Civic Inclusion

By Zrinka Bralo, Chief Executive, Migrants Organise

Zrinka Bralo
Chief Executive, Migrants Organise

Integration Is Old News, Just Ask Immigrants

I have been involved with integration for more than two decades, integrating myself and thousands of other refugees and migrants in my work at Migrants Organise in the UK.

Between 2007 and 2011 we helped more than 3,500 overseas qualified doctors and dentists from 98 countries pass their verification exams and find jobs in the National Health Service, to use much needed skills to help themselves and us. We continue to provide mentoring, English classes, civic leadership academies, undertake voter registration drives and organise Refugee Welcome committees. In short, we are making integration happen every day.

In 2009, I was part of the Independent Asylum Commission, the most comprehensive inquiry about the asylum system ever conducted in the UK. Integration was part of the listening process over the two years we conducted the Inquiry, during which I asked four former Home Secretaries from both main parties about their communications strategy with regards to the dispersal of asylum seekers from London. Introduced in 2001, the dispersal policy meant that asylum seekers were move to places where the Government decided they should live. Many of these were small towns lacking the infrastructure to support new arrivals.

All four former Home Secretaries misunderstood the question. They told me about the leaflets they produced for refugees in various languages. I clarified: “What was their communication strategy for the ‘host communities’? Were those communities told who was coming to live there, and why? And were they involved in welcoming new arrivals?”

It was clear from their response that such an approach had never been considered. Integration was simply not part of their policy. It was left instead to under-resourced local authorities  to house people, often in abandoned, boarded-up estates. In many areas, it was left to civil society groups to  support those left destitute, isolated out of sight and prevented from working, claiming welfare benefits, going to university, or even volunteering. Across the board, an acute lack of access to proper legal advice, English classes and proper healthcare (especially the specialist care for trauma suffered by many asylum seekers) left many in an extremely vulnerable position.

Integration is a two-way street

Integration didn’t make it on to the news then, and it doesn’t now unless something bad happens. When horrible terrorist attacks happen some sections of the press investigate the origins of the attackers and search for clues for their senseless acts in their lack of belonging, in being foreign. The debate quickly spirals into what immigrants should be doing to integrate, and very often that boils down to learning English and/or respecting British values.

There is nothing wrong with saying that immigrants should learn English. Of course, language skills are necessary to enable people to thrive in their new neighborhoods, new jobs and new lives. The question is – is it really necessary to keep saying it, while restricting access to it and isolating people? Especially if it is done in a way that leaves the public with an impression that, for some unexplained reason, immigrants don’t want to learn English. Nothing could be further from the truth, but as we are now living in ‘post-truth’ era, how do we have a real, honest, facts-based conversation about integration? How does integration happen? What does it look like? And who should be doing what to make it happen? How has Britain, an island of migrants, dealt with integration in the past?

Amongst many others, Migrants Organise have been ‘integrators’ for more than 24 years. We know that integration is a little different for each person and it needs to be a two-way process. Some people need help with English, some with finding jobs, others with accessing further education or verifying their overseas qualifications, and all need help in navigating the complex, hostile and unwelcoming bureaucracies.

Simple things, such as opening a bank account is challenging and mission impossible if you are a refugee. Banks will not accept biometric cards issued by the government as a valid ID, notwithstanding the success of programs like the municipal ID in  a growing number of U.S. cities. For EU migrants, navigating and filling in complex and long forms to acquire residency permits is a nightmare. Renting a place to live or going to hospital is now part of the immigration control process. Private landlords are required to check your immigration status to make sure you are not ‘illegal’. Banks have to check bank accounts of existing customers to make sure that you are not ‘illegal’. Local doctors and hospitals have to check that you are not ‘illegal’. Universities and employers have immigration compliance officers to check that you are not ‘illegal’. Your child will come home from school with a form asking you to declare their country of birth. While a growing number of cities are taking a stand on protecting the rights of the most vulnerable, and ensuring access to services, there is no guarantee you will not be spared the humiliation of exclusion and dehumanisation when you arrive in the UK.

Cost of exclusion

The Grenfell Tower fire which has happened in our neighbourhood has exposed some of the neglect and hostility in the most cruel way. Many of the victims and survivors are immigrants, and several of them undocumented. They lost everything, but are reluctant to come forward to seek help even after the government offered to give them some form of limited status. For all intents and purposes, they are invisible.

