Refugee Integration in Europe: Does Belonging Matter?

Refugee Integration in Europe: Does Belonging Matter?

Susan Beth Rottmann

I don’t allow the negative stuff to affect me and cause me an internal problem, but I was subjected to a lot of negative stuff. For example, once I applied for a job, and I was rejected because of my hijab. I was shocked. I was questioning myself: could this happen to me in Germany? Can people living here still think like that? And in Munich? One of the best cities in the world? (SYR-W-BAV-0309)” (Chemin and Nagel 2020: 61).

Is this young Syrian woman integrated? If she is, does she belong in Munich? There are many ways of measuring integration and little agreement about how to do so. Belonging is often omitted as an area of inquiry in studies of integration in favor of readily quantifiable measures, such as labor market integration, housing, education, health care and citizenship acquisition. These are preferred because countries can be easily be ranked, as they are, for example according to the Migrant Integration Policy Index (MIPEX) used by the European Union.

But, should we accept that belonging is not as important as these other integration indicators?  How does integration affect belonging? Do migrants feel more belonging in countries that have higher integration (MIPEX) rankings on such scales? Drawing from an analysis of research in seven European countries, I argue that those of us studying integration should indeed care about migrant belonging because it matters a great deal to migrants, host communities and political leaders. Also, to better understand policy impacts, we need to further investigate the links between integration indicators and belonging.

Historically, integration was seen as simple tolerance of different cultural and religious groups by a host community. Even when there was little social interaction between migrants and hosts, it was not seen as a problem to be solved. Or if lack of integration was seen as a troublesome issue (i.e. due to ghettos, ethnic enclaves, slums), it was assumed that over time later generations of migrants would come to feel belonging. Yet, research shows that refugees and members of host communities find belonging important and identify it “as the ultimate mark of living in an integrated community” (Ager and Strang, 2008, p. 177-178). Belonging is a key affective dimension of integration, contributing to social cohesion. A useful basic definition of belonging is “identifying with and feeling attachment to a social group” (Simonsen 2018: 120). Belonging provides a feeling of safety and comfort. Unlike identity, which tends to be more limited to self-categorization, belonging refers to community embeddedness.

Given its centrality to our lives, belonging has been seen as a fundamental human psychological need. While legal status, labor market incorporation, education and healthcare are important integration measures in their own right, it can also be said that belonging plays a key role within each of these realms: belonging is the feeling of inclusion in the social group that migrants experience throughout their daily lives as they work, raise families and navigate local school, community and health systems. Belonging is also connected to finding a place of respect within the cultural and religious sphere of the host country during daily interactions.

The belonging of migrants is not only an issue in local communities. It is important to political leaders and has become an increasingly important topic of debate in recent years (Foner and Simon 2015). Far-right politicians with increasing visibility often wonder publicly about the extent to which new migrants may or may not be loyal to their new nations, while prominent politicians, such as Germany’s Angela Merkel, declare that multiculturalism has “utterly failed.” Leaders often position migrant belonging as a problem to be solved and propose integration courses, language courses and social cohesion programming to solve the “problem.” More research is needed to determine if migrant belonging is the problem that these leaders think it is and if these or any other type of programmes foster belonging.

A recently completed study comparing Germany, Sweden, Austria, United Kingdom, Greece, Italy and Turkey allows us to begin to explore the topic. Each country was a part of the RESPOND project, a 3-year project (2017-2020) led by Uppsala University to study the multi-level governance of migration. In each country, university teams undertook legal and policy research and conducted interviews with 30-60 asylum seekers and refugees as well as with government officials, NGO workers, and other stake holders. To analyze belonging in these countries, I borrow the concept of “belonging in” versus “belonging with” from Kristina Bakkaer Simonsen (2018). She developed this distinction after finding that second-generation migrants in Denmark, feel at home in Denmark (“belonging in”), but they do not feel accepted by Danes (“belonging with”). This schism is useful for thinking about how migrants feel about their place in their new country and how this relates to the integration policies they experience.

RESPOND research shows a range of responses to the challenges of refugee integration and belonging. We found that comprehensive, inconsistent or absent integration policies all lead to fraught belonging for European’s refugees. Even in countries with clear policies focused on civic or social integration and language learning (as in Germany, Sweden and Austria), forced migrants often do not develop strong feelings of “belonging in,” because of the absence of legal security, lack of employment and experience of social hostility. One migrant in Germany related, “The state of being constantly anxious regarding one’s status makes it feel like deportation is perhaps just around the corner…this has an impact on life in general, including language learning and overall living conditions” (Chemin and Nagel 2020: 68).

