Welcoming Syrian Refugees: Not Just "How Many?" but also "How?"

By Nayla Rush, December 21, 2015

The current debate about refugees often revolves around numbers – how many should be allowed in? – while little attention is given to the issue of integration. Jenny Phillimore, Professor and Director of the Institute for Research into Superdiversity (IRIS) at the University of Birmingham, asks in a blogpost: "Where is integration in the refugee crisis?"

Integration policies and practices are crucial to the success (or failure) of the resettlement of refugees. Refugees are not just parachuted into a void. As Phillimore notes, they have a harder time integrating when they are sent into localities that have little experience with diversity or refugee resettlement.

Let us not forget that refugees are already traumatized. They experience, in the words of the author, "what has been described as bereavement as they leave behind everything that was familiar to them." They also belong to the most vulnerable categories. Anne Richard from the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration reminded us recently of their severe pains: "we are looking at people who have been tortured, burn victims from barrel bombs, people who are widows and children, but also the elderly, families that have been ripped apart as members have been murdered in front of their eyes."

Needless to say that resettled refugees are in desperate need of support after they settle down. Phillimore elaborates: They require help in getting accustomed to new institutional cultures and mentors can guide them in this regard. Strong peer networks should also be available for emotional support.

In summary, humane and positive reception and orientation are necessary for a successful integration. Local receiving communities must understand refugee experiences and should "develop skills to communication sensitively and interculturally."

Is the general mood today in the United States in line with such prerequisites? The answer is no. Following the Paris and the San Bernardino terrorist attacks, and according to a recent Rasmussen poll, "most Americans say 'No' to Syrian refugees in their state".

There is no doubt that the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program, as Anne Richard noted, "only functions if we have the support of the American people, very much at the level of communities and societies and towns, to come forward and help these refugees." She added: "I certainly would not want to resettle anybody in a hostile community."

So why not give the program a pause for now? At least, until some type of serenity is regained. If not, both local communities and their imposed-upon hosts will be affected.