Glasgow Refugee Asylum and Migration Network (GRAMNet)

Bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland

Newcomers and hometowns: Linking local and migrant communities in Scotland

by Karin Friedrich


Image: Karin Friedrich

Image: Karin Friedrich


On 16 February, the day before Shrove Tuesday, roundtable participants gathered for a third time in the rooms of the Scottish Universities Insight Institute (SUII) on Strathclyde Campus to discuss integration processes between Scottish communities and newcomers from Eastern and East Central Europe. Hosted by SUII and organised by Prof. Karin Friedrich, as were two previous events that drew crowds in Aberdeen and Glasgow on the topic of Linking Northern Communities socially, culturally and economically: East European Migration to Scotland, this third roundtable branched out from its focus on Polish migrants to other East European groups that recently settled in Scotland, including Lithuanians, Slovaks and Roma. The assembled experts represented a wide range of professional experience, from the small business experience of tea-room ownership, to social work in Edinburgh, a high-flying career in banking, mental health support work, and academia: literature, sociology, social anthropology and history.

If anyone was apprehensive that we would merely talk about integration in theoretical terms, they should not have feared. Many among the audience and members of the roundtable were migrants to Scotland and the UK themselves, in the first or second generation, and not just from East Central Europe. Everyone had real stories and practical examples in mind. No better circle then, to get into the thick of the debate. The starting point was the question whether, and to what extent , the apparently successful model of Polish integration in Scotland could be replicated or used to improve the experience of all East European migrants in Scotland. Yet this leads to another question: how do we define successful integration, and how do we actually measure this success? One measure that takes into account both sides –local Scottish society and the migrant communities – and which defines success, is the (often subjectively experienced) benefit that both sides derive from the integration process. Hence we must not only ask how we can help with integration to help migrants, but also how integration can enrich and benefit the lives of everybody living in Scotland.

Factors that diminish this success and that emerged from the discussion were isolation and lack of communication, often perpetuated by language problems. With the rise of family migration – rather than the arrival of singles, more typical for the period before the expansion of the European Union in 2004 – the uptake of the English language slowed as it became more difficult for some to learn it outside the family, unless they were in school or a job. This often leads to a vicious circle of inadequate language training and the consequent inability to take up more challenging careers. Initiatives to overcome such isolation will help Scotland to benefit from the arrival of motivated and often highly skilled people clearly willing to build a better life for themselves and their families. This is often more easily said than done, but the following case studies show what is possible.

The start was made by Martin Fell, owner of Tchai-ovna, a tea-house and artists’ den in Glasgow’s west end, where poets, musicians and other creative folk regularly meet. It is an ideal place for migrant artists to build networks, start out and make an impression. The attraction of the tea house for Glasgow’s Govanhill Slovak and Czech community, not least due to Martin’s own Czech family background (in the second generation), has become a well-known feature and allows Martin to talk with great knowledge about integration of newcomers as well as those who have already established themselves. In his view, the difference between success and failure is not reflected in the membership of any specific national community. Every ethnic group, and this is also true for the Slovakian or Romanian Roma, is subdivided into different cultures and social backgrounds of which the British host community is often ignorant. Meeting points for immigrants provide good support, but sometimes have the effect that newcomers start learning each other’s languages rather than English, creating a migrant space disconnected from the Scottish community. Providing translation services helps, but can also be counter-productive, as some migrants never face the challenge to overcome the language barriers fully to enter their English-speaking environment. Many migrants who ‘do not make it’ are less able to move away from factory jobs into better paid employment. On the other hand it was noted, that the frustration of being overqualified can be just as destructive as not having the skills to move on to a more fulfilling job. In the end, the individual situation often decides over success or failure of integration, and generalisations frequently prove worthless.

Anna Ruszel, holder of the Women Entrepreneurship Ambassador Award 2014, who works for risk management at RBS in Edinburgh and is a co-founder of the Polish Professional Forum (PPF), knows much about the frustrations of well-qualified people who arrive in Scotland. It is for them that she set up PPF to help newcomers from a professional background to establish networks and advance their careers. The cosmopolitan outlook of these ‘makers and shakers’, who often have studied abroad, are already fluent in English and other non-native languages and flourish in big companies, however, is not won overnight. Anna told us of many East Europeans’ tendency to take failure very personally, and to feel it a stigma to be considered a ‘migrant’. She emphasised the importance of mentoring, which provided her in the end with a similar insight to Martin: that success needs to be measured individually. Kasia Zalewska, who is part of Edinburgh Council’s social work, pointed out that not just language but communication itself, the clash of different expectations and social cultures of communication form barriers to easy integration. The inability to express emotions in another language often leads to a lack of engagement by the newcomers with the support that is offered.

Lorraine Cook, policy officer at the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities’ (COSLA) Strategic Migration Partnership , which represents Scotland’s 32 local authorities, brought important experience with local issues to the table. She addressed the question of how migration could be turned into economic success, for migrants, but also the host society. She pointed to The European Integration Fund’s research results that integration needs are best understood in a local context. The new programme of the European Migration Network shows that 13.4 million Euros are available to European member states to support integration, better Europe-wide coordination of policies, professional development of migrants, and offer help with return to their country after a stay abroad. The UK receives the third largest amount, € 920.000, after the Netherlands and Sweden. COSLA’s Migration Partnership was proactive at the local end by offering education and employment advice, events and interviews with local authorities to share best practice. Jean Urquhart, MSP for the Highlands and Islands, asked to what extent the Strategic Migration Partnership actually involved non-migrant local community groups and invited them to work with migrants. Lorraine pointed at the success they had with children and education services, but that cost of childcare, organising NHS appointments and the number of available school places were still problem areas. It was also obvious that local communities themselves, from the grass-roots, could do more to turn the presence of migrants into a success story.

