It won’t be news to many when I say that that a refugee’s troubles don’t end when they are granted asylum in a safe country. So often the next chapter can be just as challenging as the one that came before it: namely that of successfully integrating into a new safe country.
Successful integration is about someone starting to feel as though they actually have a place in their new country. It’s about the right support and adjustments being in place to enable them to begin to live the sort of life they would like to live and, who knows, maybe even one that’s not a million miles from the one they had no choice but to leave behind in their desperate search for safety.
Various things can help and hinder this complex process but what is always essential is that refugee integration is taken seriously by Government. This is by no means a given which is why we warmly welcome it finally being back on the Government’s agenda. What is also crucial is that refugees are able to access support from the organisations that bring refugees together – namely refugee-led community organisations.
As we reveal in new research out this week, refugee-led community organisations (RCOs) are integral to successful refugee integration and increasing refugee inclusion and participation in the UK. Put simply, refugees do well here when they are able to interact with people like them – those with similar experiences, language and a cultural affinity, who can show them the ropes and help them face the challenges they’ve tackled themselves. RCOs have a long and impressive track record of supporting the inclusion and participation of their members and are active in almost every locality across the UK where refugees have settled. They are able to engage and support their members in ways that other organisations and agencies can’t.
But the problem is that these RCOs are being routinely overlooked, taken for granted and excluded from integration policy discussions. When it comes to funding, commissioning or planning, RCOs are largely placed at the back of the queue. The reasons for this marginalisation, when RCOs could and should be much closer to the centre of public and civic life, are as stark as they are predictable. A chronic lack of resourcing over many years, exacerbated more recently by the impact of austerity and the indiscriminate hostile environment, has penned many RCOs in a cycle of instability that, all too often, calls into question their dependability in the eyes of authorities, funders, commissioners and even their voluntary sector and NGO peers.
So though it is welcome that the Government is committed to refugee integration, our deep concern is that the voices of refugees themselves are largely and noticeably absent from the debate. For a refugee integration strategy to actually work then, call me radical, the powers that be have to actually speak to refugees themselves, and start engaging with them in a meaningful way.
That is why we have commissioned this research. Our aim is to put the work of RCOs squarely on the map by showcasing the diverse and vital work they do – all too often under the radar and with little or no recognition or funding - and to reframe them as unique social integration agencies, with the reach, the insight and the ability to develop practical solutions to the specific problems that refugees face.
We intend that this research will lead to a major reassessment of the value and importance of RCOs in delivering not just better refugee integration outcomes, but also broader community integration and cohesion goals. We will be using it to call on Central Government to engage directly with RCOs when framing its asylum and refugee policies; on Funders to focus as much on RCO infrastructural investment as on transactional, competitive grant funding; on Commissioners to ring-fence resources that will enable RCOs to reach and engage the most excluded; on Devolved and Local Government to recognise and value the evidence and engagement of RCOs in planning; and on NGOs and civil society institutions to see RCOs as equal partners.
There is much learning for the Refugee Council too. We’ll use the findings of this research to raise our own game, enabling RCOs to better shape the things we do and inform the things we say. We’ll also champion the active participation of RCOs in the national and local debates and decisions that affect their members’ daily lives and we’ll work with funders and commissioners to ensure that RCOs are able to secure the resources they need to achieve their potential. This report provides an excellent basis upon which to start those conversations.
Maurice Wren is the Chief Executive of the Refugee Council