Refugee integration - role of local authorities: research

Research commissioned by the Scottish Government to explore and assess the role of Scotland’s 32 local authorities in supporting the integration of refugees and people seeking asylum.

5. Comparing experiences across Scotland

Scotland’s 32 local authorities all have different geographies, facilities and resources, as well as different histories of supporting and integrating refugees and people seeking asylum. These unique contexts have an impact on how local authorities deliver services. As a result, there are a variety of different approaches taken to delivering humanitarian protection programmes and facilitating refugee integration across Scotland. This research project therefore aimed to explore some of these differences and how they manifest themselves in practice. Of particular importance was comparing how local authorities in more urban and more rural areas have worked on refugee resettlement and integration in recent years.

Survey results

For the survey analysis, researchers carried out a comparison of responses from local authorities by clustering them into three groups based on population density: high-density (urban) areas with over 600 people per square kilometre, mid-density (urban-rural mixed) areas between 100 and 600 people per square kilometre, and low-density (rural) areas with under 100 people per square kilometre.

As expected, the analysis confirmed that urban local authorities (including Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen) tend to have larger refugee and asylum populations. They also on average have more staff supporting refugee integration, reflecting their larger refugee and asylum cohorts. Moreover, urban local authorities hosted considerably larger numbers of refugees in bridging accommodation. The distribution of bridging hotels is not in the hands of local authorities; instead, the skew towards urban areas is most likely because they typically have greater hotel capacity for temporarily accommodating refugees.

The analysis suggests there is little difference in the extent of support provided by local authorities in urban, rural or mixed urban-rural areas. A comparison of local authority scores across the 12 indicators of provision from Chapter 4 suggests that in general local authorities on average score similarly regardless of whether they are high-density, mid-density or low-density. One notable exception, however, was Glasgow: respondents from Glasgow produced figures lower than the local authority average for many of the indicators. This is likely because, until recently, Glasgow has been the only asylum dispersal area in Scotland and, while the council is not in general responsible for the integration of people seeking asylum, concerns over the quality of accommodation and support provided by the Home Office and Mears Group may have impacted the scores across a number of the indicators.

A further question in the survey sought to understand the community infrastructure available for meeting the needs of refugees and people seeking asylum within their local authorities. Community infrastructure in the survey was defined as ‘local community groups and civil society activists’. The full extent of community infrastructure may be comprised of charities, refugee-led groups, faith groups, youth groups, any other grassroots community organisations which engage locally with refugees and people seeking asylum.

Respondents from some rural local authorities – notably more remote rural areas such as Shetland, Orkney and Na h-Eileanan Siar – tended to indicate that there was very limited community infrastructure in their areas.[26] This highlights one of the difficulties facing more remote areas and island communities, in delivering refugee integration. Despite this, reflecting back on the case study on Na h-Eileanan Siar, it is evident that more rural or island communities are not necessarily impeded from developing strong community support networks. Na h-Eileanan Siar, given the small number of refugees, was able to develop a unique closeness between newly resettled people and the local population, with the council playing a direct and bespoke role in supporting individuals’ integration and locals informally supporting arrivals and familiarising them with island life (taking them to the bank, shopping on the high street, etc). The lack of extensive or embedded migrant-specific community infrastructure is compensated by a more intimate, informal support network on offer to refugees and people seeking asylum.

