Over the last decade, Scotland has welcomed thousands of refugees and people seeking asylum. As the UK Government has introduced new humanitarian protection programmes in response to a series of global crises, Scotland has played a leading role in receiving new arrivals. Local authorities in Scotland have been at the forefront of delivering these programmes, providing a comprehensive package of integration support for refugees and people seeking asylum.
Local authorities have been required to adapt quickly in order to implement successive schemes. In doing so, they have developed extensive experience, learning and insights about what has worked well and less well.
Recognising the importance of the experience and expertise that local authorities have developed through this work, in February 2022 Scottish Government and COSLA commissioned IPPR and IPPR Scotland to undertake new research to document some of the learning and insights that local authorities have developed, alongside the challenges they have faced in doing so.
The aims of the project include identifying the operational functions and statutory obligations of local authorities in their delivery of humanitarian protection programmes; describing and assessing their different approaches to humanitarian protection and the coordinating function of COSLA; exploring opportunities and challenges; and understanding the impact of reserved and devolved policy for local authorities undertaking this work. The research is intended to help inform future approaches to refugee integration at both the local and the national level.
The report explores and assesses the role of Scotland’s 32 local authorities in supporting the integration of refugees and people seeking asylum. It draws on a range of quantitative and qualitative research activities, including:
- An online survey for local authorities and partner organisations, with a total of 103 responses (July-October 2022)
- In-depth case studies investigating the work of three local authorities (Aberdeenshire, Dundee and Na h-Eileanan Siar) through focus groups and interviews (June-November 2022)
- A policy workshop with local authority resettlement officers from across Scotland (October 2022).
Key research findings
The delivery of integration support for refugees and people seeking asylum in Scotland involves collaboration between the UK and Scottish governments, local government, service providers, and the third sector. While the UK Government is responsible for setting immigration and asylum policy, the Scottish Government has powers over areas such as housing, education and training, which directly shape the provision of integration. Crucial to the delivery of integration work is the New Scots Refugee Integration Strategy 2018-2022, which provides a framework for welcoming refugees and people seeking asylum to Scotland.
In practice, local authorities are critical in providing integration support on the ground. All 32 of Scotland’s local authorities have been involved in refugee resettlement and since 2015, they have scaled up their humanitarian protection programmes and refugee integration work in response to a series of international crises. They have adapted flexibly to unpredictable refugee patterns, including a slowdown as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and a rapid surge in arrivals in 2021 and 2022 with the introduction of the Afghan and Ukrainian schemes. Moreover, local authorities are increasingly playing a central role in supporting unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, who are now dispersed across Scotland via the mandated National Transfer Scheme, in addition to supporting people in Scotland who have arrived via the UK Government’s mandated programme of asylum dispersal.
As the representative body for local authorities in Scotland, COSLA plays both a vital operational role – including through coordinating the matching of resettled refugees to local authorities – and an advocacy role, through communicating the views of local authorities to the UK and Scottish Governments. This dual role is unique in the UK and has helped to inform the design and implementation of refugee and asylum policies and improve the coordination of the humanitarian protection programmes in Scotland.
Successes and challenges
The survey and fieldwork explored successes and challenges across six key indicators derived from the themes of the New Scots Refugee Integration Strategy: education; employment; housing; welfare rights; health and wellbeing; and communities, culture and social connection. The research found that local authorities faced a number of challenges in delivering humanitarian protection programmes in Scotland, including high levels of demand, shortages of affordable housing, and stretched resources. But the evidence demonstrated how local authorities had adapted to these challenges by delivering provision using innovative and collaborative practices to facilitate refugee integration.
Education plays a critical role in refugee integration: it can support skills development, labour market participation, and community integration. Local authorities have responsibilities for education in a number of areas, including providing school places for children and English language training for adults on the Home Office’s resettlement schemes.
Ensuring children are supported in school is a high priority for local authorities, despite more recent challenges across Scotland due to limited school places and provision for children with English as an additional language. Survey responses highlighted the expertise built by local English as an Additional Language (EAL) services and support provided by extra-curricular activities to help children learn English and build their confidence. From the fieldwork in Dundee, there was an example of a ‘homework club’ for refugee students set up as a partnership between the EAL and adult ESOL teams, which had been widely attended.
