Monthly Archives: September 2016

Building Contact between Immigrants and Host Communities is Vital to Integration, guest post by Jonas Bergmann

Extensive evidence shows that fostering contact between natives and immigrants decreases intergroup prejudices, anxieties, and perceived threats, which can pave the way for successful integration, social cohesion, and development.

The growing scale of human mobility worldwide has rendered immigration a salient topic with a prominent place in public discourse. European citizens, for instance, currently perceive it as the most critical issue facing the EU overall.[i] Prejudices and anxieties surrounding immigrants have reached a startling scale that fuels exclusion, discrimination, violence and a lack of support for integration policies. The ensuing risks to social cohesion and human development of both immigrants and natives should be a critical concern for policy makers.

New evidence-based action is required to address these anti-immigrant prejudices and sentiments. Policy makers can learn from recent advances in social psychology: Extensive empirical research shows that fostering contact between natives and immigrants decreases prejudices, anxieties, and perceived threats, while increasing empathy and mutual understanding. Building contact can ultimately facilitate more positive group relationships and yield high pay-offs for all involved stakeholders.

Rising Mobility Calls for Effective Inclusion

In 2015, there were 251 million international migrants, 78 million more than in 2000 and including 20 million refugees. At least three times more people migrate within countries than across borders, and about twice as many are displaced internally than internationally. Regional asymmetries, such as economic ones, as well as phenomena such as conflict and climate change will drive voluntary and forced migration further in the future. As more people move internally and internationally, better integration could yield significant benefits to migrants, host societies and governments (and even to sending regions)[ii]: Inclusion facilitates self-sufficiency and human development, which in turn reduces welfare costs, raises tax income, and improves social cohesion.[iii]

Successful integration, however, is a challenging two-way street between immigrants and host communities. Immigrants have different capacities to integrate, and host communities have different abilities and willingness to absorb them. The ability of host communities depends on various economic and institutional variables; their willingness or social receptiveness, in contrast, is shaped by beliefs and attitudes about immigrants. Thus, perceptions and social attitudes held by natives are highly important for integration dynamics; they form one of the two pillars of a host society’s absorption capacity.

Among many misperceptions, host societies tend to err by wide margins in the pace, scale, and impacts of immigration. Even if data proves different,[iv] this can elevate a sense of anxiousness and perceived threats. Such feelings complicate integration needlessly for two reasons. First, they directly fuel exclusion, discrimination, and violence that undermine social cohesion, as witnessed in various regions of the world. In Germany, for instance, more than 200 asylum seekers were injured in attacks in the first half of 2016 alone, a more than threefold increase as compared to midyear 2015.[v] Such violence and less manifest exclusion threaten integration drastically. Second, negative perceptions and sentiments can indirectly lead to restrictive policies that obstruct more positive immigration outcomes. For instance, studies by the OECD and EU show how restrictions can prolong labor market integration of refugees by years. Similarly, harsh asylum policies not only violate human dignity, but can also largely increase financial costs for governments.[vi]

Thus, intergroup prejudices and negative sentiments resulting in exclusion and inhospitable policies ultimately impose costs on all societal stakeholders. They imperil social cohesion as well as human development. Mitigating prejudices and anxieties should therefore rank high on the agenda of policy makers, which holds also true from a legal viewpoint: Public international law establishes inclusion rights for both displaced persons and migrants.[vii]

Contact as a Potent Win-Win-Win Tool

While a variety of factors shape attitudes towards perceived ‘outgroups’, extensive empirical evidence shows that contact is one of the most effective entry points to counter prejudices and negative emotions. A meta-review of 515 experimental studies involving 250,000 participants in 38 nations finds that intergroup contact significantly lessens prejudice across nations, genders, and age groups, by reducing anxiety and enhancing empathy. The synthesis of 50 years of research shows how individuals generalize their positive contact experiences to the entire perceived ‘outgroup’ and even other ethnic groups. Contact also positively changes attitudes towards social policies critical to integration.[viii]

These laboratory findings are confirmed in a meta-review of 123 real-world contact interventions with more than 11,300 participants, showing that contact effectively reduces prejudices and tensions between ethnic groups.[ix] Contact works in direct face-to-face settings, but also in indirect formats, such as through a friend knowing immigrants, observing how others interact with, and even reading about or imagining contact with immigrants. Optimal conditions such as institutional support for the contact facilitate particularly positive outcomes, yet are not necessary prerequisites for success. That said, negative contact in involuntary and threat-producing encounters can exacerbate prejudices and anxieties and need to be avoided as much as possible. Yet even where negative contact cannot be averted, it can be neutralized by previous experiences of positive contact.[x]

To illustrate these findings, a UNHCR study showed that only 20% of Austrians in personal contact with displaced persons described their experiences as negative, as opposed to 68% of the rest of society.[xi] Thus, while no panacea, evidence shows that contact can be a powerful tool for increased trust and reduced anxieties for both immigrants and natives. For policy makers, building contact is a win-win-win tool: It simultaneously helps immigrants, natives, and governments by providing more fertile grounds for integration that ultimately yields pay-offs for the whole society (and even sending regions).