Dr Emilia Piętka-Nykaza, Lecturer in Sociology at the University of the West of Scotland, formerly Research Fellow at Southampton’s Centre for Population Change, who has a long experience of working with diverse migrant groups (including adult, children, migrant families), stressed that children do not take the decision to migrate but bear the consequences just as much as their parents who took that decision. Children above 10 years or older, who absorb a new language not as quickly as younger ones, and who have already formed friendships and networks in their home countries, often suffer more. Leisure time and content often changes radically when the family moves into a neighbourhood where it is unsafe for children to play in the street, and most migrant children have to grow up more quickly, as they often become the culture brokers for their parents who are slower to learn the language and to adapt to the new environment. Parents no longer can help their children to understand life and society when they are outside their well-known cultural context. At the same time, many migrant parents learn English through their children. For younger migrant children, the homeland soon becomes a more distant experience. All this shows that neither integration, nor its success, follow one definition.

From Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, Lithuania, two scholars joined the discussion. The first was Dr Neringa Liubinienė, who studies migration to and from Northern Ireland, a country that traditionally sent people abroad but is now receiving migrants in larger numbers, particularly from Eastern Europe and the Baltic states. As identified by the European Integration Fund, networking is one of the most effective activities of migrants, a pursuit which proves particularly effective among Lithuanian, Polish and Slovakian migrants. Often using similar services, attending the same church, meeting again on English courses, finding jobs in the same places, using the same shops, networks become transnational, but as soon as an event is stamped with one national label (e.g. a ‘Polish event’), the other nationalities won’t show up. The formation of ethnically relatively homogenous clusters and neighbourhoods (often originating in the same region or town in Lithuania), to the exclusion of the migrant ‘others’ is quite widespread and furthers segregation. Tensions between Poles and Lithuanians about history perpetuate also abroad, under the influence of an outdated nationalist vision of history and strongly rooted stereotypes about each other. Successful integration initiatives could easily be undermined by such differences, especially if the host society, due to lack of historical knowledge in this area, was not aware of these issues. This underlines the importance of awareness of each other’s heritage, for better or worse.

Professor Vytis Čiubrinskas, also from Social Anthropology at VMU in Kaunas, summarised migration network research and the role of community connections by stressing once more the importance of individual agency – the underlying theme of today’s debate. The success and the sheer size of the Polish community settled in Scotland (or in the US, in Chicago, the main focus of his own studies) could make network research into a tool that could be applied to other communities. Networks traditionally helped upward mobility into better paid and qualified jobs, and ultimately into the mainstream of British society. While during communism the diasporas that had ‘made it’ in Britain often stigmatised newcomers from their homelands (still under communist rule), today’s dominant discourse is multi-culturalism on the basis of a well-ordered life that leads to individual happiness – which always means to be part of and at ease with a community. Such a goal, when attained, is clearly associated with the (often unjustly maligned) middle classes who had many of their ambitions fulfilled, while frequently those who do not succeed do not exactly know what they want of a good life. Globalisation and social mobility across borders created new opportunities not just for networks, which worked best for an older generation, especially in the US where community enclaves feel more isolated, while in the UK individual success is more visible.

The discussion continued to focus on the measuring of success: nobody could really name the numbers of failures, those who give up and go home or move on to another European country. The question was not just an economic one but also a philosophical one: what is a life well ordered and well lived, which produces happiness? If that was the measure, economic migrants from well-educated backgrounds who also bring skills into Scotland clearly experience greater happiness and contentment than asylum seekers and refugees of non-EU background who often lived through terrible experiences. Yet, on the other hand, those who come to Scotland from a lower social rank and working experience in Poland, Lithuania or Slovakia, or elsewhere in East Central Europe, do not necessarily end up unhappier than those from a highly-qualified background who, once migrants, are unable to find an equivalent job and end up in a low-paid factory or service job.

Dr Elwira Grossman, a scholar of Comparative Literature at the University of Glasgow, finally raised a topic that had eluded the discussion so far: the great benefit to Scotland of a large community of bi- or multi-lingual citizens, and the British tendency to neglect foreign languages. She deplored many youngsters’ eagerness to ‘fit in’ by giving up their native language to become English monoglot instead of celebrating their skills and multi-lingualism for the benefit of society as a whole. This raised the issue of education policies and Scotland’s regulating bodies which are slow to recognise foreign qualification and degrees, depriving children of the ability to pass their qualifications in their native language. This is particularly relevant to Polish children, who are served with a dense network of Polish Saturday schools yet are denied the opportunity to pass their Highers in Polish, despite the fact that in the UK as a whole Polish has become the second most commonly spoken language after English. A solution could be the US status of ‘heritage language’ which celebrates someone’s national background as a migrant rather than denigrates linguistic ‘otherness’. It is interesting to note, though, that although Ukrainian is a recognised in the US as a heritage language, Polish or Lithuanian are not.


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This entry was posted on March 9, 2015 by in Academic seminar and tagged , , , , .
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