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19 June 2018

What do we mean by “welcome”?

by Fabien Cante

Refugee Week is live, and, as ever, it is a heart-warming occasion. Refugees’ testimonies of individual hardship and flourishing are still needed to remind the UK of its duties toward forcibly displaced people. Over the coming days, a flood of supportive campaigns, as well as events around the UK, will attempt to amplify this simple, necessary message: “Refugees welcome!”

But what does it mean to welcome refugees? Often, numbers get all the attention – focusing on the UK government’s (by all measures insufficient) various commitments to taking X number of people qualifying for refugee status, as most recently exemplified by the Syrian resettlement schemes (committed to “welcoming” 23,000 refugees by 2020).

Refugee support organisations know, however, that actually welcoming displaced people and families involves much more than giving them leave to remain and adding them to a Home Office balance sheet. The government also knows this, and periodically wrings its hands over how to get refugees and other migrants to successfully “integrate” into their “host” society.

Thus, three months ago, we were graced with the latest Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper. It is safe to say that this document does not say “Refugees Welcome.”

To start with, the strategy continues to frame migration as a problem to be addressed or remedied. In this framing, any “welcome” will be heavily conditional and qualified, continuously treating new arrivals as a potential nuisance and placing the burden of integration entirely on them.

This fundamentally misunderstands integration as a question of opportunity. MRN, in its response to the Integration Green Paper, highlighted the hypocrisy of calling on migrants and refugees to better integrate while ignoring the myriad institutional processes that make them feel unwelcome, often deliberately so, and make it much more difficult to secure basic necessities – let alone perfect their English.

MRN has tirelessly documented the obstacles to migrants and refugees’ settlement, for example through the Route to Your Rights project or our early campaigning against discriminatory “hostile environment” policies. We have long argued that access to public services, employment and even volunteering (currently unclarified in relation to certain immigration statuses) are infrastructural requirements for full integration. In addition, MRN has championed the involvement of migrants and refugees in local affairs and place-making as conducive to a strong sense of belonging and civic equality (see the Outsider Project).  

It is hard to understand why the government’s latest swing at integration fails to take any of these elements into account, even though they were fed into numerous consultations. It raises the question of whether the government is negligent of its own duties of fostering good relations between communities and enabling equality. More needs to be done, with some urgency, to address how refugees and migrants can equally engage as citizens.

Without such an effort, we will continue to be a long way from truly welcoming anybody.