Figure 5.1: How each local authority responded (average of responses per local authority) in describing the strength of existing community infrastructure to support the integration of refugees and people seeking asylum (where 0 = no community infrastructure and 4 = a wide range of organisations providing comprehensive support)*
A bar chart illustrating the average response of individual local authorities on the extent to which community infrastructure is present (from 0 equalling zero community infrastructure and 4 representing comprehensive infrastructure). East Dunbartonshire, Inverclyde, and Moray rank highest at 4, followed by Glasgow (3.75), Dumfries & Galloway (3.5), Aberdeen City (3.0), East Ayrshire (3.0), East Renfrewshire (3.0), Highland (3.0), Midlothian (3.0), North Ayrshire (3.0), Perth & Kinross (3.0), Scottish Borders (3.0), South Ayrshire (3.0), South Lanarkshire (3.0), Stirling (3.0), East Lothian (2.67), Renfrewshire (2.67), Falkirk (2.5), West Lothian (2.5), Dundee (2.33), Argyll & Bute (2.0), Clackmannanshire (2.0), Fife (2.0), North Lanarkshire (2.0), Na h-Eileanan Siar (1.0), Orkney Island (1.0), Shetland Islands (1.0), West Dunbartonshire (1.0).

*29 local authorities are listed – the remaining three either did not provide a response or answered ‘Don’t know’

Source: IPPR analysis of refugee integration survey

To understand their experiences in more depth, the survey asked local authorities about how their geographies had presented opportunities and challenges in their approaches to refugees and people seeking asylum. A number of local authorities noted problems with transport in more rural and semi-rural areas, which can make it hard to access services and activities or organise group events, particularly where refugees were widely dispersed. It was also noted that in comparatively large rural local authorities with dispersed population centres it was more challenging to get around easily, compared with local authorities with more concentrated populations and smaller geographies.

For example, the lack of an extensive rail network within Moray, owed in part to the increasingly mountainous terrain and reducing population as one moves south, means communities are highly reliant on car travel, or – for those who do not have access to a car – a comprehensive bus network. Stagecoach currently operates Moray’s bus network, although the council directly runs a small number of scheduled services which reaches into underserved communities in the south such as Knockando and Archiestown (On Your Bus Stop Moray 2023). A response from Moray council said that they were trialling a new system on a smart app with Stagecoach for some of the recent Ukrainian arrivals, in order to help address transport issues.

Some respondents in remote areas also highlighted that it could be difficult to attract refugees, who might prefer to be in more urban areas with larger communities from their home countries. As discussed in Chapter 4, this has been a particular challenge in the case of Afghan and Ukrainian arrivals, though there has been a concerted effort on the part of local councils, COSLA and the Scottish Government to encourage people out of bridging and welcome accommodation and into more permanent homes in various parts of Scotland. A number of responses highlighted that rural areas tended to have fewer amenities and services for refugees, while in some cases refugees travelled to Glasgow or Edinburgh to access support and community groups.

Legal services in particular were noted to be difficult to access north of Dundee. However, it is clear that efforts are being made to address these gaps – for instance, COSLA has worked with the Ethnic Minorities Law Centre and IOM to increase the provision of legal advice.

The survey also highlighted some advantages of rural settings for refugee integration. One respondent from a largely rural local authority, Stirling (comprised of the city in the south-east of the local authority, and dispersed population centres throughout the rural and mountainous Trossachs, car and bus travel is the primary means of transit) noted that where services did exist, they tended to be high quality and “New Scots feel like they get a lot of support”. In particular, Stirling offers New Scots access to a dedicated employability worker to support them into employment and collaborate with the local Jobcentre Plus, alongside a fully funded New Scots money adviser who provides money-related and benefits advice. Another respondent from Perth and Kinross (which has a similar geographic profile to Stirling, largely rural with a dispersed population outwith the city of Perth connected primarily by road) said that because the area was more rural, local residents had set up lots of community groups throughout the local authority to support refugees.

Case study findings

Aberdeenshire is a geographically large, rural local authority, with a comparatively large population of more than 260,000 people settled in towns spread across almost two and a half thousand square miles, connected by roads and a fairly comprehensive bus network.

