Keeping migrants separated from society in camps or centers stops them from forming social bonds. Without friends or knowledge of the host language, they have very little chance of fitting in, say researchers in Germany.
For Mahmud* the first few months in Germany were an unhappy time. He had left his family and friends behind in Syria. He only knew one other person – an asylum seeker like him – and he felt disorientated, depressed and lonely.
Luckily, things didn’t stay this way for Mahmud. He started playing sport and got involved in a social club. Within two years his German had improved and he had a job, a girlfriend, and a small but good group of friends.
As a new arrival in Germany, Mahmud – who is in his mid-20s – faced a lot of big challenges: making new friends was just one of those challenges, but a very significant one.
Ethnic subculture a myth
According to social scientists at the German Institute for Employment Research (IAB), all of the 42 migrants interviewed for a study called Networks for Integration, including Mahmud, had a strong desire to make friends in Germany. But nearly all of them also said it was extremely difficult.
This shows that newly-arrived migrants don’t choose to stay within their own groups but, given the chance, would like to reach out to the mainstream society, said Stefan Bernhard, who is leading the study.
“It goes against the idea that we have an ethnic subculture developing, with people not wanting to establish connections,” he added.
The main reason that it is hard for asylum seekers like Mahmud to make friends is their lack of German language, said Bernhard.
Older migrants and those who are excluded because they are prevented from studying or getting a job find it much harder to learn the language, significantly increasing their risk of becoming marginalized, he added.
Many of those whose asylum claims are successful do not learn German to the standard required for vocational education or university, Bernhard explained.
“They are in danger of being trapped in a low-qualification, low-income sector of the labor market.”
The practice of housing asylum seekers in isolated centers is also part of the reason that it is so difficult for migrants to bridge the gulf to mainstream society, according to Bernhard.
“Most (asylum seekers) live in segregated housing with other refugees, so it’s very hard to just see or meet local people and to get to know them in a normal friendship process where they would start out as acquaintances.”
“It’s pretty clear that the bigger the refugee camp and the further outside cities and towns, the more difficult it is to meet people from the local community,” he said.
“Segregated housing is something that is felt by refugees. They realize that they are being excluded from society, and it’s not helpful. It certainly doesn’t help them to learn the language.”
Few casual encounters
In 2015 there was broad public and government backing for community-based projects aimed at helping asylum seekers to gain access to support networks and to make friends with locals in Germany.
Ayham, Lene and Monther got to know each other last year through "Start with a Friend", a project connecting local people with newcomers in Germany and Vienna. Ayham, who lives in Dresden, says friendship is the most important thing in his life: “I can’t live without the two of them anymore, they are my second family. To be honest these two have brightened my life."
Support should continue for programs that connect asylum seekers with the host communities, like Start with a Friend, the Networks for Integration study recommends.
But even with more backing for these programs, many asylum seekers will continue to miss out on day-to-day casual encounters with locals, said Bernhard.
“Normally we make friends at school or university or in workplaces where we meet people 'by accident', and that’s what refugees rarely have.”
Existing and coexisting
Some asylum seekers form strong bonds with people within their own language community in the host country. However, this in itself does not stop them from connecting with locals and integrating into the mainstream culture.
“What we found is that you can have both,” said Bernhard. “That fact that you have a lot of contact to other Arabic-speaking people in itself doesn’t hinder you from getting to know people from the local community in Germany.”
*Mahmud (not his real name) was interviewed for the study ‘Networks for Integration’, which is currently in phase 2. The Institute for Employment Research investigates processes of labor market and social integration of refugees in Germany.