8. Conclusions and policy implications
Over the past eight years, there has been a transformation in the work of local authorities supporting refugee integration. Local authorities – many of which previously had little experience of supporting refugees and people seeking asylum – have adapted rapidly to deliver a number of ambitious resettlement programmes, from the Syrian Vulnerable Person’s Resettlement Scheme to the recent Homes for Ukraine and Super Sponsor Scheme.
Through the research for this project, local authorities and partners spoke of how they had scaled up their efforts over this period to deliver wide-ranging support for refugees and people seeking asylum, including ESOL and employability training, temporary and long-term accommodation, welfare and housing advice, registration with GPs and dentists, access to travel and leisure activities, and help connecting with other members of the community. Delivering this support has involved considerable partnership working with local services, charities and community groups. Close working between officers from different local authorities – often facilitated and coordinated by COSLA – has been critical for sharing learning and pursuing joint initiatives, including regional partnerships between neighbouring councils. While the work has at times been challenging, there has been political buy-in and commitment across all 32 of Scotland’s local authorities, which have adopted a flexible working approach as new schemes have emerged and the external context has changed.
The last few years have been a tumultuous period for local authorities, which needed to adapt their provision abruptly during the Covid-19 lockdowns beginning in early 2020, where resettlement numbers ground to a halt at the same time as it became more challenging to deliver many of the services and support that refugees and people seeking asylum require. Since mid-2021, this situation has sharply reversed, as the pandemic has receded and major new routes for Afghans and Ukrainians have opened up, placing unprecedented pressures on local authority resettlement teams. This has raised ongoing challenges of meeting the surge in demand for housing and of ensuring adequate resourcing and staffing for integration activities – particularly within a wider context of housing scarcity, Covid-19 recovery, and the cost of living crisis. As local authorities have been responding as best they can to current pressures, many have inevitably had less time to invest in longer-term strategic thinking to support refugee integration.
A number of important lessons for future policy have emerged from the findings. First, local authorities have highlighted the benefits of a community-based partnership strategy for supporting refugee integration. While this may look different depending on the local context, the research suggests that integration activities were most effective when they involved regular and sustained collaboration with local services and charities and community groups. There is a case for a more systematic and comprehensive approach to partnership working, especially with the third sector. Existing efforts to meaningfully involve local community groups in the development of the next iteration of the New Scots Refugee Integration Strategy are an example of this and such partnerships should be further utilised and built upon.
Second, a number of research participants spoke of the need for a renewed focus on ESOL and employability support in the coming years, at both the local and national level. Many refugees in Scotland struggle to find work matching their prior qualifications, and English language learning continues to be a major barrier to securing well-paid and sustainable employment. The evidence from the fieldwork suggests that the most effective ESOL provision was creative and responsive to the needs of learners, combining formal and community-based provision. Often examples of best practice involved blending ESOL provision with other activities – whether that was community orientation or employability support. Likewise, the stand-out successes for employability tended to involve bespoke support on the part of councils in response to the needs and ambitions of refugees. At the same time, the research made clear the importance of balancing a personalised approach to integration with one which sets out clear parameters for what provision is available in order to encourage refugees’ self-development and agency over time.
Third, participants often called for more joined-up thinking within their local authorities. To make integration work effectively across Scotland, every local authority should, at a minimum, have its own permanent team for refugee resettlement – varying in size depending on the scale of new arrivals and with relevant expertise on areas such as education, community development, social work, and/or housing – as well as staff with responsibilities for UASC and people seeking asylum. This could be supported via a dedicated funding stream from the Scottish Government as part of the New Scots Refugee Integration Strategy, alongside the existing UK Government funding for its resettlement schemes.
But also raised in the fieldwork was the need to avoid siloed working: while dedicated teams for refugee resettlement and integration were considered necessary, the most effective provision also involves buy-in from staff across the local authority, including from housing, health, children’s services, ESOL, employability, and other relevant officers. This approach allows refugee integration work to become mainstreamed across policy areas and helps to ensure collaboration on cross-cutting issues.
The feedback from research participants has important implications for the next iteration of the New Scots Refugee Integration Strategy. Those who participated in the study had a broadly positive view of former strategies, recognising their value in setting a framework for local authorities to deliver their work.
Nevertheless, they highlighted the following areas for improvement. First, the next New Scots Refugee Integration Strategy could be more ambitious and outcome-oriented in different policy areas, setting out clear targets to drive forward improvements in provision. Second, there is a critical need for the strategy process to involve comprehensive consultation with local government, who are often at the heart of refugee integration work taking place on the ground. Third, there were concerns about disparities and inequalities for refugees and people seeking asylum across different routes: there could be a role for the next New Scots Refugee Integration Strategy in emphasising equity for all those fleeing persecution and conflict in Scotland, regardless of their origin, and in ensuring a consistent approach is taken to funding, rights and entitlements, and service provision for all arrivals. Fourth, a number of participants urged that the New Scots Refugee Integration Strategy should be matched appropriately with adequate resources, in order to allow local authorities and their partner organisations to deliver on the strategy.
Such an approach would help to ensure that when in future Scotland welcomes new refugees in response to humanitarian crises such as those in Afghanistan and Ukraine, there is effective consultation and joined-up working between COSLA, Scottish Government and UK Government to support refugee integration. Importantly, this consultation should take into account all the different humanitarian protection schemes being delivered on the ground and the wider resourcing and housing pressures for local authorities. By developing this approach, the next iteration of the New Scots Refugee Integration Strategy would help to shift policy and practice away from a crisis response and towards a more consistent model of support, based on parity across all schemes.
This report comes at a particularly demanding time for delivering humanitarian protection programmes and refugee integration support in Scotland, with local authorities working hard on the new Ukraine and Afghan routes while grappling with the aftershocks of Covid-19 and the current cost of living crisis. But despite the pressures on councils, the research has found that there is a range of exceptional work taking place to welcome refugees and people seeking asylum across Scotland. Local authorities have adapted swiftly to a range of policy changes, built new services from the ground up, and collaborated closely with local services, charities, and each other to support the integration of refugees and people seeking asylum. With the policy landscape expected to change further in the coming months and years, local authorities have a strong foundation upon which to build for the future.
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