The survey and case study research found that many local authorities are taking an innovative and needs-led approach to ESOL provision, in the face of high demand and funding pressures. This was delivered via a mix of council-run courses and partnerships with local colleges and third sector organisations, including both online and face-to-face sessions. Aberdeenshire, for instance, has developed a joined-up ESOL system between the council’s Community Learning and Development (CLD) team, WEA Scotland (a charitable provider of adult education), and local colleges, where all new arrivals are initially assessed by the CLD team and then signposted to appropriate provision. In Na h-Eileanan Siar, despite practical challenges with resourcing ESOL, there was also evidence of creative work on the part of the council – for instance, in recruiting volunteers to provide informal language support.
Overall, the research found that local authorities are generally delivering high-quality education provision for refugees and people seeking asylum. While there are a number of pressures due to limited school places, lack of resourcing, and the recent scale of arrivals, local authorities have often responded creatively. ESOL provision was one of the most inventive areas of delivery for local authorities, with examples of council workers collaborating with employability teams, blending language learning with orientation support, and engaging volunteers to help people practice their conversational English in an informal setting.
Securing employment and in-work progression are central for refugee integration. Research suggests that, while refugees bring a diverse set of skills and experiences, they also face particular barriers in the labour market – including language barriers and a lack of formal recognition of professional qualifications. There is therefore often a need for bespoke employability support as part of supporting refugee integration.
Evidence from the survey suggests that councils typically support labour market integration of refugees through their employability teams, alongside partnerships with a wide range of different suppliers, including Jobcentre Plus / DWP, Skills Development Scotland, Fair Start Scotland, as well as further education colleges, charities and social enterprises. Activities may involve support with CV and interview preparation, identifying training opportunities, and recruitment events with employers.
A common challenge raised through the fieldwork was the difficulty for refugees to have their prior skills and qualifications recognised in Scotland and the wider UK. There is ongoing work in Scotland to support skills matching, though it was argued this was geared towards those with skills at intermediate level or above and more could be done to support those with other skillsets.
The fieldwork highlighted the thorough and creative work of many local authorities in delivering employability provision in Scotland, with interviewees illustrating a variety of success stories of local authorities supporting individuals to find work. For local authorities with smaller refugee populations, the benefits of a person-centred and tailored approach to supporting people into employment were clear. For instance, in Na h-Eileanan Siar, the council takes a needs-led approach by working in partnership with the training officer at the DWP locally to facilitate access to training opportunities, resulting in examples of individuals harnessing their entrepreneurial potential to open small businesses.
Case studies also highlighted the importance of joint working between ESOL and employability teams. For instance, in Dundee, the council’s ESOL and employability teams developed an eight-week course to help people’s language skills and employment prospects and supported them to connect with local employers.
The provision of safe and affordable housing is a fundamental pillar to successful refugee integration, because it is foundational to securing a decent standard of living. Yet housing has become one of the greatest challenges in the delivery of humanitarian protection programmes for local authorities, with Scotland and indeed the UK facing an ongoing and protracted housing crisis. The pressure on housing stocks and lengthy homelessness lists place constraints on the ability of local authorities to accommodate those seeking protection across different schemes.
In practical terms, the research survey demonstrated that the delivery of housing provision involves engagement with council housing and homelessness teams, as well as local housing associations and the voluntary sector. Accommodation options include social housing and the private rental sector, with unaccompanied asylum-seeking children often housed in supported accommodation, residential homes or foster placements.
Under the VPRS and UKRS Home Office resettlement schemes local authorities developed an effective approach to resettlement because they had adequate time to plan, source and prepare housing matched to those who arrive directly from third countries. However, a series of specific and acute challenges have emerged around housing as part of the Afghan and Ukraine schemes. Thousands of people have stayed in temporary accommodation, such as bridging hotels and cruise ships, for protracted periods of time because of the limited supply of longer-term housing options. Refugee families have at times been reluctant to relocate to some local authorities, especially in rural areas. Councils have also struggled to find suitable properties for the many larger families on the Afghan schemes.
To address housing challenges, local authorities have been exploring innovative solutions, such as purchasing and reintroducing larger properties into the letting pool and partnering with local charities to increase accommodation options for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. In the case of the Afghan schemes, local authorities have adapted HMOs to meet the needs of larger families and have procured multiple properties in the same street or neighbourhood. This approach is intended to encourage moves to more rural areas by enabling family members or friends to live alongside each other.
