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The call for integration: what does it mean?

There is a Cassandra-like experience I have regarding the call on immigrants to integrate in British society. In fact, it is probably more correct in saying European society, for the dimensions of this call stretch far and wide across Europe. It is Cassandra-like, for the more my reservations are true, the less they are believed. This call is experienced very differently by different sections of the immigrant communities. By far more painful seem to be the experiences of black people (this is a political term and by saying ‘black people’ I include every imaginable ethnic group utterly visible in the crowd; the ones you see coming).

Those who advance the integration theory can be divided into three camps, roughly. Firstly, there is the group that defines integration by what it is not (‘integration is not this, it is not that…’). The unhelpful Trevor Phillips is in this camp. It is not difficult to figure out what the problem is with this camp. It aims to advance what is essentially seen in government circles as a positive project, from a decidedly negative vantage point.

Secondly, there is the camp that uses integration as a sort of metaphor. It becomes trust, custom, cultures, institution and every little thing you can dream of. The problem with this approach is its chaotic and all-embracing definition. Whatever the hour requires, integration becomes that. It becomes a peg on which we all can hang our ideas and so becomes a sad misuse of something that could really be of true value for communities people live in.

The third school is rather crude in its estimation of the use of its definition. Woolly and crude. ‘They must become British’, it says. Which means what? Being assimilated to such levels that everything different about them become unrecognisable? Examining things in this school, one ends up understanding that integration to them means rubbishing your cultural traditions and your beliefs, and adopting those of your host nation. We are back at the second camp.

Integration, whatever it means and does not mean, must at least have the following elements to its definition: there must be a willingness and a genuine effort to learn the language of your host nation (it really makes all the sense in the world from any angle); there must be a willingness and effort to learn, in public settings so as to rub shoulders with those you live with in communities, the cultural traditions and civic responsibilities of people from your host nation, plus the willingness of sharing your cultural traditions with them. This is important, for we are not speaking about some one-sided integration. Host communities must show the same eagerness to welcome and understand those who moved in from different backgrounds.

The real danger in the current debate on integration, especially in Britain, is that it’s used in every context; the thing has become completely empty of leverage. The art of living together, not just side by side, is hard business and on this terrain we mostly just get one chance getting it right. Let’s just try getting it right, first time.


  • Steven Lamini

    Steven Lamini is a specialist adviser in one of the key policy fields troubling modern-day Europe and works across a range of equality fields, advising on policy and strategic approaches to cohesion. His interests are wide and varied, and he writes on world politics, economic issues, current events, mediocrities and lame-duck presidents of countries. He believes that heads should be enlightened, but somehow regrets having such a stubborn principle, for some heads are rather best chopped off. He lives in York.