To make things worse, many people who have to perform all these checks in public services have no idea what they are supposed to do, so they begin to suspect your ‘foreign’ sounding name or your ‘otherness’ – the fact that you ‘look a bit foreign’. By doing this they create barriers and daily indignities for all minorities. The experience that is now a reality for more than one third of Londoners who are immigrants.

Nothing in your daily experience of life as an immigrant says – ‘you are welcome here’. The actual social spaces and social situations in which you can experience the other side of integration – the welcome from your new country – has shrunk to a few community organisations and faith institutions. All other interactions with social infrastructure systems are, at best, neutral and, at worst, and obstructive. If you are healthy, if you work, and have a place to live, you will accept these daily obstacles and find a way to manage and make the best of these opportunities. All the while, you can ignore the negative media headlines blaming you for stealing jobs, causing congestions on motorways, and chastising you for ‘not learning English’.

But if anything goes wrong, if you lose your job, if you are exploited, if you get sick, if you are a victim of crime, if you get stuck in immigration system, if you try to find good and affordable legal advice – you enter the twilight zone of forms, bureaucracy, contempt, marginalisation – waiting and more waiting.

The dehumanisation of immigrants has become a regular feature in the public narrative, and since the Brexit vote we have seen dramatic increase of reported hate attacks. There is no such thing as intellectual version of hate – someone always ends up hurt as people take seriously the racism that emerges daily from the front pages of the mainstream media.

Living together

Every day, here at Migrants Organise, we hear horror stories of injustice from refugees and migrants who turn to us for support. This degrading treatment is the result of hostile policies designed to reduce the number of immigrants in order to appease those who wrongly blame immigrants for the lack of social housing, the failing economy and low wages, the underfunded health service, and the lack of investment in other social infrastructure such as schools.

But, despite all this, integration is happening all the time and both immigrants and British citizens are constantly conspiring to make it work. London, with its superdiversity as its main pull factor, is evidence of integration that happens despite the Government’s efforts to make the lives of immigrants difficult.

Immigrants put up with unjust treatment because they have no choice. They turn to their friends and family, to civil society groups, to their neighbors and colleagues at work and in schools, to share their lives, joys and worries and to make the best of it. They are survivors and their receiving communities are the true integrators and the welcome committees.

So here is a revolutionary idea – it is called accountability. The media, as well as the politicians, could take a long, hard look at themselves and report on what it is that they are doing, or not doing, to advance integration. To analyse how the laws that they have been making and the rhetoric they have been utilising in their efforts to get or remain in power, or to sell newspapers, helps or hinders social integration.

They could start by looking at the impact of harsh immigration polices, stop and search, anti-terrorism prevention policies, cuts to language provision, cuts to legal aid.

As always, the voice that is missing from the debate on immigration and integration is the voice of those that are most affected by it. So, here is another revolutionary idea – if in doubt about whether integration works or what else needs to happen to make it work, ask the experts – migrants and refugees themselves, for us integration is a fact of life, even when it is not newsworthy for politicians and media.


The Author
Zrinka Bralo is Chief Executive of Migrants Organise – a community organising platform for migrants and refugees acting for justice. Zrinka is a refugee from Sarajevo (Bosnia), where she was a journalist working with leading war correspondents during the siege in the 90’s. She is a founder of the Women on the Move Awards to recognize achievement of migrant and refugee women and winner of the 2011 Voices of Courage Award by the Women’s Refugee Commission in New York. She joined their Board in 2012.

Zrinka successfully campaigned to end immigration detention of children and currently campaigns to end indefinite immigration detention. In September 2015 she became founding Chair of the National Refugee Welcome Board, a community sponsorship visa scheme to ensure sanctuary for 20,000 Syrian refugees. She is founding Trustee of the Bridge of Peace, reconciliation charity supporting young people working for peace in North Bosnia, in towns were notorious concentration camps were discovered during the 90’s war and children are growing up in the shadow of the worst atrocities committed in Europe since WW2.
Zrinka holds MSc in Media and Communications from London School of Economics and is 2014 Churchill Fellow.



  • Coming soon


View all Good Ideas