The research found that housing is one of the greatest challenges for local authorities and there is clear room for improvement in this area of provision. Local authorities were making great efforts to find suitable solutions in response to the limited affordable housing available and the pressures of the Afghan and Ukraine schemes, though many of these measures were work in progress at the time of fieldwork. Housing will be an ongoing priority for local government in delivering integration, given many of the challenges in this area – such as the lack of affordable housing and the design of the recent humanitarian schemes – are deeply entrenched and hard to resolve at the local level alone.
Access to welfare benefits plays a crucial role in the integration of refugees through supporting household incomes and protecting against poverty. In Scotland, welfare policy is partially devolved, resulting in a combination of UK, Scottish, and local government administration of benefits.
The research survey and case studies highlight numerous instances of local authority good practice in facilitating access to welfare and helping people to understand their rights and entitlements. Some councils have dedicated money, benefits, and debt officers who provide budgeting advice, assistance with navigating the benefits system, and benefit checks. These measures promote financial independence and alleviate pressures on integration teams. For instance, in Aberdeenshire, the council employs a money advice officer who offers ongoing specialist welfare and financial guidance to refugees, ensuring they are aware of their entitlements and assisting them in applying for benefits.
Overall, the research indicated that many local authorities had good-quality provision in place at the local level for advice on money and benefits. However, concerns were also raised about the implications of the cost of living crisis, suggesting that further consideration may be necessary for how to adapt integration services and support to the current economic context.
Health and wellbeing
Good physical and mental health is widely recognised as a crucial factor in refugee integration, given its foundational role in supporting personal wellbeing and prosperity. But refugees and people seeking asylum tend to have particular health challenges – for instance, they are particularly likely to have mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression – and they may also face language barriers and discrimination when accessing healthcare.
The research survey revealed that local authorities engage in various activities to support the health of refugees and people seeking asylum – including assisting with GP and dentist registration, arranging eye examinations and dental hygiene appointments, and coordinating interpreter services. Collaboration with Health and Social Care Partnerships, local health services, other council departments (such as social work), and the third sector has been integral in delivering these services.
According to the survey responses, challenges exist regarding the high levels of trauma experienced by refugees and the capacity of mental health services to meet their needs. Efforts are being made to address this, including initiatives such as outdoor therapeutic programmes aimed at improving the physical and mental health of refugees and unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. Partnerships between the Mental Health Foundation and multiple councils have also been formed to implement community-based projects that raise awareness about mental health.
The case studies underscore the significance of multi-agency collaboration in delivering health services to refugees and people seeking asylum. The presence of health leads within NHS services, for instance, was found to be particularly beneficial, as they can take the lead on difficult areas like GP registration and are likely to have better influence with colleagues compared to external professionals.
The research suggests that there has been effective partnership working between local authorities and health services in the delivery of humanitarian protection programmes. However, there is an ongoing gap in the area of mental health provision. While there is evidence of innovative work taking place on the ground to address this, improvements in mental health services and early intervention and support are important priorities going forward.
Communities, culture and social connections
A central facet of refugee integration is the forming of social connections, both in terms of ‘bonding’ (relationships between people with shared identities) and ‘bridging’ (relationships between people with different identities). Evidence suggests that social connections have a positive relationship with other indicators of refugee integration, particularly in the case of health and language.
Local authorities have an important role to play in creating the conditions for social connections to flourish. Survey findings highlight the diverse efforts made by local authorities, such as organising summer activities, cultural celebrations, and leisure and sports programmes. Partnerships with the third sector and community organisations have proven to be essential in delivering effective support in this area.
Case study research illustrates successful examples of good practice, such as Aberdeenshire’s Al-Amal and Friends of Al-Amal projects, which have empowered New Scots families through employment cafes, cultural trips, and volunteer-led initiatives. Dundee’s approach connecting ESOL and community development and Na h-Eileanan Siar’s engagement of volunteers for language support and befriending activities were other notable examples.
The research found many instances across Scotland of successful community-led interventions working with refugees to support social connections, often involving partnerships between councils and charities or the involvement of volunteers. But it was also recognised that in order to effectively meet local demand for events and activities, more could be done to resource the community and third sector organisations supporting social integration on the ground.
