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.

7. Looking ahead

This chapter focuses on the future of refugee integration in local authorities in Scotland. Drawing on the evidence from the survey, case studies and policy workshop, it explores the lessons learned from recent experiences by local authorities, emerging challenges for refugee integration, and priorities for future work.

Survey results

The final part of the survey asked local authority and partner organisations about current and emerging challenges facing local authorities in delivering humanitarian protection programmes and facilitating refugee integration. The survey listed a number of options for respondents, including the UKRS, the Afghan relocation and resettlement schemes, the Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme, the National Transfer Scheme, asylum dispersal, the cost of living crisis, insufficient funding, staffing, and housing, as well as Covid-19. Respondents could score their answer between 0 (‘not challenging at all’) and 4 (‘extremely challenging’).

Figure 7.1: Extent to which respondents rated issues facing their local authority in terms of how challenging they are for delivering humanitarian protection programmes and facilitating refugee integration
A bar chart illustrating how all respondents rate the challenges listed, from 0 to 4, with higher values indicating their local authority faces a high level of challenge. Bars are organised vertically representing different prospective challenges. Covid-19 ranks lowest (2.5), followed by UKRS (2.6), Afghan relocation and resettlement (2.9), Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme (3.4), NTS (3.5), Asylum dispersal (3.5), Insufficient funding of local councils (3.6), Insufficient staffing (3.7), Insufficient housing (3.8), and Cost of living ranking highest at 3.8.

Source: IPPR analysis of refugee integration survey

To analyse the results from this question, a straightforward average was calculated for all responses, without applying weighting to ensure equal representation across local authorities. The highest overall average scores given – indicating the greatest challenges for local authorities – were the cost of living crisis (average 3.8), insufficient housing (3.8), and insufficient staffing (3.7). Other challenges that scored highly were insufficient funding for local councils (3.6), asylum dispersal (3.5), the National Transfer Scheme (3.5), and the Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme (3.4). Issues that scored somewhat lower included the Afghan relocation and resettlement schemes (2.9), the UK Resettlement Scheme (2.6) and Covid-19 (2.5).

This scoring is broadly in line with the earlier findings in the report. As discussed in Chapter 4, the limited supply of affordable housing across Scotland had proved to be a key challenge for local authorities delivering integration work, especially in light of the larger numbers of Afghans and Ukrainians in temporary accommodation at the time of fieldwork. Insufficient staffing in local authorities was also a common theme, particularly given the additional pressures resulting from the new Ukraine schemes and the shift to the mandated NTS. Finally, while the cost of living crisis was not a major topic of discussion, this may be because it was an emerging issue during the period of fieldwork (summer 2022), but was recognised as a priority by respondents going forward.

Respondents were asked if there were any other challenges beyond those listed. There were few responses here, suggesting that the issues listed largely comprised the main concerns. One of the most common other issues raised was the need for additional ESOL capacity – for instance, one respondent explained that there was a need for basic ESOL tutor training and additional staffing to cover increased demand at the local level. This reflects the importance of language learning for supporting integration outcomes, as discussed in Chapter 4. It may also relate to the lack of dedicated additional funding for English language provision within the Ukraine schemes, unlike the Home Office’s resettlement schemes; which means that the recent surge in demand from Ukrainian arrivals has not been met with the necessary expansion of funding for ESOL provision.

Reflecting on the successes and challenges faced by organisations within the local authority area in recent years, respondents were asked how they were drawing on these to inform improvements and changes to their work with refugees and people seeking asylum. While some responses emphasised that it was difficult to reflect on lessons learned given they were currently “fire-fighting” in response to current needs, others highlighted that the resettlement meetings hosted by COSLA were useful for knowledge-sharing and supporting each other (in the words of one respondent a “godsend”).

Some others noted that the adaptation to online learning in response to Covid-19 restrictions was now an ongoing part of their integration work with refugees. One respondent explained how adapting to online learning meant that they could now offer ESOL learners a choice of online or face-to-face learning, and that they have adapted their ESOL provision to a hybrid (part virtual, part in-person) model in response to learner needs.

