Unbound funded the Urban Institute to summarize and disseminate research findings on refugee integration and to engage practitioners and policymakers, in a report entitled, “Bringing Evidence to the Refugee Integration Debate”. We recently caught up with Hamutal Bernstein, the author of the report:
What does your report reveal about refugee integration?
Three major things: first, there is a gap between the policy debate and the reality of what the research shows about refugees and their experience in the US. Second, refugees are a very diverse group and there is not just one “refugee experience.” And third, while refugees share a lot in common with other immigrants, they also differ in key ways, and this is not always acknowledged.
Your report discusses the vast complexities of the refugee experience. Can you share more about that?
I summarized recent research that relied on census data to capture the long term experience for refugees in the US. Overall those findings show that refugees integrate and contribute: they have high labor force participation, and that rises over time. Some rely on public benefits at the outset, and that goes down over time. Refugees become citizens, vote, and many buy homes as they settle into communities. On the other hand, there is lots of variation in how successful integration outcomes are, for instance across national origin groups. And the barriers that refugees face—limited English proficiency, physical and mental health challenges that arise from a traumatic past—I don’t want to gloss over the fact that they are facing a lot of challenges and that there is still a need for supports.
What are the gaps for future research?
There isn’t as much known about what happens on the receiving community side, and that’s where a lot of the controversy and misinformation lie. If we had more evidence about how refugees affect their communities, that could be valuable. We need more of the human stories about refugees and their participation in communities—their interaction with other families through their kids enrolled in school, with co-workers or customers, and how social connection shapes integration and wellbeing. Although we know that refugees are employed at high rates, we need better understanding of their career progress, what supports and training would be helpful to take advantage of refugees’ skills. And third, understanding more about refugees who arrive as youth, and children of refugees who are born in the US. If we really want to understand integration, it’s important to take this intergenerational approach.
If there is one thing you would want philanthropy to take away from your report, what would it be?
The value of research in the context of really high service need. Balancing both of those needs and keeping an eye on the importance of evidence and research in this challenging policy climate. Research that is really responsive and grounded in the current policy conversation can bolster the good work going on. It can document what’s really happening so that others can hold policymakers accountable. It can bring together new audiences and maybe inspire creative responses. Research has its role in this ecosystem.
Is there anything distinct you’d want resettlement agencies to take away from this report?
I hope resettlement agencies see this as a resource that can arm them with the facts to fight the rhetoric. But also an opening. It’s hard to think about research now when they’re trying to defend the very existence of the refugee program. I hope this can open up some thinking about what further research questions could help to move forward the conversation in a productive way.