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Refugees are asked to “integrate,” but what does that even mean?

This is episode four of the series “The ID Question,” from How We Get To Next. Read episode one and episode two and episode three here.

Last September, Kany Kazadi spent ten hours meticulously braiding her hair with red and green extensions. They were the colors of her favorite Gaelic football team, Mayo, who were facing off against Dublin in the All Ireland final. She didn’t have a ticket, but when a photo that showed her love for the team went viral, the Gaelic Athletic Association gifted her two.

12 years ago, Kazadi didn’t even know Gaelic football existed—she barely even spoke English then, when she left her home in the Democratic Republic of Congo to seek asylum in Ireland. She remembers leaving her life as a student “like it was yesterday,” arriving in the tiny Irish town of Ballyhaunis, perched on the secluded and rural western coast of the country.

“You are leaving everything behind—your family, your job, your society. You cannot speak the language. If someone told me I would be speaking in English and living in an English-speaking country, I would have laughed,” Kazadi told me. When she arrived in Ballyhaunis, she was placed in an Irish government Direct Provision center, a temporary home provided to asylum seekers while their applications are being processed. There is no time limit to how long that process can take; Kazadi’s took four years.

Right now there are hundreds of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers undertaking perilous journeys across land and sea, cutting themselves off from their closest friends and family for unknown lengths of time and moving to countries they have often only read about or seen in movies. They often end up in a no-man’s land, a place where they haven’t quite left their past but haven’t yet arrived at a new future. To counter this disorientation, they must create anew their sense of identity.

The nations that host them often face a paradoxical challenge: new arrivals need help to adjust to life in their host country, but at the same time, they try not to appear too welcoming, for fear of inspiring xenophobia among the existing population. There’s a magic word that supposedly solves this paradox: “integration.” But people define the term in different ways, and how to “integrate” people arriving in a new country is a challenge with no single solution.

This is especially true when it comes to integration and identity; looking at xenophobic populist political movements around the world right now, it’s easy to see the difficulties that places like Ireland are having mixing new and old cultural identities. Refugees are asked to leave behind old cultural and social behaviors. At the same time, longtime residents of these countries may mistrust or even actively fear newcomers. How do you ask someone to integrate into—and to reshape their identity around—a community that may be defined by a shared dislike of you?

 Asylum seekers wind up in a state of limbo: they can’t get jobs or even apply for courses or degrees which might help them get a job when, one day, they are allowed. 

The Direct Provision system houses new arrivals while their applications are processed, as it did for Kazadi over those four years of waiting. But it also restricts what asylum seekers can do while they wait. Many EU countries strictly limit the types of job that asylum seekers are allowed to take up, but Ireland and Denmark are the only two where all paid labor is completely banned in all circumstances. Children going through the system are entitled to primary and secondary education, but nothing beyond.

Asylum seekers wind up in a state of limbo: they can’t get jobs or even apply for courses or degrees which might help them get a job when, one day, they are allowed. They receive a meager weekly allowance of €21.60, plus some basic free necessities such as meals, toiletries, and laundry. The centers where they’re placed are notoriously grim—more like low-security prisons than residential homes, they’re often hidden away in the countryside, with no access to public transportation. There are currently 34 different centers across Ireland that collectively host several thousand asylum applicants.

Direct Provision, which was introduced in 2000 to respond to a spike in asylum applications, was meant to only be an interim measure. Each center was designed to hold people for up to six months at most, but the system proved unable to process applications that quickly. Conditions at the centers have attracted plenty of criticism over the years, from journalists to judges to the United Nations.

The centers are a modern manifestation of the country’s “culture of concealment,” Carl O’Brien wrote in the Irish Times in 2014, which should be a “relic of a time of mental asylums, mother-and-baby homes and Magdalene laundries.” A leaked Irish government report argues that the system is deliberately dehumanizing so as to appear harsher than the one in the United Kingdom—otherwise, under the 2005 Common European Asylum System, asylum seekers might skip past the UK and arrive in Ireland instead.

This reflects a trend across the EU for the past several decades, magnified in recent years: governments try to provide the asylum they are legally required to by international law, but at the same time, either explicitly or implicitly, they are as cautious about doing so as possible. This stems from widespread and rising anti-immigration feeling across the continent, and persistent conflations of asylum applications with illegal immigration in right-wing media. Tensions between the pro- and anti-refugee camps are central to political debate across Europe, with politicians fearing consequences at the ballot box for appearing too “soft,” particularly in the face of a backlash among mostly older voters against multiculturalism entirely.

It’s a challenging time to arrive in Europe as an economic migrant, let alone to seek asylum, and ongoing conflicts around the world mean that the refugee crisis will not abate any time soon. In Ireland, polling over the last two decades has consistently found people would prefer stricter laws on immigration, and there are currently slim majorities in favor of denying asylum to people fleeing the crisis in the Middle East. Ireland actually takes in the fewest refugees of any western European country, and 90% of those who do make it to Ireland have their applications subsequently denied.

For the small percentage that do make it, starting that new life is a practical process: learning the language, finding a job or entering education, making friends, and otherwise engaging with the institutions of civil society, all while struggling with alienation, xenophobia, racism, and more. These things aren’t easy under any circumstances—but Ireland’s Direct Provision system makes them inherently more difficult.

 “In Ireland, the problem for asylum seekers is about isolation.” 