A number of responses highlighted the importance of partnership working, particularly through collaboration between councils and the third sector. One respondent explained that partnership approaches were effective because partners could draw on their strengths and focus on where they were best placed to provide support – for instance, through third sector organisations leading on community and social integration activities.

These survey responses reflect broader discussions on partnership working which emerged across other parts of the fieldwork. Sometimes partnership approaches involved the direct commissioning of external partners to deliver integration work – e.g. Scottish Refugee Council in the case of Dundee. In other cases, partnership working simply referred to effective coordination between different agencies and organisations. For instance, in one of the additional research interviews with local authority officers, the interviewee reflected that their partnership working on Ukraine was a ‘paradigm’ for Ukrainian response work. This involved in the initial months of the response daily meetings with 20-30 different partners including the council, health police, border force, DWP, different council services, and third sector organisations. Bringing the key stakeholders together was considered essential for managing the logistical challenges within the Ukraine schemes.

In the additional interviews with council officers conducted to complement the survey findings, participants also highlighted the importance of partnership working between local authorities (as noted in Chapter 3). COSLA was considered to be a key driver of communication and sharing of good practice between local authorities through their regular meetings with council officers. One local authority interviewee from children’s services working on UASC detailed how they had a unique role in providing advice to various other local authorities who they had met through the monthly COSLA meetings. Another council officer from a local authority with a long history of resettling refugees explained how they had built links with all of the other Scottish local authorities and were willing to provide support and advice based on their own experiences and learning.

There was also discussion of a shift to more regional working between local authorities – for instance, collaboration between local authorities within Edinburgh City Region (comprising East Lothian, Edinburgh, Fife, Midlothian, Scottish Borders and West Lothian), as well as the neighbouring local authorities Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, Highlands and Moray. This regional approach had proved useful for collaborating on shared regional issues (e.g. on finding properties for people in hotel accommodation) and on coordinating provision (e.g. pooling funds for a pan-Grampian approach on healthcare).

The next stage of the survey asked respondents about their priorities for supporting refugees and people seeking asylum within local authorities over the next three years. Survey respondents raised a variety of issues. Common priorities related to housing and resources: responses emphasised the current housing crisis and argued that local authorities needed a greater range of housing options, as well as advice and assistance. Despite the innovative work done by local authorities to address the housing needs of refugees and people seeking asylum, as discussed in depth in Chapter 4, this was still seen as a major challenge going forward, with one respondent describing it as ‘undoubtedly the single greatest barrier to future resettlement effort[s]’. Furthermore, a number of responses wrote of the need for additional funding to expand resettlement teams and deliver services (e.g. for ESOL and homelessness support). Some highlighted the need to increase staffing to meet local needs – for instance, by hiring additional EAL staff in schools to support surges in new arrivals.

Finally, the survey asked what respondents would like to see addressed in the next iteration of the New Scots Refugee Integration Strategy. The most common issue raised related to resourcing to meet the needs of refugees – particularly in the case of ESOL provision in both college and community classes – and ensure organisations could deliver on the strategy. Chapter 1 explained that the strategy does not include specific provisions for funding, though the Scottish Government does provide funding for refugee integration within its equality budget. The responses here reflect the importance of ensuring any strategy is complemented with new funding to deliver it effectively. The recent AMIF funding for the New Scots Refugee Integration Delivery Project – which support the development of the next New Scots Refugee Integration Strategy and local projects on refugee integration – is therefore a valuable resource for local authorities and the third sector in an overall challenging fiscal context.

Case study findings

For many stakeholders in Aberdeenshire, their concerns when looking ahead broadly coalesced around the lack of suitable housing stock for the growing refugee and asylum-seeking community, the cost of living crisis, and a need for greater legal advice provision locally. The absence of legal advice was a source of frustration for some interviewees, who explained that many people had to travel to Glasgow to get the advice they needed.[28]

In the focus group with council workers, concerns were raised too about the risk of waning public support in the face of multiple, protracted global crises, and the implications this could have for tensions over people looking for housing. Again, this reiterated the need for more affordable housing stock: participants explained that the private rental market was unaffordable due to the shortfall between benefit levels and rents and called for more social housing stock, for instance through buying back ex-council houses.