Comparing experiences across Scotland
The research explored differences in support for refugee integration depending on the geography of local authorities. While the survey results indicated there were broadly similar levels of local authority provision across urban, rural and mixed rural-urban areas, it also suggested that more remote areas and island communities tended to have limited community infrastructure (i.e. local community groups and civil society activists) for meeting the needs of refugees and people seeking asylum.
The research highlighted opportunities and challenges for refugee integration in both rural and urban areas. Research interviews found that urban areas tend to have more opportunities for refugees to secure employment, while rural areas have less access to infrastructure and services such as legal advice. Research participants in Dundee highlighted how, in a compact city with a comprehensive bus network, it was relatively straightforward to organise integration activities and provision from a central hub, which contrasts with the transport and access difficulties for communities in more rural areas.
On the other hand, findings from the case study research suggested that lower population numbers and stronger local identities in rural areas can offer their own benefits – for instance, making it easier to set up local community projects like the refugee-led group Al-Amal in Aberdeenshire. Close community ties – combined with smaller numbers of refugees – can also allow for a more personalised approach to council provision, as was clear in Na h-Eileanan Siar.
Exploring the impact of policy and legislation
The work of Scottish local authorities in supporting refugee integration sits within a complex network of devolved and reserved legislation. The research sought to explore how different UK and Scottish Government policies and schemes impacted on local authorities’ activities.
According to the online survey, around half of respondents thought that the UK Resettlement Scheme and the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme were ‘fairly’ or ‘very effective’. There was support for the funding, coordination and advance planning involved in the Syrian schemes.
By contrast, only a third of respondents thought that the Afghan and Ukraine schemes were ‘fairly’ or ‘very effective’. The Home Office and DLUHC administered Afghan relocation schemes were criticised for being too slow and allowing local authority properties offered to families to remain unoccupied for long periods of time. In the case of the Ukraine schemes, the key challenges focused on the scale of new arrivals and the lack of consultation with local authorities.
Research participants across the fieldwork also highlighted difficulties over the operation of the NTS for UASC. These focused on the short lead-in time for new arrivals, the lack of funding available, limited housing options, and Home Office inflexibility.
Survey respondents were generally welcoming of the New Scots Refugee Integration Strategy: around three fifths of respondents said the impacts were somewhat or very positive. Research participants thought it was a valuable framework and some council officers were directly applying it to their local integration work, though others felt that they were doing this work already independently of the strategy.
Looking ahead and policy implications
The research explored the future of refugee integration in local authorities in Scotland and the implications of the findings for future policy.
In the online survey, respondents were asked about the greatest challenges facing local authorities in delivering humanitarian protection programmes and facilitating refugee integration. The challenges rated most highly included the cost of living crisis, insufficient housing, and insufficient staffing.
The research also explored lessons learned to inform future improvements and changes. Research participants placed a focus on the importance of partnership working, particularly through collaboration between councils and the third sector. Partnership working between councils was also a common theme discussed, including regional partnerships between neighbouring areas – with COSLA playing a critical role in helping to share good practice.
The research findings – and in particular the workshop held with local authority officers – draw out a number of important implications for future policy:
- First, local authorities highlighted the benefits of a community-based partnership strategy, involving close partnerships with external organisations based in local communities.
- Second, research participants spoke of the need for a renewed focus on ESOL and employability support, given ongoing barriers over skills recognition and language learning.
- Third, participants called for more joined-up thinking within local authorities – whereby buy-in for the work of the refugee resettlement team is secured across the local authority, including housing, health, ESOL, employability, children’s services and other staff.
There were also lessons for the next iteration of the New Scots Refugee Integration Strategy:
- Researchers heard that the strategy could be more ambitious and outcome-oriented, setting out clear targets to drive forward improvements in provision.
- Consultation with local government was considered to be central to the success of the strategy, to ensure it accounted for local housing and resourcing pressures.
- It was argued that a consistent approach should be taken to funding, rights and entitlements, and service provision for all arrivals. This would help to shift policy from a crisis-driven response towards a more sustainable model of integration which aims to draw parity and consistency across all humanitarian protection schemes.
- Finally, the case was made for the strategy to come with new funding attached, in order for local authorities to have the necessary resources to deliver effectively on its outcomes.
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