Refugees arrive to intense cultural debate

Symbolic: The attacks have prompted discussion on integration within European societies. © PA

Around 100 Syrian refugees have arrived in Scotland days after the Paris attacks. As they begin building new lives, should they become more British or retain their cultural identity?

Cold, dark Scotland may not seem the most welcoming place in November. But for about 100 men, women and children, Glasgow airport must have seemed a great deal warmer than their previous residence. As they stepped off their plane the refugees, who had arrived from camps in countries including Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, were starting new lives.

They have fled a civil war in Syria which, estimates suggest, has killed over 320,000 people. In the camps many of them endured temporary rooms, crowded tents or makeshift shelters, shortages of clean water and the spread of diseases such as cholera.

But the timing of their arrival was very sensitive. The Islamist attacks in Paris just four days earlier were planned in Syria, and there has since been speculation that one attacker may have migrated from Syria, through Greece, disguised as a refugee. The refugees have arrived to heated debate across Europe over immigration and the impact of social policies towards different communities, particularly its Muslims.

France is fiercely secular: the legacy of the 1789 revolution, when the clergy’s power was vastly curtailed, looms over its history and constitution. Under an approach known as laïcité, the state does not fund organisations with ties to religious bodies or collect census data about its citizens’ faith. Its social policies also encourage assimilation, including a ban on ‘ostentatious’ displays of religion and discouragement of teaching second languages.

British policy is multicultural: minority groups are allowed to maintain key aspects of their identity. In 1966, Home Secretary Roy Jenkins said the UK would promote ‘cultural diversity and mutual tolerance’; this means for example that the government funds religious schools and some faith groups. But the policy has caused controversy; some campaigners want a ban on halal and kosher meat, while Nigel Farage, UKIP’s leader, said on Monday that multiculturalism ‘has been a dramatic failure’.

Fitting in

Multiculturalism’s supporters say it is tolerant and peaceful. It is mutually beneficial, allowing everyone to keep their identity while also learning from each other, and prevents the marginalisation of groups deemed to be different by a host which has no right to judge. We all benefit from showing some understanding.

Assimilationists insist shared values bring societies together. Cultural relativism — the incorrect belief that all cultures are equally valid — leads to accepting oppressive and intolerant practices, as people are treated as members of groups rather than as individuals; it divides communities from each other, fuelling conspiracy theory and hatred. Newcomers, they say, must be prepared to fit in.

You Decide

  1. If you emigrated to another country, would you want to assimilate into the local culture or maintain your own?
  2. Should Britain change its multicultural policies?


  1. Write down five questions which you think a newly-arrived Syrian refugee might have, and your answers to them.
  2. Write to the Home Secretary, Theresa May, explaining why you think Britain’s multicultural policies are right or wrong.

Some People Say...

“A host must help their visitors fit in.”

What do you think?

Q & A

How does this affect me?
Migration has taken place since early humans first left Africa 2m years ago. Immigration affects everyone’s lives, changing the food we eat and the music we listen to. Its supporters say migrants contribute economically, though its detractors say it places strain on resources. There’s also a good chance someone in your class is a refugee or descended from refugees: over the years Britain has taken thousands of people fleeing persecution or war abroad.
How many Syrian refugees is Britain taking?
Those arriving in Glasgow today are some of the 20,000 to be accepted in the UK in the next five years. 1,000 of them will have arrived by Christmas. David Cameron has come under pressure to accept more: Germany, by contrast, expects to take 800,000 people per year.

Word Watch

This estimate is from the human rights group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Some reports also suggested a passport found on one of the attackers showed that he was a refugee. The passport now appears to be fake, but a Greek border guard reportedly said he had seen the attacker. The head of the Metropolitan Police said yesterday that ‘none of us have yet seen clear evidence’ that Islamic State fighters are entering Europe disguised as refugees.
This policy sees France often going beyond secularism (which separates religion from the state) to enforce its opposition to religion.
In 2004, the French government banned headscarves, the Jewish kippa and large Christian crosses in educational establishments. Since 2011, the niqab has been banned in public — a decision upheld by the European Court of Human Rights last year.
In the 1980s, for example, the city council in Bradford stated that every section of the ‘multicultural, multiracial city’ had ‘an equal right to maintain its own identity, culture, language, religion and customs’.

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