Every asylum seeker or former asylum seeker that I spoke to for this piece stressed that they wanted to do what they were expected to do in their new home: integrate into Irish society. But since the Direct Provision system stops people from working or studying, it leads many in the existing population—if they ever come into contact with people at a center—to believe that asylum seekers are not really trying.

Ballyhaunis, the tiny town where Kazadi waited for her application to be approved, wasn’t an easy place to integrate, either. The population is just over 3,000 people. “You will be looked at like: ‘Oh those are the people from the ‘center,’” she says. “It was a sort of segregation even if it wasn’t meant to be.”

Stephen came to Ireland from an East African country 13 years ago. “Speaking your own language does not mean that a person does not want to integrate,” he says. “I speak my language with my children at home. But you also have to show an appreciation of the bigger culture, when you move. It shows respect. This is a learning from my culture—of respecting elders. You don’t just go to someone’s house and just speak in your own language. That is rude.”

He says that in the lost years of Direct Provision, he wanted to pursue productive work; being stuck in limbo was traumatic. “Even getting the citizenship does not replace what you have lost, the lost time,” he says. “The time spent in indignity when you can’t provide for your children.”

Life in these centers resembles a waiting room. Everyone lives from week to week, and the drabness of the buildings, deliberately placed away from villages and towns, adds to the sense of displacement. “In Ireland, the problem for asylum seekers is about isolation,” explains Hassina Kiboua, a refugee resettlement officer at the Irish Refugee Council. “You don’t have the right to work or right of home, and this isolation makes people less willing to engage with the society because of their legal status. Syrian asylum seekers in Lebanon… have the same religion, language, dialect, and yet they feel isolated sometimes. If you don’t feel included in a society or don’t have the opportunities like others do, you will feel isolated.”

Surviving this kind of asylum system is largely a case of finding solid ground somewhere in the foggy limbo: taking part of your former home with you and synthesizing it with the new one. For Kazadi, living in Ballyhaunis in 2005 as an asylum seeker and a woman of color was painful. Food would have been one way for her to reach back home—but in Direct Provision, she wasn’t allowed to cook for herself.

“Cooking, eating are such essential parts of who we are,” says Kazadi. “We literally had nothing to do. How do you spend a day? Cooking is not just the 90 minutes spent in the kitchen. There is planning, going out, buying ingredients. Going to shop for your food—even in that short time, you do interact with people.”

In her own home today, she revels in making her own spicy food, a very transportive process. “It reminds you of home, of your childhood kitchen, your family, or even the walks to the market at home. I mean, look at the diversity we have—isn’t food diversity the best thing to happen?”

 Who defines the culture into which refugees should integrate—and who decides when that point is reached? 

Everyone’s definition of “integration” is different. After all, not everyone in Ireland likes Gaelic football—so why does liking Gaelic football count in a refugee’s favor? Does binge-watching Netflix count as integration? Does going to church or mosque or temple? Does shopping at certain stores, or buying certain clothes? Longtime Irish residents can and do live very different lives from each other; there might be a vast gulf between a rural farmer and an urban real estate agent. Who defines the culture into which refugees should integrate—and who decides when that point is reached?

Kiboua, the refugee resettlement officer from the Irish Refugee Council, doesn’t like the word “integration” either. “I prefer the word ‘inclusion,’” she says. “In a diverse, inclusive society, no one looks at nationality or color or language. Even if you speak English with an accent, you are speaking in English and you are contributing to society and your accent is part of you. You can’t lose yourself to become a part of someone else.”

But it can be difficult to feel “included” if, for example, you can’t bring some crucial parts of your identity with you. Most refugees and asylum seekers, especially those who leave conflict areas or traumatic situations at home, have to leave almost everything physical behind. “Food is definitely one of the primary aspects of their identity they preserve, because they cannot carry back much,” says Jennifer DeWan, campaigns and communications manager at NASC, an Irish immigrant support center. “It is more about the things they can say, or sing or make.”

Both migrants and advocacy workers agree that much of the work of integration falls on asylum seekers—but responsibility also falls on both longtime residents of the host countries and on the state itself. “The government needs to raise awareness about refugees and asylum seekers, what brought them here and ways of including them in to your country’s processes,” says Kiboua. “There is no ‘us and them.’ It is up to us to welcome them. The feeling of being unwanted or a burden can prevent them from integrating well and blossoming.”

Even when migrants have lived in a country for years, there are moments that can shatter the new identities that they’ve meticulously pieced together. In her first 11 years in Ireland, Kazadi did not face any overt racism, though she is well aware of what prejudice looks and sounds like. “But that first time I experienced it, that one moment, robbed me of everything I worked so hard for 11 years,” she says. “In that particular moment, you can really lose that identity you thought you had. And it makes you think—you know what? I will always be Congolese, there will never be anything Irish about me. But it passes.”

Today, Kazadi feels she has two identities. At times she feels Irish because she “enjoys parts of the culture even the Irish don’t enjoy.” “Hey look, I survived the weather,” she says with a laugh. “Some of you still complain. I love the Gaelic Athletic Association and I have Irish friends who could not be bothered even if they played on the road right here. I go to the pub and drink Guinness. It is about what I decided to do to make myself Irish, not what others tell me. You have to choose.”

This article was originally published on How We Get To Next, under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license. Read more about republishing How We Get To Next articles. Sign up to the How We Get To Next newsletter here.

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