For vulnerable migrants and refugees, arrival in the host society ought to signify the start of a more stable and positive existence. Yet in reality, it throws up a plethora of issues, from the inability to find secure employment to the social isolation that comes with being alone in an unfamiliar country.
With statutory support often failing to allay these issues and help persons from overseas successfully integrate into society, civil society groups have stepped in to provide vital assistance. Many of these groups are religious in nature, and are well-equipped to assist in this area due to having profound experience in altruistic pursuits, from visiting the elderly and sick in the local community, to mobilising resources for humanitarian crises abroad.
Despite this invaluable work however, the involvement of Faith-Based Organisations (FBOs) in migrant integration processes is sometimes frowned upon, for reasons ranging from the fear that migrants will become ‘ghettoised’ among members of their own faith, to the belief that it contradicts the principles of impartiality and neutrality.
With this in mind, it is important to assess whether such criticisms can be addressed by taking a multi-religious approach to integration, that sees different faith groups working together to provide a more thorough and comprehensive support service.
Religious Organisations and Migrant Integration
As touched upon, life is often very bleak for newly-arrived refugees and migrants. Public services can be difficult to navigate, xenophobic views can create a culture of division and hate, and an irregular immigration status can lead to a life of uncertainty.
A number of religious organisations work to solve these issues, providing material assistance, employment opportunities and crucially, a support network. One such organisation is the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), an international Catholic organisation that provides support to refugees and other forcibly displaced persons. JRS states that their services- which range from creative writing and photography workshops to toiletry packs and food parcels in Winter- are guided by the ‘generous love and example of Jesus Christ’, words that evidence the centrality of Catholic ethos within their work.
Yet within Western liberal contexts, religious involvement in integration is often depicted as a ‘buffer’. Mono-religious organisations are seen to approach the process from a one-sided perspective, potentially even using it as an opportunity for religious conversion.
A Multi-Religious Approach
By taking a multi-religious approach, these supposed faults are much harder to find. The religious groups themselves are strengthened, a greater sense of togetherness and unity is fostered, and the support provided often becomes more wide-ranging and comprehensive.
Encapsulating these benefits is the ‘Goda Grannar’ (Good Neighbours) project in Sweden, which was established in the Autumn of 2015 following the arrival of a large number of migrants in Stockholm. When a local mosque began helping the migrants by providing food and shelter, they were contacted by volunteers from a local church who wished to support them in their work. The collaboration between the groups soon showed that additional forms of help could be provided, such as language classes and a support service offering both legal advice and community information.
In the words of a Goda Grannar member: ‘Our cooperation makes us more visible’. Not only does the mosque-church alliance fill skills gaps- with the language skills and cultural knowledge of mosque volunteers ‘mutually complementing’ the institutional knowledge provided by the church practitioners- it increases wider public awareness of the positive work being done. Goda Grannar members have been contacted by other mosques and churches from around Sweden that wish to learn more about the collaborative efforts with a view to setting up similar projects.
Further to this, it greatly enhances community cohesion. Given that considerable numbers of migrants hail from countries where religion is inextricably entwined with division and conflict, multi-religious collaboration enables such migrants to have positive contact with persons of different faiths, thus demonstrating that members of other- and sometimes conflicting- religions can live together free from discord.
Whilst there may be some credence to the criticisms levelled at religious involvement in this area, these criticisms can be answered by taking a multi-religious approach. As well as lending to a more comprehensive support offering- with different organisations providing different skills and services- collaboration increases the visibility of the invaluable work being done and helps to create a more tolerant and united society.
Cameron Boyle is a political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration solicitors specialising in asylum support.