There were also calls for ESOL provision to be more flexible to the needs of diverse learners – for instance, by supporting people with mental health needs or caring responsibilities and allowing for virtual or hybrid sessions:

“There needs to be a trauma-informed way of looking at everything that affects people who’ve been displaced. I think the way that ESOL has been offered up till now has been very inflexible and is ‘if you don’t come then you’ll lose your place’, and it’s at certain times of the day that sometimes women or people that are caring for other family members can’t access. It’s not online, it’s not hybrid, all these things which could quite easily be resolved in my opinion, but there doesn’t seem to be that flexibility in the agencies that are offering these things.”

Looking ahead in Dundee, a range of issues were raised by the research participants. There was continued concern about pressures on housing. One refugee interviewed for the project expressed concerns over the lack of housing options compared with where they had previously lived in the UK and the financial impacts of paying for the costs of the accommodation. Another explained how they had been waiting for two years for a new home on a lower floor to meet their health needs, though they also noted that their landlords were very helpful and offered an excellent service.

Some interviewees suggested that more work was needed to ensure that people with specific skills – particularly tradespeople – could work in their former professions. According to one interviewee, this could involve a Scotland-wide skills recognition process for people at all skill levels, building on the work of Skills Recognition Scotland discussed above.

Some research participants suggested other ideas for developing refugee integration in Dundee. One person suggested that ESOL provision could be widened by harnessing the skills of local people in the city. This could be done through classes to train locals to become English language volunteers and support refugees in their neighbourhood to integrate. Another research participant highlighted a recent example of a teacher who had voluntarily set up a ‘coffee and chat’ in a hall, which had proved popular with families across the whole city, and suggested that more regular pop-up shops and events – with different activities and interpreters available – could play a vital role in supporting communities to feel more welcome.

In Na h-Eileanan Siar, the issues raised were somewhat different to the other case studies, given fewer refugees have been resettled there in recent years and so there was less pressure on local services. Interviewees were keen to welcome new refugees and at the time of fieldwork there were plans by volunteers to sponsor a refugee family under the UK government’s Community Sponsorship Scheme. There was some frustration that a property made available for Afghan refugees had not yet been accommodated, though researchers have been informed that this had now been occupied by a family under the ACRS.

Overall, stakeholders were pleased with the success of the past schemes and hoped to build on these efforts in future, after a hiatus during the Covid-19 period, by welcoming new families – for instance, through the Afghan schemes. There was also a desire to develop more sustainable ESOL provision, in order to move on from the post-pandemic funding and staffing challenges discussed in Chapter 4. Researchers heard that the council was now hoping to work towards a more consistent ESOL staffing model, rather than ‘scrabbling constantly’ to secure sufficient provision.

Policy workshop findings

Towards the final stages of the research project, researchers held a virtual policy workshop with local authority resettlement officers to discuss the provisional research findings and policy implications. Part of the focus of the workshop focused on looking ahead to future policy on local refugee integration and the next iteration of the New Scots Refugee Integration Strategy.

There were a number of useful discussion points in the policy workshop which build on and complement the earlier findings in this chapter. One important theme was the need for the UK and Scottish Governments to take their lead on refugee integration from local authorities which are delivering this work on the ground. Relatedly, one council officer argued that the UK and Scottish Governments adopt too siloed an approach to different aspects of refugee and asylum policy and argued that the New Scots Refugee Integration Strategy – which had been developed in collaboration with local government – should have been central in informing the recent Ukraine response.

There was support in the workshop for ensuring every local authority had its own resettlement team and that staff were recruited into permanent posts. It was claimed that delivering resettlement work as a ‘core’ local authority service would require proper resourcing, rather than a funding model which involved poaching pots of funding from housing, environment, and other areas. Another workshop participant argued, however, that there were risks to mainstreaming resettlement funding, because this would make resettlement teams more vulnerable to cuts, and suggested that the current model of external funding allowed for greater creativity and responsiveness. This suggests a careful balance is needed between ensuring consistent and well-resourced provision across all local authorities, while also allowing for sufficient flexibility.

