Holly Porteous, SSAMIS Project, Swansea University/University of Glasgow


In 2015, the joint Scottish Government, COSLA and Scottish Refugee Council scheme ‘New Scots: Integrating Refugees in Scotland’s Communities’ widened its scope in response to the Scottish Government’s commitment to resettling a further 20,000 refugees by 2020. Since 2015, this has entailed the expansion of settlement programs from Glasgow to other cities and rural regions of Scotland.[1]

Drawing on research into Central and Eastern European (CEE) migrants in rural Scotland, this blog post discusses how – despite generally having very different backgrounds to migrants[2]  from Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and other CEE countries – Syrian New Scots refugees face some similar challenges to migrants in their experiences of building a new life in rural towns and villages. I highlight how sharing research findings, best practice, and migrant/refugee experiences related to processes of rural settlement offers the potential to improve policy outcomes and thus the experiences of migrants and of future New Scots refugees.

Since 2014, the University of Glasgow and Swansea University joint project ‘Social Support and Migration in Scotland’ (SSAMIS) has carried out ethnographic research and community-based participatory action research in several locations across Scotland, including in Aberdeenshire, which is taking part in the ongoing settlement of 50 Syrian New Scots families. Our research has highlighted specific challenges faced by CEE migrants who settle in the countryside.[3] Attending a recent event in Inverurie,[4] which encouraged reflection and discussion of the New Scots scheme, prompted me to draw some comparisons and parallels between migrants and refugees who have settled in rural Aberdeenshire in recent years.

At the event, I found myself on a table of mainly Syrian New Scots, all of whom had arrived in rural areas in the previous three to eighteen months. Discussing the questions we had been given to work on with the help of an interpreter, the stories the men told about living in rural areas chimed with those the SSAMIS project had heard from CEE migrants in three main ways. Firstly, through their experiences as non-native English speakers; secondly, via their vulnerability to social isolation; and finally, through their need for a greater understanding of cultural and legal issues affecting day-to-day life in a new context. These commonalities highlight the potential for future rural integration policy to target key issues affecting those who have moved to Scotland from other parts of the world.

Undoubtedly, the primary issue affecting both groups was English language, which has the propensity to affect almost all areas of life during settlement[5] – from social life (as I will discuss below), to employment, healthcare[6] and family life. New Scots arrive in the country with a considerably different legal status from the EEA migrants who made up the majority of SSAMIS participants and who are part of a structured program to settle and integrate them into rural Scottish communities – including tailored ESOL classes. Nevertheless, addressing their diverse needs was not always straightforward: several of the men at my table spoke about their need for longer and more frequent English classes, which would enable them to move on quickly in English, communicate with local people, and find work in the future.

In the majority of cases, CEE migrants had little help with settling in rural areas, and – although some ESOL support and tuition was available from various service providers, from churches to local authorities – they tended to rely more on their own resources in the short-term. Like New Scots, they also faced challenges in learning English and accessing appropriate classes. Varying working patterns or tiredness after long, physically intensive shifts often made it difficult to attend classes regularly; it was sometimes hard to find appropriate level tuition; and working in lower-skilled jobs, generally with other migrants who spoke Russian or Polish at work, made it difficult to learn English there.

Despite these diverse experiences, the importance of language in the settlement experiences of both groups cannot be underestimated. The success of SSAMIS-led local, informal language cafés[7] has shown that ESOL provision which includes embedded support for building social relationships, learning about the local area, and sharing customs and practices can be particularly helpful for those settling in rural areas. From a policy perspective, providing suitable and flexible local ESOL provision for newly arrived migrants and refugees is perhaps the most important way to address the needs of both groups.

