We often talk about the need for migrants to ‘integrate’ into British society — but is this is a positive ideal, or coded language for racism and xenophobia?
As Brexit, debates over British immigration policy, and a number of global refugee crises have swept public discussion over the last decade or so, the term ‘integration’ has been increasingly thrown around as a topic of debate.
But what exactly does ‘integration’ mean?
‘Integration’ is a common buzzword in political discussions about migrants and minorities, and issues related to integration are often a central rallying point for far-right nationalist political parties, as well as far-right extremist groups. A number of political parties across Europe have grounded their policies in an opposition to immigration and a distaste for multiculturalism, not only citing the negative impact of poorly integrated migrant communities on areas like employment and crime, but also stressing the threat that poor integration poses to national values, identity, and culture.
It is here than an important distinction must be made. In public debates, especially amongst the far-right, the term ‘integration’ is often treated as synonymous with another term: assimilation. Assimilation implies a far more restrictive approach to migrant integration — whilst ‘integration’ typically allows migrants to maintain their own language, values, and cultural and religious practices, assimilation demands that they lose their individual identities and ways of life in order to become “like us”.
France is a key example of a country whose policies are based on this expectation of assimilation. France’s idea of “what it means to be French” is singular and homogenous — you can’t have individual cultural identities, and express them in public, without being condemned as a ‘separatist’. Migrant communities are expected to demonstrate their attachment to French values by speaking French and keeping their cultural and religious identities private — in order to be ‘French’, you have to be kneaded into the same majority culture as everyone else.
Assimilation — embodied in the political model of ‘assimilationism’ — is often criticised for its racist origins and implications. Assimilation has a disturbing historical relationship with colonialism and efforts to ‘stamp out’ indigenous cultures, and is deeply rooted in racist ideas about cultural — and even racial — superiority. Other languages, cultural practices, and religious beliefs are often associated with ideas about ‘backwardness’, or ‘barbarity’ that date back to colonialism, and many far-right talking points are built on this basis: ‘their’ culture and way of life is inferior and cannot be allowed in this country — ‘we’ are superior, and ‘they’ must become like ‘us’ if they want to be accepted.
Aside from its racist and xenophobic implications, assimilation simply isn’t an effective policy intervention for helping migrants to become a part of society. As research by Migration Data Portal points out, integration is related to processes of social inclusion — which include factors like social, cultural, and economic participation — and social cohesion, which refers to factors like anti-discrimination and promoting mutual understanding. Expecting migrants to assimilate by throwing out their differences prevents such inclusion and cohesion from being possible, instead marginalising migrants further and making them at risk of discrimination and prejudice by their new communities, encouraging them to keep to themselves.
When we talk about integration, we should be talking about a two-way process of acceptance, accommodation, and adaptation: where migrants become active citizens who understand their rights and responsibilities, and their new society accommodates their presence whilst also being open to the ways that the diversity and difference that they bring can enrich their new society and communities. On these grounds, successful integration isn’t a question of ‘protecting’ national identity from diversity, but is about narrowing the social differences and inequalities between migrants and non-migrants. Levels of educational attainment, employment rates, health outcomes and civic engagement are all indicators of successful integration in which migrants are thriving in, and contributing to, their new society.
This is what we at JAN Trust mean when we speak about our work helping marginalised women to ‘integrate’. Many of our programmes and services are designed to provide women with the skills and knowledge needed to thrive in the UK. Our classes in areas like English language, life skills, and British values and ‘way of life’ were not created to make the women we work with shed their identities and culture in order to fit a narrow idea of what it means to be ‘British’. Rather, they were created to help our users to improve their prospects by empowering them to be active citizens.
Integration must be a mutually beneficial process that acknowledges the strength that comes with diversity and helps to create a sense of belonging for migrants, rather than forcing them to shed crucial parts of their own identity. Programmes like JAN Trust’s, which believe in contributions that migrants can make to their new societies, are the way forward — not xenophobic policies of assimilation based on a fear of the unknown.