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Bridge or Buffer? A Faith-Based Approach to Migrant Integration

Calais jungle, 2016

Migrants and refugees are faced with an array of challenges upon arrival in the UK, including legal barriers that prevent access to employment, housing and healthcare, and more generally, a lack of opportunities to interact with others.

Xenophobia also makes life hugely difficult. Those who have had to flee from their homes and attempt perilous journeys in pursuit of safety have not only been described as an ‘invasion’ by right wing pundits, but derided for attempting something ‘stupid’ by the Prime Minister. This is despite the fact they are claiming a right enshrined in Article 14 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which makes seeking sanctuary in the UK perfectly lawful. At the same time, the UK government is attempting to break international law by reneging on a Brexit deal that was the mandate for its very own election into office.

Those with a pending asylum claim are given a paltry income to survive on until the claim has been processed and a decision has been reached. Additionally, the trepidatious status of these people has become even more apparent with the COVID-19 pandemic, and how it disproportionately affects both those from poorer backgrounds and those with an insecure immigration status due to poor access to healthcare.

The work of Faith-Based Organisations (FBOs) in relation to vulnerable migrants, asylum seekers and refugees is perhaps overlooked. These organisations play a key role in supporting the previously stated groups by providing financial support, food and healthcare as well as educational and employment opportunities.

In the UK, the British Red Cross has worked with many mono-religious organisations such Action for Refugees and Citylife Church’s City Life Education. These organisations may not only be able to help certain migrants with their pressing material needs, but may be able to support them further with their spiritual needs. This is especially true of refugees arriving from Europe who, according to one report by the Oakington Immigration Centre in Cambridge, 75% of were either Christian or Muslim.

There are, however, some valid concerns as to the effects (deliberate or otherwise) that religious involvement in migrant integration processes has on the migrants themselves. Such concerns include the fear that they will contribute to the “ghettoization” of certain migrants through surrounding them only with members of their own faith. Similarly, secular discourses have expressed fears that migrants may be targeted for conversion, due to their precarious situations, otherwise known as ‘aid conversion’.

Worries of whether mono-faith institutions can approach the integration process from a binary view, without taking into consideration other people's religious needs dependent upon their religion, have also been raised.

There was also a concerning report in the Guardian (2019) regarding how government authorities from the Home Office had paid certain faith organisations to help deport rough sleepers. Those deported were typically of an ethnic minority background. It shows that Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs are being targeted for removal, along with Brazilians, Albanians and Chinese people.

However, many of these concerns can be addressed by taking a multi-religious approach to the integration process. A prime example is the Southampton Council of Faiths which boasts an impressive representation of the Baha’i, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Islamic, Jewish, and Sikh faiths.

Set up in 2001, the Southampton Council of Faiths is an intermediary between the various faith communities and public bodies. This results in a collaborative effort independent of government and promoting a multilateral approach to helping migrants integrate into society.

However, these multi-faith organisations are certainly not the norm, especially in the UK. There have been some growing trends in Europe for the use of multi-faith organisations. Sweden, for example, has the Goda Grannar (Good neighbours) programme which was set up in 2015. A partnership between a local mosque and church in Stockholm which provides language classes and legal advice to migrants. They also advise Swedish local and national governments on how to enact policy regarding the treatment of these migrants.

The benefits of different religious groups working together are numerous. They promote community cohesion between groups of people who may have limited or no knowledge of the others’ cultural or religious background. They also work to plug skill gaps through a collaborative effort between different communities, which has started to gain popularity across Sweden.

Though there are valid concerns regarding FBOs and their effects, it is important to highlight the overall benefits that they provide to vulnerable migrants in the UK. Whilst multi-faith approaches are still in their infancy, their approach to cooperation between faith groups to support those pressured by the UK government’s ‘Hostile Environment’ policy should be encouraged. This is not only for the sake of those seeking a better life but to promote a more compassionate society.

David Hildebrand is a writer and correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service, a legal organisation that helps undocumented migrants to regulate their status.

Photo: Calais jungle 2016. © malachybowne (Flickr). Some rights reserved