Some workshop participants suggested that, while local authorities should have their own dedicated resettlement teams, New Scots work should not sit on its own, but should also be integrated across other policy areas, such as housing and anti-poverty work. This was considered important to ensure parity of approach for all residents in Scotland and to mainstream refugee integration work into other council services.

There was a suggestion in one of the workshop sessions that a ‘community-based partnership strategy’ – i.e. a strategy involving close partnerships with external organisations based in local communities – was vital for successful refugee integration. This needed to move away from an ad hoc approach and involve more systematic engagement with the third sector, where partnerships were considered essential to local delivery. Another workshop participant highlighted the importance of shared frameworks and quality assurance processes across all of Scotland’s local authorities for the delivery of integration work.

Concerns were also raised in the discussion about a lack of parity between different schemes – with, for instance, different arrangements for Ukrainians compared with the resettlement offers under previous schemes. As set out in Chapter 1, there have been a plethora of schemes in recent years, which risks both creating a fragmented system and contributing to inequalities or frictions between different groups.

Finally, there were some reflections in the workshop on the focus of the next iteration of the New Scots Refugee Integration Strategy. A number of participants expressed the importance of attaching new funding to the next strategy in order to ‘give it teeth’. This reflects comments from survey respondents about the need for the new strategy to come with new resources so that outcomes can be delivered in practice. If new funding were not possible in practice, then in one of the discussion groups the point was raised that local authorities should be directly involved in devising the strategy, given they knew what resources they have available and therefore what activities are feasible within their budget constraints.

There was also a call for the next New Scots Refugee Integration Strategy to be more ambitious in its approach, by developing a framework for refugee integration with targets related to each area of policy to instil aspiration and drive. It was argued that a clear set of frameworks and outcomes across Scotland was needed to allow for comparisons across local authorities and programmes.

A further point was made by one council officer about the importance of ‘horizon-scanning’ at a national level. As another participant noted, the current context for refugee integration has changed dramatically in recent years due to the humanitarian crises in Afghanistan and Ukraine. It was suggested that horizon-scanning needed to consider the potential for future crises and factor this into strategic planning on refugee integration.

Key findings

Reflecting on some of the different issues facing their local authorities, survey respondents indicated that the cost of living crisis, insufficient housing, and insufficient staffing were the greatest challenges for delivering humanitarian protection programmes and facilitating refugee integration. Other issues considered particularly challenging were insufficient funding for local councils, asylum dispersal, the National Transfer Scheme, and the Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme.

Thinking about lessons learned to inform future improvements and changes, a number of responses highlighted the importance of partnership working. Other parts of the fieldwork reflected this focus on partnerships, covering a range of approaches – from the direct commissioning of external partners for service delivery to multi-agency working in response to Ukraine. Partnership working between local authorities was also a common theme discussed by research participants, including regional partnerships between neighbouring areas. COSLA was considered to be a key driver of communication and sharing of good practice between local authorities through their regular meetings with council officers.

Future priorities discussed by survey respondents commonly related to housing and resources. This was reflected in conversations in the case studies: in Aberdeenshire, for instance, some research participants called for more social housing stock, e.g. through buying back ex-council houses. ESOL provision was also a common priority in the different case study areas: in Na h-Eileanan Siar, the council was hoping to work towards a more consistent ESOL staffing model after losing posts during the pandemic.

In the policy workshop conducted with local authority resettlement officers for this research project, a number of further discussion points were raised with implications for future policy. There was support in the workshop for ensuring every local authority had its own resettlement team and that staff were recruited into permanent posts. At the same time, it was argued that New Scots work should not simply sit on its own within local authorities, but should also be integrated across other policy areas, such as housing and anti-poverty work. This was considered important for mainstreaming refugee integration work into other council services.

There was also a suggestion that a ‘community-based partnership strategy’ – i.e. a strategy involving close partnerships with external organisations based in local communities – was vital for successful refugee integration.

Finally, the discussion on the next iteration of the New Scots Refugee Integration Strategy in the workshop included calls for the strategy to be more ambitious and outcome-oriented in approach and to come with new funding attached to ‘give it teeth’ and make it deliverable.



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