Immigrant integration in and beyond pandemic times

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Leila Hadj Abdou

Part-Time Assistant Professor at the European University Institute, and a Lecturer at the Department of Political Science at the University of Vienna

Leila Giannetto

Research Associate based at the European University Institute

Meaningful contact is crucial for successful immigrant integration

Immigrant integration and vulnerability during pandemic times

During the past months the Covid-19 pandemic has dominated public and political debates. So far vaccines are the most promising tool to slow down infection rates, and most importantly to decrease hospitalization rates. Studies have indicated that minoritized persons, including those with a migration background though tend to have lower vaccination rates compared with the overall population, and are at a higher risk to catch the virus and to get more severely ill. Especially migrant groups with precarious employment or jobs in healthcare, transport or the cleaning sectors and other vulnerable life circumstances, such as poverty and low quality housing conditions as well as fewer chances to access public health information have a higher exposure to risk of infection and hospitalization. The responses by governments in light of this vulnerability of migrants across the EU is anything but homogenous. While some have exhibited increased efforts to address vulnerable migrant groups, for instance targeting also irregular migrants in vaccination strategies, or setting up multilingual information campaigns others have not. The pandemic has certainly anew highlighted the importance of immigrant integration efforts. 


Immigrant integration an ambiguous concept

Whilst almost all governments and political parties in the EU though would acknowledge that immigrant integration is crucial, there is no unified understanding what immigrant integration actually means. Is it rights and access to opportunities, services and resources or is it a duty of the migrants to blend in, or to prove that he/she has a right to belong, and is deserving of being part of the country and its people?   

Immigrant integration remains a politically ambiguous and contested concept. From a political science point of view immigrant integration and debates about it, are moreover, not only about immigrants they are also about natives and long-term residents. Politicians tend to speak about immigrant integration in light of contention by their electorate (or competing parties) about migration and ethno-cultural diversity. How natives and immigrants perceive each other is consequently important in manifold ways. It will shape which immigrant integration policies are deemed as opportune or not, as much as it shapes everyday experiences with diversity and cohabitation of newcomers and long-term residents and natives. Moreover, which policies are implemented in turn then again shape integration outcomes, attitudes and interactions. 


Meaningful contact is crucial for successful immigrant integration 

One of the most impactful “tools” to foster positive attitudes among newcomers and long-term residents is contact. Frequent and positive contacts with people belonging to an outgroup reduce negative ideas towards this group, reducing prejudices. The more often and the more meaningful, deep encounters people have the less prejudice they will have against each other’s group. This thesis, originally developed by Gordon Allport, has been tested again and again across countries, and have provided firm support to this thesis, emphasizing that the strong relationship between interpersonal contact and attitudes towards migrants is “near-universal”. 

With a pandemic of course (meaningful) contact is something all of us have nowadays much less. This impacts all of us, and especially those of us who are far from family and friends. 

The pandemic has reminded all of us how important contact is for our wellbeing. Small and medium-sized towns and rural areas can be potentially both: places where people can get to know each other more easily given the small-scale size, but they can also be quite isolating spaces, where strangers are met with scepticism. The fact that these localities often have no prior experiences with immigration, can also contribute to heightened threat perceptions of the local population. This also helps to understand why in some occasions anti-migration parties have gained support following the local settlement of refugees. 

Whole-COMM sheds light on specific factors that shape attitudes and interactions between post-2014 migrants and long-term residents 

We need to know more about factors that shape attitudes and interactions between newcomers and residents in medium, small towns and rural areas. Which measures, local policies and contexts foster integration and positive interaction, and attitudes and which ones constrain them? There is a lot to learn in this regard from and discuss with migrants, natives and local authorities, and the Whole-COMM team is dedicated to providing you with more insights. During 2022, the WHOLE-COMM partners will conduct fieldwork across localities in EU member states, and Turkey. The fieldwork combines a mix of qualitative research methods, which includes participant observation on significant sites for interaction between residents and newcomers, focus groups bringing together migrants and residents, as well as in-depth interviews with migrants to understand more about the facilitating as well as constraining factors for positive interactions, and integration experiences. 

Stay tuned and check this space to learn more about our work over the duration of the project.

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