Building Contact

Creating contact constitutes a powerful, flexible, and highly adjustable policy tool that has proven successful in many real-life interventions. To tap the potentials of contact, a three-pronged approach is detailed below. Civil society, donors and interested public institutions should jointly pursue a multi-level approach to create more contact between natives and immigrants. Interventions should be adapted to local contexts, build on good practices, and embrace sound sequencing and timing.

First, contact strategies should aim to ‘tap the untapped’, i.e. to map and cater to existing interest in contact through tailored matchmaking efforts. In Germany in 2014, for instance, as much as 42% of natives were interested in getting to know asylum seekers and 66% ready to support them; yet only 22% were in relevant contact with, while 47% had never met asylum seekers.[xii] Established good practices to foster direct contact include early integration at community-level, equal access to education, language training, productive activities, and integrative housing, as well creating platforms for structured intergroup contact. Conditions known to enhance the benefits of such contact include institutional support for the contact, pursuing joint goals, cooperation, and equal status in the encounter.[xiii]

Second, prejudices, anxieties, and perceived threats lead to the avoidance of direct contact. Where strong biases exist, structured direct contact techniques have proven beneficial. In these cases, it is also highly important to ensure that indirect contact is positive. Indirect contact may be increased by educational and community interventions, information campaigns, supportive public framing and media reporting, as well as giving immigrants voice and visibility themselves. Indirect vehicles have a wide reach across society, and public institutions hold significant leverage in shaping them. Providing accurate data and information is a proven policy instrument to counter misbelieves, as embraced by the World Bank’s Global Knowledge Partnership on Migration and Development (KNOMAD), IOM’s Global Migration Data Analysis Centre (GMDAC) and others.

Third, segregation is often perpetuated by systematic barriers. Lifting such institutionalized obstacles could broaden contact opportunities across the board. Barriers to contact include segregated housing such as large asylum reception facilities, time spent in isolating reception processes, and constraints on employment. Such obstacles can (re-)produce detachment on the side of natives, but also exacerbate impediments on the part of immigrants, such as linguistic and cultural barriers. These systematic barriers thus constitute key entry points for policy makers seeking to break cycles of segregation and alienation.

Conclusion and Outlook

In conclusion, with human mobility likely to increase further and surrounding prejudices and anxieties reaching a startling scale, new evidence-based action is needed. Building contact between natives and immigrants has a strong empirical track record in improving attitudes and in creating demand for better policies. It is adjustable to numerous contexts and allows for a flexible multi-level implementation. Ultimately, contact can be an effective win-win-win-tool yielding benefits for all stakeholders.

Recognizing the need for better approaches to large movements of refugees and migrants, the UN will convene a summit on 19 September 2016. In line with the recommendations given here, the UN Secretary General has launched a global campaign ‘emphasizing direct personal contact between host communities and refugees and migrants.’[xiv] In the latest Draft Declaration, all heads of state pledged support to this contact-building strategy and promised ‘a range of steps to counter [xenophobic] attitudes and behavior’.[xv] It would be an important and much needed leap forward if tangible action followed.


[i] European Commission, ‘Standard Eurobarometer 83: Public Opinion in the European Union’ (2015).

[ii] Daniel Cervan-Gil, ‘Host Society Integration as a Development Vector: A Literature Review’ (2016). KNOMAD Working Paper 9.

[iii] Oecd, Making integration work: Refugees and others in need of protection (2016).

[iv] Ipsos MORI, ‘Perceptions and Reality: Public Attitudes to Immigration’ (2014); GMF, ‘Transatlantic Trends: Mobility, Migration and Integration’ (2014).

[v] Amadeu Antonio Stiftung and Pro Asyl, ‘Neue Dimension der Gewalt’ (30 June 2016) <; accessed 25 July 2016.