The second point of commonality which emerged when discussing rural settlement experiences with New Scots was a vulnerability to loneliness and social isolation. This was an issue in both the short- and long-term, and could have important implications for mental and emotional wellbeing. It was also a significant finding of SSAMIS research into CEE migration to rural Scotland.[8] Although New Scots received help from various service providers, as well as regular, organised social events during processes of settlement, the men at my table still spoke about the loneliness and social isolation they experienced on a day-to-day basis due to a lack of existing networks in rural areas. As highlighted in SSAMIS research, not only do such areas have fewer community spaces and opportunities to socialise, but a low income could limit individuals’ ability to travel to cities where some had contacts from their country of origin. Access to such contacts was mentioned by the refugees as an important means of building initial communities whilst they were still working on acquiring a greater level of English language.

The third area of shared experiences were day-to-day, practical issues faced as part and parcel of experiencing life in rural Scotland for the first time. To take one prominent example, access to transport was something which affected both CEE migrants and refugees (as well as being an issue for the local population). Those unable to drive or afford their own transport were sometimes limited by a lack of mobility, which compounded the issues around ESOL and social isolation discussed above. In the short-term, CEE migrants were more able to deal with this due to the transferability of their EU driving licences, and the ability to earn money and buy a car locally.

However, for the New Scots I spoke to, procuring a driving license was one of the most commonly raised issue where they would have liked more help. Not only were they unable to take the theory test in Arabic, but having enough money to buy a car was more difficult in the short-term. As one example of how this impacts daily living, one Syrian man spoke about having to walk an hour to pick his daughter up from school. In terms of SSAMIS research, some younger CEE migrants we interviewed spoke about the difficulty of accessing social activities locally. Similarly, in some (though not all)[9] more isolated areas, the costs and a lack of regular public transport relative to urban areas made it difficult for many migrants from our research to meet friends in other areas or see more of Scotland. Thus, this aspect of rural life could compound issues of social isolation for both groups. In terms of policy, raising awareness of practical, cultural-legal processes in Scotland, as well as improving public transport links in more rural areas, would be useful for both groups (as well as for the local population). Language cafés, as discussed above, also help to tackle social isolation, as well as improving individuals’ practical knowledge about and understanding of their new locale (e.g. via day trips and walks).

Although CEE migrants and New Scots refugees have very different personal histories, reasons for settling, and levels of help immediately available to them, clearly there are some broader issues the two groups have in common as they build new lives outside of Scotland’s urban centres. As the rural population grows and diversifies through both structured settlement programs such as ‘New Scots’ and organic waves of migration, the Scottish economy is facing specific challenges around rural depopulation and a need for ongoing low-skilled, seasonal and flexible labour.[10] Recognising the specific challenges of rural settlement is therefore one that should attract ongoing attention from policymakers and service providers.

[1] http://www.gov.scot/Publications/2017/03/5825/2

[2] http://www.unhcr.org/uk/news/latest/2016/7/55df0e556/unhcr-viewpoint-refugee-migrant-right.html

[3] See Flynn & Kay (2017), Migrants’ Experiences of Material and Emotional Security in Rural Scotland: Implications for Longer-Term Settlement. Journal of Rural Studies, Vol. 52, pp56–65.

[4] New Scots, New Plan: Building the Future Together was held on 6th September 2017 at Inverurie Town Hall.

[5] See SSAMIS Second Interim Report (November 2016). http://www.gla.ac.uk/media/media_500297_en.pdf

[6] See SSAMIS Draft Report: Healthcare and migrant experiences (January 2017).   http://www.gla.ac.uk/media/media_512913_en.pdf

[7] See C. Needler (2017), Language Cafes as a site of Wider Cultural Integration. Europe Now, 01/02/2017. http://www.europenowjournal.org/2017/01/31/language-cafes-as-a-site-of-wider-cultural-integration/

[8] See SSAMIS Second Interim Report (November 2016). http://www.gla.ac.uk/media/media_500297_en.pdf

[9] Flynn & Kay (2017): 64

[10] See Royal Society of Edinburgh response to the Scottish Parliament’s Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Relations Committee in their inquiry on Immigration: Demographics and Skills. September 2017. Available at https://www.rse.org.uk/advice-papers/scottish-parliament-inquiry-into-immigration-demographic-and-skills/