Similarly, in Austria, our team reports that “the situation of being in legal limbo meant that [migrants] felt as though they only were partial members or even non-members of society. They could not establish solid expectations about the future and felt that they could not decide about their own destiny” (Josipovic and Reeger 2020: 58). Despite migrants’ engagement in language or other integration courses, their legal insecurity negatively impacts their feeling of comfort, security and “belonging in.” They are further unable to experience “belonging with.” We found that even migrants with more or less secure legal statuses as beneficiaries of international protection still felt a lack of “belonging with” in most cases. The team researching in Sweden explained that migrants “perceived stigmatisation from the majority culture that seems to be linked to their nationality and prior citizenship. Such perceived stigmatisation leads to the consequences of limiting one’s actions, draining initiative, and reducing a sense of freedom” (Cetrez et al. 2020: 89). They encountered asylum seekers who felt converting to Christianity was the only way to be granted asylum. In other words, some migrants see “belonging with” as an essential prerequisite to “belonging in.”

In countries with fragmented, uneven or non-existent integration policies, such as the United Kingdom, Greece, Italy and Turkey, migrants also struggle to feel “belonging in.” An asylum seeker in Greece explained that a societal change was needed, and locals should seek out contact with refugees: “Instead of listening to the television, the [political] parties who are against immigration and the refugee crisis, or even the church, they should speak to the refugees themselves, go to the camps” (Leivaditi et al. 2020:71). Migrants feel unable to find “belonging in,” which also corresponds to an almost total lack of “belonging with.” In Turkey, which lacks clear integration or citizenship policies for refugees, but is geographically close to refugee source countries, the relationship between belonging and integration is complex. As with the other countries, migrants do not feel “belonging in” Turkey because, as one migrant related, “We do not have citizenship here and no residence permit. What will my kids do in the future? I am concerned about this. Maybe an order will come to force us to return to Syria. Who knows? We are not able to make any plan. There is no stability” (Rottmann 2020: 64).  On the other hand, some migrants do experience feeling “belonging with” in Turkey, based on what we can call “cultural intimacy.” Migrants express sentiments like, “Culturally and in terms of customs, we have many similarities. Because of that, we chose to come….” (Rottmann 2020: 69).

This research has important implications for integration policy. First, it suggests that belonging is heavily dependent on legal security. Migrants with more secure legal statuses feel the most belonging in their new countries. Being able to access only parts of the society whether through working, language classes or other programming does not foster a sense of “belonging with.” Second, in most cases, secure “belonging in” appears to be a prerequisite for “belonging with.” One exception is Turkey, where migrants seem to feel “belonging with” even without “belonging in.” However, this is highly dependent on the specific context, culture and background of refugee and host communities there. In any case, more longitudinal research is needed to assess how “belonging with” is made. Finally, this research shows that belonging matters. It is not just something “nice to have,” “a bonus,” or “something that may or may not come after years in a community.” Belonging is actually essential for refugees’ mental and emotional well-being and for meaningful integration.

Cetrez, Önver, Valerie DeMarinis, Johanna Pettersson and Mudar Shakra. 2020. “Integration: Policies, Practices and Experiences – Sweden Country Report,” RESPOND – Multilevel Governance of Mass Migration in Europe and Beyond Project (#770564, Horizon2020) Working Paper Series, Available here.
Chemin, J. Eduardo and Alexander K. Nagel. 2020. “Integration: Policies, Practices and Experiences – Germany Country Report,” RESPOND – Multilevel Governance of Mass Migration in Europe and Beyond Project (#770564, Horizon2020) Working Paper Series, Available here.
Foner, Nancy, and Patrick Simon, eds. 2015. Fear, Anxiety, and National Identity. New York, NY: The Russell Sage Foundation.
Josipovic, Ivan and Ursula Reeger “Integration: Policies, Practices and Experiences – Austria Country Report,” RESPOND – Multilevel Governance of Mass Migration in Europe and Beyond Project (#770564, Horizon2020) Working Paper Series, Available here.
Leivaditi, Nadina and Evangelia Papatzani, Aggelos Ilias, Electra Petracou. 2020. “Integration: Policies, Practices and Experiences – Greece Country Report,” RESPOND – Multilevel Governance of Mass Migration in Europe and Beyond Project (#770564, Horizon2020) Working Paper Series, Available here.
Rottmann, Susan Beth. (2020). “Integration: Policies, Practices and Experiences – Turkey Country Report,” RESPOND – Multilevel Governance of Mass Migration in Europe and Beyond Project (#770564, Horizon2020) Working Paper Series, Available here. Simonsen, Kristina Bakkær. 2018. What It Means to (Not) Belong: A Case Study of How Boundary Perceptions Affect Second-Generation Immigrants’ Attachments to the Nation. Sociological Forum 33(1).


Susan Beth Rottmann is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Ozyegin University in Istanbul, Turkey.  She has a PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Currently, she is a Primary Investigator for the European Union-funded HORIZON 2020 project, RESPOND – Multilevel Governance of Mass Migration in Europe and Beyond. Her most recent book is In Pursuit of Belonging: Forging an Ethical Life in European-Turkish Spaces (Berghahn Books – 2019).