August 26, 2014

GUARDADO | The Challenges of Refugee Integration

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During my summer working at SINGA France, an organization that helps refugees integrate into French society by supporting their entrepreneurial projects, I learned about the challenges that refugees face in a new country. It is important to understand that obtaining asylum is not the end of an asylum seeker’s journey to safety, but rather the beginning of a new life and a fresh set of difficulties. These issues affect all domains of life and must especially be taken into account by policymakers who have a say in asylum laws as well as by nonprofit organizations that work in the field of asylum. The following are some of the major challenges I was made aware of by the founders of SINGA, my coworkers and refugees themselves:

1) Language barrier: This is often the most obvious problem that refugees face in a new country, but it also applies to all kinds of migrants. Without learning the language of the host country, refugees often face isolation and difficulty with daily life. Because I worked in France, many of the refugees with whom I spoke expressed deep frustration at not being able to master the French language. On the other hand, those who came from Francophone countries had more ease adapting and interacting with locals. Age, previous exposure to the language and access to different resources (like language classes) are some of the important factors which made a difference in how comfortable someone was with French.

2) Cultural differences: Many refugees come from cultures where notions of time and ways of interacting with others differ from the United States or France. For instance, in many African countries, people are accustomed to going by the seasons rather than by months or days of the weeks. Notions of time are circular rather than linear and compartmentalized like in the United States, so being two or three hours late might not be considered as impolite. Religion also plays a major role in adapting to a new country and might pose additional challenges especially when moving from a religious country to a more secular country like France or the United States.

3) Employment: In a recent study, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees found that employment was the principal concern of the refugees interviewed. According to the same study, refugees are confronted by particular obstacles relating to their status as well as by the difficulties faced by other migrants. Some of these challenges may be the language barrier already described, codes of conduct that vary with each culture, a lack of professional contacts and the ability to obtain equivalency for their degrees.

This is simply a glimpse into what many refugees face. Complex administrative procedures, finding housing and creating new professional and personal networks must also be added to this list. However, because the word “refugee” is a legal term and groups together people from many different backgrounds, the challenges that they face may differ highly on a case-by-case basis.