Integrated Britain? Geographers Examine the Effects of ‘Onward Migration’


Image: Malachy Browne (taken in the Calais ‘Jungle’)

Since 2000, the UK Government has operated a policy of ‘compulsory dispersal’ of refugees, aiming to spread the burden of housing asylum seekers across the UK to discourage long-term settlement in the South East of the country and in London. Very little has been known however about whether refugees remain in the sites allocated to them by the Home Office, or choose to move on after they are granted their legal right to remain. Why refugees may choose to move on after their status is granted has also been poorly studied. Now, a project run by two geographers at the University of Strathclyde, has countered this lack of information, publishing the results of a two year study into onward migration and aiming to improve understanding about refugees’ integration into the UK.

The ESRC-funded project, ‘Onward Migration‘, ran from 2012 – 2014, with results published in December last year. Dr Emma Stewart, Lecturer in Human Geography and Marnie Shaffer, Research Associate, both at the University of Strathclyde, conducted in-depth interviews with refugees focused in four areas: Glasgow, Cardiff, Manchester and London. This qualitative research was combined with information extracted from the Analysis, Research and Knowledge Management (ARK) section of the UK Border Agency – commissioned Survey of New Refugees (SNR). The SNR provides a longitudinal study of refugees’ integration into the UK. A questionnaire was sent to all new refugees granted asylum, humanitarian protection or discretionary leave to remain between December 2005 – March 2007. Integration was then studied over the next 21 months through a series of follow-up questionnaires. The English language skills, housing and employment status of new arrivals was tracked, with over 800 refugees responding to the surveys.

Along with the SNR, the geographers’ interviews revealed interesting results about the dispersal patterns of refugees and how this may affect their integration into society. The researchers found that dispersal policy has diversified the ethnic composition of UK cities, creating environments in which refugees can flourish. Growing numbers of refugees therefore choose to remain in the places they were dispersed to. However the research also showed that those refugees who were dispersed did have higher rates of onward migration than new refugees choosing to live with friends and family. A lack of employment opportunities in the dispersal location was often cited as a factor. Eighty per cent of those dispersed to Greater Manchester chose to remain there. However interviews showed that a lack of employment in both Glasgow and Cardiff led to onward migration. Refugees would often onward-migrate to London with high expectations in terms of opportunities and living conditions that were not always realised.

The project revealed that new refugees who are dispersed often have poorer employment outcomes than other new refugees. They were less likely than those refugees choosing to live with friends and family to be in employment eight months after receiving their grant of status. However their prospects were improved by moving.

Alongside employment prospects, or lack thereof, the reasons given by refugees for remaining in one location or moving on included: the presence of co-ethnic and local communities; education; life events; housing; place of dispersal; racism; and health reasons. Onward migration could also be caused by homelessness, limited housing options and a lack of job training; all of these factors could lead to instability and poor integration outcomes.

The study found that although many refugees do move towards existing co-ethnic communities, a significant number do not wish to. Many refugees perceived this as hampering their integration into UK society, in particular preventing them from learning English and therefore hampering their onward moves. Education, for both adults and children, was seen as very important by refugees in allowing them to gain knowledge and skills and helping them to forge the social networks and connections important for integration.

In their conclusion to the Executive Summary of the study, the geographers highlight the ‘complexity of interacting factors that influence refugee onward migration decisions and shape integration outcomes’, before providing a number of recommendations regarding how policy-makers can promote the successful integration of refugees. These identify important roles for not only Central Government but also local authorities in: fully supporting refugees until they are in receipt of mainstream benefits and have access to housing; allowing asylum seekers to choose their dispersal location; along with providing refugees with the opportunity to input into and benefit from initiatives for tackling racism and hate crime. Local authorities are encouraged to develop, coordinate and monitor a ‘local refugee integration strategy’, promoting a multi-agency approach to appropriate job training and English language courses, for example.

The RGS-IBG is organising a panel discussion for a public audience on Tuesday 15th March, on the topic of ‘Integrated Britain?’. Find out more and buy tickets here

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