A key issue cited by stakeholders reflecting on Aberdeenshire’s geography is how it – as a rural local authority – is perceived by refugees. While some of the refugees interviewed said that they specifically wanted to live in the countryside, where it “is quiet and it’s much safer for children, for family”, ultimately those on the Syrian VPRS had no choice about where they would be located. However, more recently, Ukrainians housed in temporary welcome accommodation under the Super Sponsor Scheme and Afghans in bridging accommodation are reportedly refusing properties in Aberdeenshire, as there is a preference for living in urban areas in the central belt. At the same time, local authority interviewees felt that the effective integration work taking place in Aberdeenshire – including its comprehensive resettlement team and strategy, its community development approach, and its Al-Amal and Friends of Al-Amal projects, as set out in the previous chapters – demonstrated how it could be just as welcoming and supportive to new arrivals as more urban parts of Scotland.

Some interviewees highlighted a few specific challenges resulting from Aberdeenshire’s geography. For instance, a small number of Afghan families are based in Peterhead, a town in the north of the local authority. Research participants explained that they found it difficult to find halal meat or access a mosque, owing to a lack of historical immigration of Muslims into Aberdeenshire, while buses to Aberdeen – where there are mosques and where a lot of key services are located – were infrequent and expensive. Researchers explained that this lack of accessibility was a source of frustration for the Afghan refugees, because it meant going without something they considered such a critical part of their identity and community.

At the same time, the council had made considerable efforts to integrate the new Afghan households – for instance, by connecting them with the existing Syrian families and encouraging them to participate in cultural trips, activities and events. Nevertheless, one interviewee explained how, due to the small number of people arriving at the time of fieldwork, it was harder to apply their usual community development approach to the Afghan arrivals in Peterhead, and they hoped that progress would be made over time as people made their way through the resettlement programme.

Through the fieldwork, concerns were also raised about Ukrainians living in isolated parts of Aberdeenshire, which can make it difficult to get immediate access to services without travelling by car. This was due to the nature of the Homes for Ukraine scheme, whereby sponsors host Ukrainian guests in their homes, as explained in Chapter 1, meaning that guests can be dispersed across the local authority depending on where sponsors have offered up their spare rooms. Interviewees highlighted, however, the work being done to build community connections in spite of these barriers – for instance, the setting up of a Ukraine WhatsApp group, whereby people can direct questions to the resettlement team and connect with others who may be living in the same area.

While stakeholders recognised that there were practical challenges that come with rural living, there was also the feeling that Aberdeenshire’s model of resettlement had a considerable amount to offer to new arrivals, and that this needed to be better communicated to refugees looking to make their home in Scotland.

By comparison with Aberdeenshire, Dundee is a compact city that has a comprehensive bus network in which it is possible to cross the entire local authority in less than half an hour, which makes it relatively straightforward to organise integration activities and provision from a central hub. At the same time, as a mid-sized urban area, Dundee is large enough to resettle a significant number of refugees, allowing the council to access sufficient funding for key resettlement posts. The city also has significant employment opportunities, compared with more rural areas. It was noted too that Dundee had facilities for different cultures and religions, including a number of mosques and halal food stores. As identified in the New Scots Refugee Integration Strategy and discussed in Chapter 4, opportunities for accessing the labour market and contributing to cultural life are key tenets for successful refugee integration (Scottish Government 2018).

One Dundee stakeholder who had previously worked in Aberdeenshire was able to offer a direct comparison of the two case studies. She highlighted that while Dundee offered practical advantages for refugees, it was sometimes harder to integrate with neighbours compared with a rural area such as Aberdeenshire, because of the sheer number of people and the nature of urban living. Moreover, in rural parts of Scotland, communities may be more likely to identify with their local areas, while in cities they may consider their areas to be more functional, and this could affect experiences of integration. She explained:

“And so, I think that’s the benefit of being in a rural community that the communities, people have managed to integrate with their neighbours more easily and that might not happen in Dundee because there are just so many people.”

The respondent felt that this meant that projects such as Al-Amal in Aberdeenshire could be harder to set up in urban areas such as Dundee. This comparison between Aberdeenshire and Dundee reflects broader evidence highlighting how community relations tend to be stronger in rural areas (ONS 2022).

