-and’.
Political correctness needs to be balanced with the sober reality that immigrants who resist adaptation actively participate in the process of their own marginalization. This can in turn come back to haunt the host country. Whether refugees manage to rebuild their lives is not solely a matter of host country policies but also of refugees themselves playing an active role so that they concurrently benefit from and positively contribute to their adopted country.