Photo credit: Maria Teneva / Unsplash.

WITH SUFFERING SO OFTEN the root cause of migration, providing new arrivals with a safe and secure existence is of the utmost importance. But regrettably, arrival in the host country can throw up an array of new issues, from exploitative employment to social isolation.

In response to statutory bodies struggling to avert such problems and to facilitate integration, civil society groups have stepped in to provide crucial support. Many of these groups are religious in nature, and are well-placed to contribute due to possessing a wealth of experience in altruistic activities, from mobilising resources for humanitarian crises abroad to caring for the elderly in the local community.

Despite this invaluable work however, religious involvement in humanitarian work is sometimes frowned upon, with Faith-Based Organisations (FBOs) seen to lack the required skill set and professionalism. Focusing on the integration of migrants specifically, religion is often viewed as a ‘buffer’ that inhibits the building of diverse social networks and in doing so, encourages the ‘ghettoisation’of migrants among members of their own faith.

Taking this into account, it is important to investigate whether such concerns can be allayed by taking a multi-religious approach, that sees different religious groups collaborating to provide a more thorough and holistic service.

The role of religion in integration

Religious involvement in migrant integration is long-standing, with the desire to help others the key motivation. Given that vulnerable migrants have such a myriad of issues to contend with, the work of religious groups provides vital assistance at the most critical of times.

This idea is demonstrated by the work of Islamic Relief, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that provides ‘critical support to refugees and asylum seekers’. The support ranges from immigration advice to a weekly social activity group aimed at counteracting social isolation, and to quote the organisation itself, is “guided by the timeless values and teachings of the Qur’an”.

Yet according to the dominant secular discourse, the prevalence of religious teachings is inherently problematic. As well as concerns that humanitarian work will be treated as an opportunity to proselytise, a religious approach to integration is perceived as contravening the foundational principles of impartiality and neutrality.

Taking a multi-religious approach

Through taking a multi-religious approach, the validity of these criticisms is reduced. The religious groups themselves are strengthened, a greater sense of togetherness and unity is fostered, and the support provided becomes more wide-ranging and comprehensive.

Regarding the first of these points, multi-religious collaboration has proved crucial in increasing awareness of the immensely positive work being undertaken. This is demonstrated by the German project Weisst Du Wer Ich bin? (Do you know who I am?), the launch of which was attended by the Secretary of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and attracted wide public attention.

Further to this, the success of the project has played a pivotal role in the initiation of regional interreligious councils, with multi-religious cooperation helping migrants seen as an important step in the promotion of wider interreligious dialogue.

In terms of community and societal cohesion, multi-religious collaboration has proved instrumental in rejecting the belief that it is more important to help members of one religion than others. A pertinent example comes from the Goda Grannar (Good Neighbours) project in Sweden, where participants were keen to emphasise that migrants are not asked about their religion and that background never figures in who receives assistance. To quote one project member: “So, is it only Christians we have to help? No, we do not ask about religion. Here everybody is welcome.”

Through demonstrating the tolerance, openness and inclusivity at the heart of proceedings, these words address the criticism that religious involvement places migrants at risk of ‘ghettoisation’. Staying on the subject of community cohesion, multi-religious collaboration has also played a key role in addressing Islamophobia and racism. Following the 2017 terrorist attack in Stockholm, the Goda Grannar project saw members of the congregation from the church and mosque lay flowers for the victims, a hugely powerful gesture that promotes togetherness and respect.

Homing in on the benefits to the integration services, collaboration has seen participants with expertise in one area mutually complement those with skills in another, and in doing so, create a more robust and diverse support system. This is illustrated by Goda Grannar, where mosque volunteers with the necessary language skills have partnered up with church volunteers who possess the relevant knowledge regarding immigration and refugee processes. Given the aforementioned criticism that religious organisations lack professionalism and skills, such projects are a key way of changing perspectives.

While any form of help for vulnerable migrants is of immense value, it is evident that adopting a multi-religious approach can yield an array of positives. Not only is it conducive to a cohesive and inclusive society, it broadens the scope of assistance provided and promotes the outstanding work being undertaken. In a world riddled by division and conflict, it is inspiring to see such unity and benevolence.

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© Cameron Boyle is a political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration solicitors that provides legal support to vulnerable migrants.
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