[vi] Oecd (n 3); E. R Thielemann, Richard. Williams and Christina Boswell, ‘What System Of Burden-Sharing Between Member States For The Reception Of Asylum Seekers?’ (2010).

[vii] UN General Assembly, ‘In safety and dignity: addressing large movements of refugees and migrants: Report of the Secretary-General, A/70/59’ (2016).

[viii] Thomas F Pettigrew and Linda R Tropp, When groups meet: The dynamics of intergroup contact (Psychology Press 2011).

[ix] Gunnar Lemmer and Ulrich Wagner, ‘Can we really reduce ethnic prejudice outside the lab?: A meta-analysis of direct and indirect contact interventions’ (2015) 45(2) EJSP 152.

[x] Stefania Paolini and others, ‘Positive and extensive intergroup contact in the past buffers against the disproportionate impact of negative contact in the present’ (2014) 44(6) EJSP 548.

[xi] UNHCR, ‘Stimmungslage der österreichischen Bevölkerung in Bezug auf Asylsuchende’ (2011) <; accessed 21 July 2016.

[xii] Robert Bosch Stiftung, ‘Asyl und Asylbewerber: Wahrnehmungen und Haltungen der Bevölkerung 2014’ (2014).

[xiii] Pettigrew and Tropp (n 8).

[xiv] UN General Assembly, ‘In safety and dignity: addressing large movements of refugees and migrants’ (n 7) 11, 15.

[xv] UN General Assembly, ‘Draft Declaration For High-Level Meeting To Address Large Movements Of Refugees And Migrants’ (12 July 2016) Para. 1.11 <; accessed 25 July 2016.

Jonas Bergmann is a consultant for the KNOMAD Thematic Working Group on Migration and Environmental Change as well as for the Climate Policy Team at the World Bank. Prior to this, Mr. Bergmann worked and interned with the Institute for the Study of International Migration, Human Rights Watch, the Berkeley Center, the Global Public Policy Institute, the International Human Rights Unit of the German Foreign Service, and the Chilean National Human Right Institute. Mr. Bergmann has also participated in various refugee and migration networks and co-founded two local empowerment NGOs in Germany and the USA. Migration, Human Rights, and Sustainable Development have constituted key areas of interest in both his graduate studies as a Fulbright/DAAD fellow in the M.Sc. in Foreign Service at Georgetown University and in his B.A. in International Affairs in Dresden, Valparaíso, and Lyon.

The author wishes to thank Dr. Sylvie Graf, Dr. Stefania Paolini, and Prof. Dr. Uli Wagner for their helpful comments on an earlier draft.

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The U.S. Refugee Resettlement System: A Different Kind of Integration Challenge

This is a blog post of mine published on the Sussex University website in conjunction with a recent conference on refugee resettlement.

The U.S. refugee resettlement system is the largest in the world. Since 1975, over 3 million refugees have been resettled in the United States. It has garnered bipartisan endorsement in Congress as well as local support, particularly by faith communities. It is often said that the U.S. refugee resettlement program reflects the United States’ highest values and aspirations to compassion, generosity and leadership. But let’s not be too Pollyannaish: tensions between newly arrived refugees and local communities have always existed. Learning a new language and culture and becoming fully integrated take time and can create friction between the new arrivals and established residents in the community. In the past few years, a number of communities have expressed concern about the local impact of resettlement, and there have been statewide legislative and executive efforts to restrict and deter refugee resettlement. And let’s not forget the anti-refugee sentiments expressed by the current Republican presidential nominee and his supporters.

But I do not want to dwell on the raising anti-refugee and anti-immigrant sentiments. Rather, I want to focus on refugee integration. Most scholars and policy makers define integration as the process by which refugees become accepted into society, both as individuals and as groups, emphasizing the notion that the responsibility for integration rests not with one particular group, but rather with many actors—the government, local communities, and the refugees themselves. When assessing integration, researchers analyze a wide range of measurable outcomes: attainment of early economic self-sufficiency, income levels, participation in public benefits programs, and English language proficiency, to name a few. Studies also look at how the mainstream society welcomes refugee newcomers, at the social connections, social bridges, and social links between the host society and refugee communities.

What seems to be missing in these analyses is the emphasis on integration between and among different newcomer groups. The 2012 GAO (Government Accountability Office) report on the U.S. resettlement system– that includes analysis of several studies on integration of refugees– talks about integration solely in terms of relationships between established residents and newcomers, without really discussing the diversity of both populations and the need for refugees to integrate into a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious society.

