Since the Forum began over 20 years ago, we’ve seen first-hand how important peer support has been for newly arriving asylum seekers and refugees and through their journey to integration. We see how peer support reduces social isolation, helps new arrivals navigate unknown systems, access vital services and understand their rights and it promotes wider participation in life in the UK. That is why we have always championed the role of those who take action to support their community.
National research evidences the unique, but often unrecognised, contribution of RCOs to a range of policy areas. The Refugee Council’s report ‘A bridge to life in the UK: Refugee-led community organisations and their role in integration’ highlights the depth and breadth of support that RCOs provide and the key role they play in helping refugees rebuild their lives, integrate and increase refugee inclusion and participation in the UK. Their research found that RCOs are particularly effective in supporting their service users because of three key assets:
- Reach: they have the ability to reach refugee communities as they have contacts, share languages and cultural affinity, and they are trusted.
- Insight: their insight often comes from the personal experiences of the refugees running the services,
- Solutions: this improves their ability to find solutions to the barriers and challenges facing refugees.
However, the report concludes that ‘Despite being remarkably effective agents for social integration, RCOs are chronically underused, unrecognised and under-resourced….RCOs are routinely overlooked, taken for granted and excluded from integration policy discussions, when they obviously need to be are part of the solution’.
The Home Office’s Theory of Change for Achieving Integration (2019 – interactive content) also recognises the importance of community organisations to integration. It highlights how the barrier of Social Isolation can be overcome through Social Connections and its 3 domains of Social Bridges, Social Bonds and Social Links which “taken together they recognise the importance of relationships to our understanding of the integration process and elaborate different kinds of relationships that contribute to integration”. The Home Office’s Indicators of Integration Framework uses the language of social capital to distinguish between these three forms of social connection or relationship:
A. Social bonds are connections with others with a shared sense of identity… Social bonds are characterised by the exchange of both practical and emotional support and can provide individuals and groups with the confidence and security required for integration. Social isolation is characterised by a lack of social bonds.
B. Social bridges connect people of a different background… Social bridges provide the route for the sharing of resource and opportunity between people who are dissimilar. … Social segregation is characterised by a lack of social bridges…
C. Social links are connections with institutions, including local and central government services… Social links refer to the ‘vertical’ relationships between people and the institutions of the society in which they live…. Social links connect the individual to the power structures of society in both directions, as a contributor (e.g. through voting) as well as a beneficiary (e.g. when needing to access support). A sense of alienation may be characterised by a lack of social links.
The theory gives practical examples of effective interventions that will help build these Social Bonds, Social Bridges and Social Links which include:
- ‘Supporting community organisations in the local area’, which will lead to ‘access of refugees and migrants to emotional and practical support from one’s own community when needed’ and ‘adequate capacity of refugee community organisations’.
- ‘Training and outreach programmes to encourage and support involvement in public and civic life’; ‘engagement of communities in local and national policy and strategy development/implementation’; local organisations make institutional arrangements with community organisations’. These interventions will lead to outputs including ‘sufficient capacity of refugees and migrants to advocate for and claim their rights’, ‘sufficient awareness of procedures for complaining about good and services’, inclusive representation within leadership and management structures, PTA’s, NGO’s, governing bodies and political parties, ‘have a voice in shaping society’ and being ‘able to benefit from local services’
More details are given in the ‘Bank of Outcome Indicators of Integration’ .
The Home Office’s associated report Integrating refugees: What works? What can work? What does not work? A summary of the evidence (June 2019) concludes that “High-quality social connections promote integration. Research indicates that the quality of social networks within and between communities, and transnationally, is positively related to the overall wellbeing of refugees. Social networks facilitate access to health and welfare services, financial and emotional support and also reduce feelings of isolation and depression”. It also poses the question “What does not work in integrating refugees?” and concludes it is “A lack of support for migrant refugee community groups” and “Not recognising integration as a holistic and long-term process”. “Projects seeking quick solutions or run by organisations without prior knowledge of refugees are less likely to be successful than those with experience. Some migrant refugee community organisations may require support to participate in integration initiatives owing to a lack of experience in UK policy and practice”.
It is our experience that not enough attention is paid to the existence and role of RCOs although building connecting relationships is central to their activity.