12 November 2015

Scotland Welcomes Refugees - How do strangers become citizens?

In this blog Claire Bynner, What Works Scotland Research Associate, considers what increasing diversity means for local areas and what local government and community planning partnerships (CPPs) can do to support the settlement of new migrants. How can the transition towards more diverse communities be made easier?

This month refugees will arrive in Scotland from camps bordering Syria. As Scottish local authorities prepare to welcome these vulnerable families, questions over the impact of migration have remerged in public debate. The Home Secretary Theresa May recently claimed that ‘when immigration is too high, when the pace of change is too fast, it’s impossible to build a cohesive society’. The SNP responded by accusing her of “dog whistling” to Ukip supporters. This public debate masks the reality of living with diversity in practice.

What does increasing diversity means for local areas and what local government and community planning partnerships (CPPs) can do to support the settlement of new migrants? How can the transition towards more diverse communities be made easier?

Source: Bulent Kilic/Getty

The evidence shows that this is a period of unprecedented demographic change. It is an indisputable fact that all societies are becoming increasingly diverse. Analysis of the recent Census 2011 for Scotland, found that diversity has increased both overall and in every local authority. At a recent conference organised by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), demographer William Frey predicted that by 2044, minority populations in the US will be greater than the white population. In Canada, projections show that by 2031 nearly one in two Canadians will be foreign-born or will have at least one foreign-born parent. Demographers predict that by 2061 the UK will reach similar levels of ethnic and migrant diversity as the US and Canada. Pardy and Lee (2011) draw the following conclusion: 
a multicultural reality is not something to be accepted,
 rejected or debated. Rather, it is a fact of life…

Kenan Malik argues that the public debate over this issue suffers from a form of collective amnesia. The UK has always been diverse even if we haven’t fully recognized this historical diversity. Scotland is a case in point. Despite how we might choose to represent Scotland as an inclusive society today, this land shares a history of diversity and racism with the rest of the UK. Satnam Virdee describes how historical racism in Scotland has taken the form of anti-Irish Catholic sectarianism. Today Scotland continues to struggle with high levels of racially motivated hate crime. Despite much lower levels of ethnic diversity, racist incidents in Scotland are proportionately higher than in England and Wales.

While diversity is a fact of life in most societies, so is prejudice in its many forms. Writers such as Gill Valentine warn against over emphasizing the importance of fleeting interactions in the corner shop, at the bus stop or the school gate which are often cited as examples of ‘unpanicked multiculturalism’ (Noble 2009). Polite behaviour in public can mask prejudices and antagonisms that are more readily expressed in private and through social media (Valentine 2013). For example a  recent study in Scotland shows that in the past five years a third of black and minority ethnic (BME) Scots have experienced discrimination and most of this racism goes unreported.

At a local level living with diversity is in practice a more subtle and complex experience than suggested by public debate and the statistics. My own research found that often the most important moments of connection involve small acts of kindness and practical help. Sharing Christmas and Eid celebrations with a card or some home-cooked food. Offering to help when the boiler breaks down or the washing machine doesn’t work. Helping neighbours to learn how to put the rubbish in the right place and on the right day.

Adjustment is needed on all sides. Different cultural practices may be resented by long settled residents. Local services may need to make proactive efforts to allay fears and address misunderstandings. There may be people in local communities who will actively seek to nurture positive relationships. These people are sometimes described as ‘bridgers’ and ‘enablers’ and they can play an important role in bringing together people who would otherwise remain distant and hesitant. In simple terms, evidence from my study and others shows that ultimately it is friendship that is likely to have the most profound effect in overcoming prejudice. Opportunities to form friendships can be found through mixing at school, work, and through English classes and other activities. Local communities can help by providing organised activities. In my research a community space with a relaxed atmosphere where women could come simply to chat and take part in knitting and other craft activities was popular with women from a wide range of backgrounds. Other popular activities in the neighbourhood were cookery classes, community gardening and sport. Shared interests can bring people together and provide opportunities for social contact and friendship.

Source: Scottish Refugee Council

The refugees arriving in Scotland this month are being resettled under the vulnerable persons resettlement (VPR) scheme. They have been granted five years humanitarian protection which includes access to public funds, the right to work and possibility of being reunited with family members who may have been left behind when they were forced to leave their home country. After five years they can apply to settle in the UK. The VPR scheme requires refugees to attend at English language classes, register children with local schools and register family members with the local GP. These are some of the services and activities that will require support over the months ahead.

Local authorities and CPPs can take a number of actions to improve their preparedness and respond proactively to the arrival of refugees and other forms of new migration:

1. Forecast population
Local authorities/ CPPs need up-to–date demographic data on future trends in population and on the skills, status and future plans of new arrivals to help local services to plan to meet needs. A recent report from IPPR suggests that a nationally coordinated registration scheme, delivered at a local level, such as the registration scheme that exists in Germany for local residents, could be a way of providing this data. Another approach is for CPPs to pool registrations for services such as the NHS, DWP, HMRC, national insurance, school registration, the electoral register and DVLA. This might be might be a more cost effective approach to sharing migration data.

2. Prepare local services and long-settled communities
Local services require an understanding of the cultural traits and practices of migrant groups in their area. An important consideration is how to build this cultural awareness and competence amongst long-settled residents and employees of local services. A bespoke ‘one stop shop’ aimed at migrants can be a way of providing a service that can help with understanding and negotiating cultural differences.

3. Learn from others
Most importantly, local authorities /CPPs can benefit from an openness to the lessons from other areas and organisations. The Holistic Integration Service is a partnership led by the Scottish Refugee Council based on the principles of early intervention; prevention; recognising resilience and vulnerability; partnership; and sustainability. The Service has repeatedly called for organisations that work with refugees to challenge their own practices and do more to recognise the dynamism, self- agency and resilience of migrants. Support is needed to rebuild the lives of people fleeing conflict but also to enable people to demonstrate their skills and abilities so that they are able to make positive contributions to their new communities.

In Glasgow we also have GRAMNet (Glasgow Refugee, Asylum and Migration Network) which brings together organisations and academics with extensive experience in this area. This is one network amongst many where you will find people who are willing to share their inspirational stories of migration and transition.

For further interest, please also read this earlier blogpost from Joe Brady of Scottish Refugee Council on refugee integration: Reforming Services: the Example of Refugee Support  

Please see below for links to useful resources:

  • Maree Pardy & Julian C.H. Lee (2011) Using buzzwords of belonging: everyday multiculturalism and social capital in Australia, Journal of Australian Studies, 35:3, 297-316, DOI: 10.1080/14443058.2011.591412
  • Noble, Greg (2009). Everyday Cosmopolitanism and the Labour of Intercultural Community, 46-65. In Wise, Amanda and Velayutham, Selvaraj (eds.) 2009. Everyday Multiculturalism. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Valentine, G. 2013. Living with difference: Proximity and encounter in urban life. Geography 98, 1, 4-9.

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