Integration into a multicultural environment is particularly important since refugees arriving in the United States often find the country more diverse than the lands they left behind. The American society is composed of different waves of immigrants, some more empathetic than others to new refugee arrivals. But the refugee populations resettled in the U.S. are also very diverse. Between 2009 and 2014, the U.S. resettled 402,000 refugees from 106 countries. Among the most numerous groups were refugees from Iraq (98,000), Burma (97,000), Bhutan (73,000), followed by Somalia (34,000), and the Democratic Republic of Congo (14,000). A great deal of intra-group diversity is also present. For example, the people of Burma consist of eight main ethnic groups that can be further divided into more than 130 distinctive subgroups and this multiplicity of backgrounds is reflected among the arrivals from Burma as the United States accepted the Chin and Kachin as well as Karen refugees. Many advocates are also urging the US to increase the number of Rohingya refugees. Similarly, among the Iraqi refugees who have been coming in considerable numbers to the country since the Gulf War there are Iraqi and Kurdish Muslims as well as Chaldean Christians. And a last example: The Somalis Bantus are ethnically, physically, and culturally distinct from the Cushitic majority. As such, they have long been considered second-class citizens in Somali society – exploited as laborers, and excluded from education, land ownership, political opportunities and representation–and yet in the United States they often live side-by-side with their Cushitic compatriots.

Because refugee status is determined on an individual basis, it is not totally outside the realm of possibility that families or individuals that have been mortal enemies during the armed crisis that made them flee their homeland and seek refuge in the U.S. are now neighbors.  I am reminded of my time in the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) where two of my grantees brought the war from the Balkans to Boise, Idaho. The animosity between the groups that were of the same ethnicity and lived in the same village but supported different sides in the war continued in Idaho. Sometimes the antagonisms took on humorous forms and expressed themselves in fierce folk song competitions, but at other times the continued bickering and bullying threatened the neighborhood’s social cohesion. I worked hard to make both groups set aside their politics and concentrate on the problems that faced them and other refugees and immigrants living in the community: quality of education for their children, domestic violence, and petty crime that was rampant in the neighborhood. I could plead but I had no resources to support different groups of refugees and immigrants to get together to solve common problems.

According to the stipulations enshrined in the Refugee act of 1980, ORR’s budget for refugees has always been split between 85% of the federal monies going to employment-related services (after all, early economic self-sufficiency is the main goal of the U.S. resettlement program) and 15% to social services. There is also a smaller discretionary fund pot. However, without exception, ORR directors have used their discretionary funds mainly to support activities of discrete groups of refugees. I used to call it “funding by ethnicity.” When the first cohort of Iraqis came, the Office of Refugee Resettlement funded a three-day conference for the community. It was a wonderful event! We even funded childcare so Iraqi women with childcare responsibilities could participate. The same type of conference was organized for other groups: the Somalis, the Bosnians, and the Sudanese. When I questioned the rationale for supporting the same type of activities for diverse groups of people who often had very different needs, the powers that be invoked equity. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for equity, but tailoring funding and activities to the special needs of different groups is also very important, isn’t it?

My main criticism, however, related to the propensity of the federal government to focus on one ethnic community at a time. Newcomers interact with established residents—U.S.-born folk and refugees and immigrants who came before them—in many different social arenas. Community boundaries are created through exchanges between these groups in schools, workplaces, government offices, law enforcement, and health care facilities. It is this social space that fosters integration and change, on one hand, or isolation and conflict on the other. Successful integration often requires both newcomers and establishes residents to expand their notions of community.

Even among long-standing residents, establishing a sense of community is often a challenge. “Community” refers both to where people live and how they feel and act. In one sense, it evokes a feeling of collectivity that is linked to a specific geographic area or physical space such as a city, a town, a school, a place of worship, or a city block.  In another sense, it transcends geographic limitations to unite a group of people sharing common behavioral patterns, values, and social ties related to traits such as ethnicity, religion, and nationality.  It often takes time to feel comfortable when moving to a new city or town, entering a new school or changing jobs.  This challenge is heightened for both newcomers and established community members when the newcomer’s cultural and linguistic background is different from that of the majority.

Many localities create action plans to promote positive social interaction between newcomers and established residents and ensure that all residents receive quality service.  These plans often emerge from the grassroots level as concerned residents, businesses, and public officials join forces to respond to rapid population change.  In other instances, local governments take it upon themselves to create committees or task forces dedicated to incorporating all residents into community life. One approach is bottom up; the other is top down.  The two often work in unison and can both be effective in solving challenges pose by rapid new settlement of foreign-born populations.

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