The U.K.’s Refugee Integration Curse

A social-impact startup is out to solve the U.K.'s refugee integration problem with tea.
A social-impact startup is out to solve the U.K.’s refugee integration problem with tea.

By Pranav Chopra

The recent conflict in Syria, and across other countries in the world, has created an influx of refugees who are allocated new homes in the European Union and specifically in the United Kingdom. The increased numbers have challenged countries to provide sufficient support to help these refugees integrate and assimilate. It is integral that this “dynamic, two-way process of mutual accommodation by all immigrants and residents of the U.K.” occurs as seamless as possible.

The rising anti-immigrant sentiments from some politicians and the media have instilled a fear into nationals about these foreigners. This is not the best atmosphere for these refugees who have experienced trauma over a period of years and now face long waits to decide on their future. The U.K. refugee agencies and government are inundated with applications and doing their best to find the right support, but it is a long and arduous process. The need to act urgently to support integration focusing especially on equality and inclusion during the process is essential.

The importance of these two factors when integrating is eloquently relayed by Donna Covey in the Refugee Council conference report (2009):

“… When people flee persecution, the flight to safety is only the first part of their journey. The second stage – rebuilding life in a strange land – is equally important. Sometimes settling here can be as hard or harder than the original flight from tyranny. Integration is not about ‘fitting in,’ or about refugees becoming ‘more like us.’ It is, rather, about equality and inclusion, and ensuring that refugees have equal chances to live full, safe and productive lives. 

Inclusion is the key as identified by Refugee Council and most commonly noted by refugees themselves as their main struggle to settle in their new environment. Multiple barriers exist in the U.K. specifically that inhibit refugees from effectively integrate, including:

  • They remain under-qualified based on U.K. system. Overseas qualifications are not recognized as in, for instance, Germany and Sweden.
  • Lack of cultural coaching. There is generally insufficient coaching provided in the U.K., in particular with respect to learning about the laws of the country and the culture. This sort of support would help refugees understand the host culture and avoid unintentionally offending anyone or breaking the law.
  • Long waiting periods with no work. The U.K. does not allow asylum-seekers to work while waiting for asylum decisions. These long wait times for decisions on asylum cases create mental health and other problems, making it much harder for refugees to rebuild their lives once they receive permission to stay in the U.K.

Another key reason for us to embrace refugee communities in the U.K. as shown in research done by Migrant Forum is the challenge of isolation: 58 percent of migrants and refugees described loneliness and isolation as their biggest challenge living in the U.K.,the forum found. A number of inter-connected challenges also exist which compound feelings of loneliness and isolation, such as:

  • Loss of family and friends
  • Language barriers
  • Loss of job or career
  • Cultural differences
  • Discrimination and stigma connected to being a foreigner

Both lack of inclusion and living in isolation present a challenge for refugees in the U.K. that must be tackled. Support from local communities and businesses in the U.K. can alleviate their transition and create a smooth integration process.

Chaigaram is one such social-purpose business that is looking to tackle this issue head on by providing refugees with employment opportunities to empower them to feel a part of the British society. The social enterprise set up a franchise of tea stalls across London food markets selling Indian tea which is freshly prepared and sold by refugees. The same refugees also manage and operate the stalls. This allows refugees to interact with the locals and work on their English language skills, gain confidence, and develop basic business skills which are necessary for them to work towards a career of their choice. The refugees are also involved in preparing specialist Indian tea blends which are sold at both retail and wholesale level across the U.K.

Such efforts resonate with Carnegie Council‘s conclusion: “It is time for us all to take responsibility for our future. What we do now in relation to the families who have arrived and will arrive affects future opportunity for all of us. We can genuinely welcome people, accept them as part of our world, support them to have the same opportunities as us, and adapt to our increased diversity, or we can exclude them and await the social and economic consequences.”

Image credit: Flickr/Alisdare Hickson

Pranav Chopra, an ex-corporate junkie and a passionate social innovator, has worked across various jurisdictions on several strategy projects and is now looking to utilize his expertise to do good. He is heavily involved in a number of ventures with a social development agenda at their core ranging from helping refugees integrate in the UK through job creation, tackling the issue of illiteracy in India through the power of tourism, using technology to improve the lives of the deaf, promoting fair-trade and organic produce and reducing food wastage in Australia.

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