Redefining Narratives on Integration

"ROTA has for many years been concerned about how to improve the life chances of black and minority ethnic populations in the process of settlement and adaptation into British society and how that society also adapts to ensure that their presence and experience is positive and that racism and discrimination is challenged. This process is sometimes called "integration" though this term is not one that everybody is happy with as it is often confused with assimilation and is seldom seen as a two way process where the host society also needs to change and adapt to increasing diversity by challenging its own racism and xenophobia. The recent publication of the Casey Review has brought all of these concerns about integration to the forefront.

As a volunteer blogger for ROTA Hanna Stephens attended a Runnymede seminar shortly after the Casey Review was published. The seminar challenged many of the assumptions in the review. Here is Hanna's blog:"

In December Dame Louise Casey released a report entitled, “The Casey Review: a review into opportunity and integration”. The report has been criticised for its focus on Muslim communities and also in the ways in which it reproduces victim-blaming narratives of integration. It suggests that the responsibility is on new communities to integrate themselves into wider society and that difference and diversity must be corrected rather than accepted. This places an unfair burden on the already marginalised to adapt to the often strange and new UK environments, all the while dealing with the racism and xenophobia that the society they are supposed to become a part of is riddled with.

The Casey Review’s report summary alone raises many red flags. For example, the report highlights the fact that self-defining Christians, although still the vast majority, have declined from 70% to 59% whilst the Muslim population has risen by 72% between 2001 and 2011 (even though it still only represents around 5% of the population).  The particular statistical focus and comparison of Christian and Muslim populations is not apolitical. There is a long history of pitting these two religions against each other, with Christians representing the virtuous self and Muslims, the devious other. Ironically at the heart of this report is a framework that reinforces division rather than seeking to overcome it. Although one can argue that statistics represent factual truths, facts do not exist in a vacuum and the way in which they are framed and delivered should be reconsidered in the context of rising Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment. The use of the 72% rise statistic also works to reinforce fears that the scale and pace of migration (specifically of those identifying as Muslim) is a key cause of societal inequality.  It points fingers towards migrants instead of towards any governmental failures. This victim-blaming persists throughout the report. It implies that greater ethnic diversity naturally equates to lower societal cohesion and legitimises fears that migrants are taking resources and that they represent a barrier to economic recovery.

How can we expect community cohesion when these narratives continuously define Muslims as “Other”? Later in the report the rise of racist violence and harassment is noted but this is not given the prominence it deserves. At the root of this violence is fear of the “Other”, something that this report leaves unaddressed and even fuels. When individuals move into new or strange environments a necessary first step may be to find a community they feel comfortable and safe in. If they can’t speak English, finding a community that speaks their language is also crucial to the practicalities of settling in successfully. This should not be taken as a sign that they don’t want to integrate, rather that they may not know how and given the rise in hate crimes following Brexit they may even feel unsafe in doing so.

It is therefore important that new ways of thinking about integration must emerge, making the Runnymede Conference on “Redefining Integration” particularly timely. What is needed  is a concept of integration that is inclusive of ethnic diversity and that places responsibility both on existing communities and newcomers to adapt to living with one another  The conference began with Laurence Lessard-Phillips from the Institute of Research into Superdiversity discussing the importance of understanding integration as a multi-dimensional concept. Instead of ethnic diversity being taken as a cause of disintegration, her framework identified neighbourhood diversity as one marker of integration. She also discussed how integration and exclusion were not so binary; for example, one could be spatially integrated in terms of living in a diverse neighbourhood yet be culturally and politically excluded due to language barriers and unemployment. Therefore solutions must be holistic and involve a diversity of approaches.

Silvia Galandini spoke on the importance of redefining integration as a two-way process, where newcomers make changes to adapt to their local environments whilst settled communities respect the different cultures, ways of life and perspectives that these newcomers bring. Under this definition, extremism, whether amongst newcomers or existing communities, cannot be tolerated. Mainstream media narratives often focus on the statements and actions of a small subsector of Islamic extremists.  However, what‘s largely missing are the barriers that racism and Islamophobia present towards working towards an integrated society. Overcoming this is no easy task. This was highlighted by Adam Elliot Cooper in an example he gave about the use of separate categories to label crimes committed by people of colour. He discussed how the use of “gang related” crimes for black men and “terrorist” for Muslim people shows how we constantly construct racialised individuals in separate categories. This highlights the insidious nature of racism and how the ways we think must be addressed to accommodate the inclusion of racialised people. Silvia also identified the need to address issues in different spatial scales. As issues that different communities may face are context-specific, it is important that they are addressed at the local level. However, structural barriers such as participation in the labour and housing market and education are barriers to integration that require a national focus. We therefore need a more concerted effort to unpick and challenge these narratives to change minds at the local community level as well as the national governmental level.

How does this materialise in practice? A recent Guardian article highlighted some case studies involving schools welcoming refugee and asylum seeking children that seem to fit the conference’s redefinition of integration. Spires Academy in Oxford assesses children on arrival to understand the support they need and places them on a six week programme of English language classes. The school also pairs newcomers with sixth form students who spend time with them at lunchtime and help them with their homework and English. Staff at The College of North West London receive training into issues affecting refugees and asylum seekers and the school has built partnerships with charities for mental health support for refugee and asylum seeker children. Both examples show a multi-dimensional approach to integration, whereby factors such as language, education, community belonging, cultural awareness and wellbeing support are considered. They also highlight the two-way process of integration, whereby newcomers must adapt to new school environments by learning English and attending classes as part of the national curriculum, but also how existing teachers and students must be aware of their needs. However, these case studies also highlight how strategies of meaningful integration tend to be led by local leaders with non-governmental support and how support from the government remains limited. 

Sustainably redefining integration involves reframing the narratives and attitudes that inform integration policies. We must move away from the toxic presupposition that immigrants are dangerous and are the cause of the decrease in social service provision as this type of thinking itself presents a barrier to integration. We also must challenge racial prejudices that make even those racialised minorities who are born and raised in Britain feel like outsiders. It is only then that marginalised people and communities will get the support needed, both at local and national level, to feel “integrated” into society. 

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