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Those paying attention to conversations around migration hear it all the time: “Migrant integration is a two-way process.”

It’s repeated like a mantra that, if followed, will lead societies to blissful states of equality and social cohesion. This statement is also a key postulate of the 2004 EU Common Basic Principles for Immigrant Integration Policy, which form the foundations of EU initiatives in the field of integration.

But I feel that we don’t really understand what it means, even as we find comfort in the implication that there is an even distribution of integration obligations amongst us all.

Migrant integration is not a linear process, and it does not have one final destination. It cuts across all aspects of societal life at national, local and individual levels.Given these variable environments with their differing contexts, barriers and outcomes, it is even more important to have a common understanding of what it means when we say that migrant integration is a “two-way process”.

At the moment, Ireland relies on a definition of integration written in 1999 about refugees, which says: “Integration means the ability to participate to the extent that a person needs and wishes in all of the major components of society, without having to relinquish his or her own cultural identity.”

This definition is a liberal approach, leaving people a choice and space for cultural distinctiveness. But it still reflects a one-sided perception of migrants’ integration. It doesn’t mention the responsibilities of other parties in this equation.

This approach also paves a way for separatism between communities, not integration and inclusion. It is essentially a definition of multiculturalism, where all communities are provided a space to live side by side but are not consciously provided avenues to live interconnected lives.

Most people may be familiar with criticism of multiculturalism from the perspective of right-wing political forces wanting to protect a rigid, exclusionary, and in a European context, white understanding of a national identity. These people would like to see forced assimilation of migrant communities, and elimination of cultural distinctiveness.

However multiculturalism is also criticised by others, coming from the perspective of integration outcomes. That’s because under multiculturalism, minority groups are provided with a space to practice their cultural and social lives but those practices are always perceived as different and alien to what is assumed to be part of our collective identity, and a part of our shared communal lives. Multiculturalism is integration without inclusion.

A more egalitarian and inclusive understanding of integration expressed by the term interculturalism has emerged over the last decade. In this approach, diverse social and cultural practices are given equal recognition, and equal place in our collective identity.

It is not about allowing others just to exist in a parallel society or on the margin of our community. It is about including those lives in the definition of our collective life as the Irish society. What does that look like in practice?

Let’s look at one event in our communal life that seems universal, Christmas. We need to start with recognising that not all Irish people celebrate Christmas, yet we all are given statutory time off during that time.

Given that around 82 percent of people declare a religion that celebrates Christmas in December, changing the national calendar of public holidays isn’t a reasonable option. But it does seem perfectly reasonable for employers to introduce a policy that gives a priority for followers of non-Christian religions to take time off around their most important religious holidays. That is what the two-way process is about.

As some of the world has been moving toward interculturalism, Irish policies have not caught up . The National Migrant Integration Strategy 2017-2020 – which was extended until the end of 2021 – still uses the 1999 definition of integration.

Although the strategy reiterates a commitment to integration as a two-way process, it only lists the things that migrants are expected to do.

Ireland doesn’t have a comprehensive and coordinated approach to integration. Most efforts happen in silos of different governmental departments, and are often fragmented and temporary.

Integration is also not linked enough with the fact that it derives from rights. We cannot even start a conversation about integration if migrants have diminished rights or no rights at all.

When we talk about integration of migrants with the structures of Irish institutions and sectors of our economic and social lives, this conversation is about rights and duties.

Let’s take integration with the labour market. That alone requires migrants to secure multiple rights across all governmental departments. It takes a residency permit and a work permit. In many cases, it requires recognition of qualifications and sometimes even Irish citizenship.

Asylum seekers have no right to an Irish driving licence, which limits their job options, and many have struggled to open an Irish bank account, and so be put on the payroll of a potential employer.

All of these issues sit in different governmental departments, and none of them are within the direct remit of the newly established Department for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth.

What the Department for Integration can do is to show leadership by coordinating and mediating between other departments to achieve cohesive, long-term and equal integration outcomes for migrants and refugees. The Department also should lead in pushing for a better balance between rights and duties.

At the moment, the process of integration with Irish structures and institutions puts a lot of duties on migrants, in exchange for few rights. We could see how the immigration services crumbled under the challenging circumstances of Covid-19.

Migrants have statutory duties in regards of annual registrations and fee payments, yet immigration services were not included on the list of essential services, leaving many in limbo and at real risk of losing their status. It is migrants who are penalised for the shortcomings of the system, and as a result are set back years in their progress in integration.

We could talk about so many more examples around the integration of migrants in the areas of communities’ lives, culture and the arts. But the main point is that, integration as a two-way process needs more definition and championing to avoid the shortcomings of multiculturalism.

It is not only about live and let live. It is about building together a new fabric of our society that uses all the threads of our cultural and communal lives in one diverse pattern.

In February, the Immigrant Council of Ireland hosted a series of webinars as a part of the National Integration Conference. Over four days, we heard a multitude of examples where the concept of integration as a two-way process materialized as a one-sided practice.

Some speakers expressed their disappointment with the perceived pressure to assimilate. Others called for prioritising inclusion as a precondition to integration, arguing that the feeling of acceptance isn’t a common experience for all migrants.

There were also many discussions about the types of tools and information migrants need to integrate with Irish institutions and structures. All of those talking points put most responsibility for integration on migrants, and they do not show how we should integrate collectively.

The two-way process needs to be balanced and fair in distribution of rights and duties. It also needs to lead toward building a collective, intertwined new fabric of Irish society, communal life, arts and culture. As with every fabric some threads are woven together more loosely, others more tightly, but only together we can make beautiful rich patterns that represent all of us for who we are.

The Irish government is due to introduce a new migrant integration strategy next year. This is an opportunity to advance our understanding of what migrant integration as a two-way process means in practice and approach.

The process of forging an updated definition of migrant integration has to include a great level of migrant participation. This has to be a meaningful participation, that goes beyond a consultation process. Participation that is based on migrant leadership.

Platforming migrant experts and assigning us with leadership roles should also be a part of constructing a balanced and equal integration plan. Integration as a two-way process cuts across all aspects of life, and that includes leadership too.

Teresa Buczkowska

Teresa Buczkowska is a Polish migrant woman living in Ireland since 2005. She works as the Integration Manager at the Immigrant Council of Ireland. In December 2019 Teresa was appointed to the board of...

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