At the same time, Dundee has also taken steps to support social integration and connections for refugees and people seeking asylum, as discussed in Chapter 4. These include the orientation work and WhatsApp groups and newsletters run by Scottish Refugee Council, the community ESOL work led by the local authority, and the community development work which the council was planning to get up and running again at the time of fieldwork.

Na h-Eileanan Siar was the most remote local authority area of the case studies, with a history of de-population throughout the 20th century and low levels of migration from overseas. Research interviews with stakeholders highlighted both opportunities and challenges with the geography of the island. On the one hand, most refugees tend to be resettled in the main town of Stornoway, where services and facilities are largely within walking distance. On the other hand, there tended to be fewer employment opportunities for refugees on the islands.

The community as a whole on the islands has taken a proactive response to resettling refugees, including by establishing a mosque in Stornoway which some resettled refugees attend. Local volunteers have supported refugees through both the formal volunteering scheme as discussed above, as well as more informally through social activities and introductions to friends. Stakeholders highlighted how the local community had welcomed the resettled refugees – one new arrival explained:

“The local community, people in Stornoway they are all very welcoming, when we go outside, they smile and at least they say, ‘Hi’ or they leave a comment about the way. The don’t give us that feeling that we are an outsider …”

The close-knit nature of the community and small number of people resettled meant that much of the provision by the council was personalised, with officers going out of their way to provide bespoke support to individuals, from taking refugees to mother and toddler groups to arranging training programmes based on their employment interests.

On the other hand, Stornoway’s location has posed certain challenges: job opportunities are limited and there are fewer activities available than on the mainland. Stakeholders also noted that there were challenges with finding Arabic interpreters or Middle Eastern food on the island. As noted above in relation to ESOL tutors, there are also challenges with recruiting staff to deliver support services to help integrate refugees. Moreover, as with Aberdeenshire, the council has at times found it difficult to encourage refugees to resettle in Na h-Eileanan Siar, and some of the resettled refugees have chosen to depart – for instance, to find work elsewhere.

That said, the local authority had been making considerable efforts to support refugees’ entrepreneurialism on the island, and some refugees had set up or were in the process of setting up different small businesses.

Key findings

The specific context of each of Scotland’s 32 local authorities – their geography, facilities, and history of immigration – shapes the local delivery of humanitarian protection programmes and refugee integration work.

The research survey suggested that urban local authorities tend to have larger refugee and asylum populations and a greater level of staff supporting refugee integration. In general, it did not find significant differences in the extent of support provided by local authorities in urban, rural or mixed urban-rural areas. There were indications, however, that more remote and island communities had less community infrastructure – defined as local community groups and civil society activists – compared with elsewhere.

The survey and case studies highlighted both opportunities and challenges for refugee integration in both rural and urban areas.

The research findings indicated that urban areas tend to have more opportunities for refugees to secure employment, while rural areas have less access to community infrastructure and services such as legal advice. Research participants in Dundee highlighted how, as a compact city with a comprehensive bus network, it was relatively straightforward to organise integration activities and provision from a central hub, which contrasted with more rural areas like Aberdeenshire where the population is more dispersed and travel more difficult. Moreover, Dundee is large enough to resettle a significant number of refugees, allowing the council to access sufficient funding for key resettlement posts.

On the other hand, the 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. Where there are close ties within the community and refugee numbers are smaller, this can also allow for a more personalised approach to council provision and a more intimate, informal support network for refugees and people seeking asylum, as was clear in Na h-Eileanan Siar.

There was extensive evidence of how more rural local authorities had worked to overcome challenges to provide high-quality integration provision for refugees and people seeking asylum. For instance, in Na h-Eileanan Siar, the community had taken a proactive approach to resettling refugees, including by establishing a mosque in Stornoway, while the council had been supporting some refugees to set up their own independent small businesses on the island.



Back to top