Linda Asquith, course director for BA (Hons) Criminology at Leeds Beckett University, explores what works when resettling refugees in new communities, and the importance of sports and social groups in helping people rebuild their lives.
The war in Ukraine and the recent attempt by the UK government to send asylum seekers to Rwanda have placed refugees on the front pages of newspapers in the UK and worldwide. The word ‘refugee’ was first used in France in the 1500s, referring to a person seeking shelter from danger or distress. I think it describes those arriving from Ukraine perfectly – they need shelter from the threat they have experienced in the war and space to process the grief they have experienced through the loss of homes and family.
The UK first introduced specific asylum (as opposed to refugee) legislation in the 1990 Asylum and Immigration Act, which introduced the concept of the deserving/undeserving asylum seeker. We have seen this narrative play out when thinking about the different responses to the Ukrainian refugees (deserving) and those selected for transport to Rwanda (undeserving, and hence a threat to UK security). The 1999 Immigration and Asylum act removed rights to social assistance benefits from those subject to immigration control. It replaced them with a voucher scheme, limiting where asylum seekers could shop and what they could buy. This legislation had the effect of excluding displaced people from the mainstream social welfare system whilst at the same time reducing their entitlements to support within the asylum system (Dwyer 2003). Some of these rules may not apply to Ukrainian refugees, as the UK government has allowed UK nationals to sponsor Ukrainians and offer them a room in their homes. Those successful in this scheme will be able to live and work in the UK for up to three years and access healthcare, employment support and benefits and education, amongst other things.
Support is essential for refugees and asylum seekers, who have many different needs as they acculturate to a new country. They have been traumatised in their home country through war, economic collapse, or environmental disaster. They have lost homes, family, and livelihoods and must process all these simultaneously when trying to adapt to living in a new country and culture. While safe housing and security are vital to helping forced migrants resettle, other factors can also help acculturation.
It has often been said that sport is a great leveller, but I found that it is also excellent for inclusion. Football doesn’t require people to speak the same language; a knowledge of the rules is enough. Knowing the rules of the game means that new arrivals to a country can join in with cultural activities that have health and social benefits. Playing or engaging in team sports enables migrants to build bonds with people in their community, helping their resettlement (Asquith 2019). Groups with a shared purpose, such as music groups, uniformed organisations such as the Scouts and Guides, and craft groups, all provide migrants with the opportunity to get to know people in their community and, likewise, for their community to become familiar with the new arrivals (Asquith 2019). Furthermore, such groups can act as developers of ‘social capital’ for all members, helping them to be part of a network that can provide connections to a broader range of people.
It is not unusual for migrants to live in communities alongside other migrants from the same home community, irrespective of whether the migration has been forced or not. However, migrants living near others who have experienced similar trauma have found this closeness valuable (Asquith 2019). This is because they speak the same language and have the same cultural practices, and there is no need to explain their experiences to each other. The shared understanding of what they have experienced before migration means that words are unnecessary. These migrant communities tend to act as informal support groups where individuals can be together and help each other with the challenges they face as they integrate into their new society.
Employment can be incredibly valuable once refugee status has been granted. Aside from the obvious economic benefits of working, employment can help individuals develop a new sense of self and social networks and access more opportunities for themselves and their families. Working allows refugees to become used to their communities and also enables communities to become accustomed to refugees’ presence. ‘Water cooler’ conversations can help refugees learn social norms and expectations and learn or become more proficient in the language.
Refugees bring diversity, enrich culture and make economic contributions to society which far outweigh the initial cost of supporting them. For those welcoming Ukrainian refugees to their homes and communities, remembering and facilitating these needs can make all the difference to their resettlement and integration into life in the UK.
Linda Asquith is the course director for the BA (Hons) Criminology course at Leeds Beckett University. Her book ‘Rebuilding Lives after Genocide: Migration, Adaptation and Acculturation’ was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2019 and discusses the experiences of genocide survivors following migration to the UK. Linda is a runner and an avid cake fan. These two facts are not coincidental.