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The Disraeli Room

Blog Post

Immigration Week: Figuring Out Integration

18th December 2013

Jolena Flett from Belfast Migrant Centre offers the Northern Ireland perspective on immigration and integrating new migrants

The current debate around immigration amongst politicians and the media, which has become increasingly negative, has led to growing tensions within communities who continue to struggle with the idea of integration. While those in the political sphere, and even the community sector, exchanged the term about with ease, there is little discussion around what ‘integration’ means for those we expect it to come from.

Northern Ireland faces the unique position of being a post conflict society currently trying to devise a strategy of Good Relations and Integration within its majority communities. This, however, does not automatically translate into a strategy that includes the country’s growing ethnic minority and migrant population.

NICEM (Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities) delivers a variety of equality and diversity and awareness raising trainings on a regular basis to individuals and organisations from the majority population. Inevitably, during these trainings, a discussion based around us and them arises: ‘they need to learn our culture’, ‘they need to understand how it is here’, ‘they stick to themselves’, ‘they don’t attend the events we organise’ etc. Comments that are based in a genuine confusion rather than malice or bad will, perhaps best illustrated by a story told to me by a frustrated community worker:

An African family’s home was attacked in a racially motivated crime. The following day a local women’s support group reached out to the family and offered them their support and assistance in any way they would see fit. However, the victims were not familiar with this organisation or with its members and their limited level of English meant they did not feel comfortable letting them into their house. As the community worker explained, this was a classic case of miscommunication, as there was frustration within the community both with the act itself, but also with the family’s reaction to their offer for help. Since the organisation was trying to reach out, the family was perceived as not wanting their help and therefore did not want to ‘integrate’ into the community.

The discussions and stories that came out of the training have been useful in gauging where communities are at in terms of the changing environment both in terms of the peace process and the rapidly changing demographics. They have also raised the question of what integration means and whether people are actually expecting assimilation as a sign of ‘proper and successful’ integration. Often when we challenge perceptions in our training sessions it is clear that many individuals see integration as the full transition from one’s culture to the majority culture.

It is a particularly poignant debate in Northern Ireland’s society, which is seriously affected by territorialism and the struggle to move beyond these attitudes. The addition of trying to open up to a growing population of ‘outsiders’ has sometimes increased the desire within communities to hold on to a culture they feel is diminishing rather that see diversity as a way of diffusing the tensions between the two main communities. This is not to say there is not good integration work occurring in the communities and statutory agencies.

There are noteworthy projects happening throughout Northern Ireland. Importantly, many of these are initiated by communities and evidence the desire to work with a new population and an acceptance of the changes that are happening. However, it remains difficult to sustain and streamline this work with limited funding and our political leaders sending mixed messages, with some actually saying that assimilation is what we should be striving for. The high priority of this work is still questionable as we still have yet to have a new Racial Equality Strategy despite the previous one ending in 2010.

Without clarity and strong leadership we will continue to struggle with the concepts of integration and acceptance of those who do not conform.

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