Understanding Refugee Worries in the Integration Process

 

By Cüneyt Gürer and Mehmet A. Sözer

 

This article presents policy related results of a data analysis conducted to understand the nature of refugee worries (concerns) during the integration process in Germany. Data comes from the German Socio-Economic Panel study (SOEP), which has a specific data subset collected from refugee population living in Germany. “Uncertainty” is the key concept that explains worry structure of refugees, indicating that most of the worries are related to uncertain conditions of refugee experiences. Our statistical analysis of the SOEP Refugee data shows that worries are not directly related to individual level, long-term personality characteristics, but mostly related to short-term, psychological impact of refugee experiences. Therefore, better policies reducing uncertainties and negative impact of displacement experiences will also reduce refugee worries in the integration process.

 

Understanding refugee worries is key in making sense of the integration process and enable successful adaptation of refugees to host communities. Focusing more on worries of refugees in the host country setting will allow both scholars and policy makers to develop comprehensive insights of the background mechanisms of the individual-level adaptation process. In this blog post article, we present preliminary findings of our analysis of the German Socio-Economic Panel Study data (SOEP Refugee Data) to show how refugee worries change over the years and how they are correlated with issues such as individual-level characteristics, attitudes, and feelings. The concept of “worry” has both a negative and a positive interpretation in the psychology literature. The negative interpretation connects worry to mental health conditions of individuals, whereas the positive aspect of worry provides an opportunity for policy makers to work on the issues that create refugee worries. The positive interpretation of worry highlights its potential for individuals controlling their environment which, in turn, might have a positive impact on the integration of refugees to host communities. To enable the positive aspect of the worry as a signal for structural shortcomings in the integration process, it is necessary to examine it, understand its background and its connection with uncertainties in refugee experiences.

 

The concept of uncertainty and its relation to worry structures

Research conducted on uncertainty, its connection with worry and specifically focusing the causes and the nature of worry is mostly applied to the non-refugee context. In psychological research, uncertainty is connected to objective external factors, whereas the notion of worries captures the subjective, psychological response. In other words, uncertainty is mostly external and the worry structure is internal.  Uncertainty is an important predictor of worry. Previous research on worry found that it is a direct outcome of “intolerance of uncertainty”, and uncertainty creates future-oriented worries. Chronic worry is also considered as the central characteristic of the generalized anxiety disorder, a mental health condition affecting daily functioning of individuals.

This blog post argues that uncertainties that refugees face during their displacement and in their integration, create worries affecting the quality of integration practices and outcomes. Studying the nature and alteration of refugee worries over time allows for exploring associated factors that are relevant in producing adjusted policies in the integration process.

Uncertainty is one of the most important challenges for refugees during their displacement process. Starting from the moment of leaving their country of origin, during their efforts to pass the borders, trying to find places for a short-term stay, reaching the country of destination and subsequent phases of integration – all these steps include many uncertainties. Research indicates that flight from conflict mostly involves short-term uncertainties, but experiences of becoming a refugee involve long-term uncertainties. Uncertainties during the asylum process have been associated with mental health conditions of the refugee population and psychological wellbeing of refugees that is closely connected to the adaptation and integration to their host country. Therefore, addressing both short term and long term uncertainties is critical for successful integration of refugees to host communities.

According to an earlier study, cross cultural adaptation has two main domains: psychological (emotional/affective) and sociocultural (behavioral). Psychological adjustment is related to having less stressful environment and having strong individual level coping mechanisms. Sociocultural adaptation is explained with social skills and cultural understanding of the host country. In this framework, successful integration requires coordination of psychological and sociocultural domains. Our analysis indicates reducing uncertainties in understanding sociocultural environment decreases the emotional responses to integration process and increase individual coping mechanisms against possible challenges. Therefore, to increase the successful cultural adaptation, reducing uncertainties is critical and requires clear messages about host society expectations towards refugees.

Uncertainties at the policy level reduce the likelihood of adaptation of refugees to host communities, which is related to procedures, practices of the government institutions. A lack of understanding the processes clearly reduces refugees’ participation in the process by developing individual strategies and hinders their potential to increase individual performance of adaptation. Just like a clear understanding of social expectations, clarity of official policy expectations will reduce uncertainty, and will allow individuals to take initiative for their successful integration.

 

Using refugee worries creatively for positive integration outcomes

Even though worry is connected to previous experiences, it is also associated with future expectations and future-oriented thinking. Previous research indicates that expectations of future outcomes are critical determinants of present behavior. The future-oriented thoughts on specific topics and stress under extraordinary life changes can have an impact on goal orientations, both to avoid negative outcomes and to achieve positive goals.

On the one hand, worry is a cognitive avoidance of perceived dangers and has three major functions: alarm, prompt, and preparation. The alarm function delivers information about the threat to awareness; the prompt function increases the threat-related memory to the consciousness. Finally, the preparation function allows an individual to anticipate negative future scenarios. On the other hand, people use similar psychological mechanisms when they want to achieve their desired goal or avoid an undesired future. More specifically, internal mechanisms of worry, goal achievement, and avoiding an undesired future might have similar patterns. Research indicates that worry is not only about negative thinking or experiences of the individual that are projected on the future but at the same human worries play an important role in reducing the negative consequences of a stressful event. Worry can help individuals to increase control of their current state to find solutions; worry, therefore, can also play an important role in controlling the current setting and taking action reducing the negative event. If managed effectively, current worries can play an important role to increase the involvement of individuals in the process of reducing the source of these worries and become an active part in finding solutions. In other words, instead of leaving people with their already existing and emerging worries alone, with additional policy interventions, worried individuals can use the positive side of the worry and be more productive to reach their goals. This does not mean worry should be encouraged but already existing worries should be addressed for positive outcomes. Such policy interventions will eventually reduce worries by working on the sources and taking individual level actions rather than constantly waiting for an external tailor-made solution to problems. One example of such policy interventions addressing worries is related to support of professional development of refugees by addressing questions regarding the job market in the host country and available resources to re-construct their professional life.

Against this background, we argue that worries of refugees related to their future can create negative results in achieving goals and hinder taking necessary steps to reach an individual goal in the integration process. However, although worry can potentially cause mental health problems of individuals in the integration process, if understood properly, worry can also make a positive contribution to the integration process. In order to use worry for positive outcomes in the integration process, the preparation function of worry in the refugee context should be examined and studied more extensively. Policy makers should also focus on understanding the nature and the mechanisms of already existing worries of refugees at different stages of displacement.

 

Data Analyses and Results

Using SOEP Refugee Data, we conducted statistical analyses to find out about the role of uncertainties producing refugee worries and whether refugee worry is related to personal characteristics or displacement experiences. Our analysis looks at the relationship between variables from four different levels:

  1. Individual level variables measuring feelings, attitudes and personality characteristics of refugees.
  2. Social level variables, i.e. social connections and attachments to society.
  3. State level variables such as involvement in official integration programs.
  4. Transnational level variables, i.e. refugees’ interaction with their country of origin, their attachment to people from their country of origin, and their experiences during the displacement process in transit countries.

 

Descriptive Statistics

In order to measure changes of worry over the years, we merged three years of data and followed the same individuals (N=1761) that participated in the survey. