Part of the confusion around the term ‘integration’ is that it can be used in academic and policy debates to mean different things. In academic analysis it is often used to explain the process that migrants are engaged in from the day they arrive, regardless of policy intervention, whereas in policy debates it can be the term used to describe the desired end goal of integration policy.
Researchers have analysed the processes in which migrants are engaged in different ways. Historically, it was often explained as a one-way trajectory of becoming similar to the rest of the population, referred to as ‘assimilation’, an analysis in which the focus was on adaptation by the migrants. In recent years, research has shown that the outcome of the process is also influenced significantly by the response of individuals and institutions in the ‘host society’. The term commonly used in analysis of that ‘two-way’ process, particularly in continental Europe, is ‘integration’. Research suggests that it is not in fact a single process but a series relating to participation in the labour market and social institutions (such as education), social interaction, cultural practices and, for instance, civic participation. The sense of identity and belonging of migrants, and of those with whom they interact, may also change over time. The rate at which these processes take place depends on the migrant and on the opportunities open to them in the localities where they live (Entzinger and Biezeveld 2003; Penninx and Martiniello 2004; Heckman et al. 2006; Robinson and Reeve 2006; Rutter, Cooley et al. 2008).
In UK academic and policy debates the term integration is not universally accepted. It still carries connotations of assimilation: in particular, a concern that the key focus of interest is whether migrants will become culturally similar to the rest of the population and the normative judgement that they ought to do so. A decade ago policy makers sought to counter the perception that this was the goal of integration policy. The Home Office consultation that preceded its Refugee Integration Strategy, for instance, insisted ‘Inclusion in our society does not mean that a refugee is required to assimilate’; and the strategy subsequently defined integration as ‘the process that takes place when refugees are empowered to achieve their full potential as members of British society, to contribute to the community, and to become fully able to exercise the rights and responsibilities that they share with other residents’ (Home Office 2005).
More recently, however, the association between integration and assimilation has been reinforced by the way in which ‘integration’ has been endorsed as a goal by critics of multiculturalism. Multiculturalism, in contrast to an assimilation policy, values the contribution made by the differing cultural traditions of minority communities. In recent years, however, it has been argued that multiculturalism may have reinforced separate identities rather than help to bridge community divides. Critics of multiculturalism have not argued for assimilation per se (a word now too unpopular to attract political support), but for ‘integration’: as in a speech Prime Minister Blair gave in the year before he left office entitled ‘The Duty to Integrate: Shared British Values’ (Blair 2006).
During the latter years of the Labour government, integration was also used to refer to relationships between migrants and other residents. Thus the Department for Communities and Local Government argued ‘community cohesion is what must happen in all communities to enable different groups of people to get on well together. A key contributor to community cohesion is integration which is what must happen to enable new residents and existing residents to adjust to one another’ (CLG 2008).