Benefits of refugee integration

Call for Britain to learn from African models

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Britain could learn from African countries that have taken steps to integrate refugee communities – a move that also benefited others living in those areas.

That is the view of an Oxford academic who has spent a decade studying how three East African countries deal with their sizeable refugee populations.

More refugees than ever

Dr Alexander Betts, professor of forced migration and international affairs at Brasenose College, compared the policies and practices of Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya and documented the experiences of refugee and host communities.

Each has a different approach – with some refugees not being allowed to work and others being given greater employment rights and opportunities for movement. He believes Britain’s policies would improve if decision-makers stopped using migration as a political football and instead looked at what has worked elsewhere.

He said: “Explaining the intricacies of structural economic change – the undermining of labour-intensive industry and austerity, for example – is much less of a vote-winner than pointing the finger at migrants. Unfortunately, this issue is subject to the whims of politicians or electoral opportunism and not tethered to any coherent long-term plan.

“In the early 2000s, when the Home Office was dispersing asylum seekers around the country there was serious backlash in some towns. If there is existing socioeconomic stress, politicians should be prepared to say this area can benefit disproportionately from excellent investment in health, education and subsidised employment.

“One of the key lessons from East Africa is that a good refugee policy can be a good host community policy – you invest in both. You don’t just give better health and educational opportunities to refugees – you give them to everybody in that community and people share the benefits. When that happened, everyone bought in.”

There are currently more refugees than at any point in history, with around 80 million worldwide – more than one per cent of humanity. The list of fragile, refugee-producing states grows year on year – with Venezuela and Yemen moving from relative stability to societal collapse over recent years.

Most refugees are internally displaced but 26 million have crossed a border in search of protection – normally ending up in a neighbouring country. Around 85 per cent are concentrated in low and middle-income countries including Jordan, Turkey, Ecuador, Colombia, Bangladesh and the three east African states where Betts is working, with relatively few moving to Europe or North America.

Above: Alexander Betts. Main image: Refugees in Uganda receive rights, freedom of movement and plots of land. Photos: Isaac Kasamani/ Getty/ John Cairns

Often refugees in low and middle-income countries are required to live in camps with restrictions on their rights to work and travel and with limited access to education and healthcare. Many get stuck in this situation for years or even decades and are forced to find work in the informal sector.

The pandemic will make life difficult for refugees in several ways, according to Betts. Lockdowns will have caused economic challenges for this precarious population and the coming recession will also make life difficult.

Desperately-needed remittances from relatives living abroad are also likely to drop as the world economy flatlines, which could result in the displacement of greater numbers of people.

Betts’s new book, The Wealth of Refugees (Oxford University Press), argues that governments need to move beyond a purely humanitarian policy position and recognise the potential economic and cultural contributions of refugees. Between them, the countries in which he worked host roughly the same number of refugees as the European Union, with only a small minority of those registered living in cities.

Positive contributions

The book notes that the ideal solution to the refugee crisis would be for the international community to address the underlying causes that lead people to flee their homes in the first place.

“Ending wars, overthrowing authoritarian governments and cutting greenhouse gas emissions would reduce displacement numbers,” it reads. “But the world has struggled to find solutions to these root causes, and the international community has proved deficient at replacing bad governments.”

With this not happening, a sustainable response is needed, where refugees’ basic needs and legal entitlements are met and where long-term integration into a society is assured – either through return to their place of origin or the chance to settle in a new country.

While Kenya does not allow refugees to work and requires them to reside in camps, Uganda gives work rights, some freedom of movement and provides plots of land to cultivate within its refugee settlements. In 2019, Ethiopia passed some of the world’s most progressive refugee legislation – yet to be enacted – which will give employment rights and some freedom of movement.

UK asylum seekers can wait years for their case to be accepted or rejected. During this time most cannot work – with a handful permitted to carry out specific jobs in which there are shortages after 12 months in the country.

Betts focused on Somali refugee communities living in camps and cities and identified approaches that can be effective in improving the welfare of those seeking safety while also increasing social cohesion. He found that by giving them the right to work, Uganda has ensured refugees are earning more while the host community is also better off as a result. The refugees are more mobile, have more sustainable sources of employment and are less likely to face discrimination and risk huge costs for their economic activity – such as police harassment or having to pay bribes, he said.

“We also found social cohesion, the relationship between the two groups, is much better when there’s more interaction. When there’s economic exchange between the two groups, the host communities tend to look more favourably on the refugee community,” he adds.

“The implication of that is that more interaction tends to lead to more social cohesion. The simple conclusion is that if host communities share the benefits they will be much more positively predisposed to being hosts to refugees within their community.”

Crucially, Britain needs to maintain a sense of perspective and realise that only a tiny proportion of the world’s asylum seekers and refugees are coming to the country. Then politicians must recognise that these populations have skills and can make significant contributions, not only economically but also socially and culturally. He said: “In the UK we’ve had a history of showing solidarity to refugees and there’s a positive legacy of them working and contributing when they’ve had the opportunity.

“Now there are extraordinary opportunities at a time when we need people to come and contribute to the NHS for example. While there is scope to recognise our primary motivation should be fulfilling our obligations when it comes to refugees, with the right policy framework, countries can benefit from providing them with employment and educational opportunities.”

In Britain, as in many other countries, populist politicians stoke up public concerns for electoral gain, resulting in societies being reluctant to accept large numbers of refugees – or to integrate
those who arrive.

“There are some populist and nationalist exaggerations of labour market challenges but there is an opportunity to balance demographic need against structural change in the economy,” said Betts.

“This has to be based on real leadership by politicians. There needs to be real benefits for the regions which host refugees. It’s a mixture of ideas and messages to change the narrative with having to provide real material benefits. I think that starts with some simple messaging about where most refugees are, who they are, why they’re here and the contribution they make.”

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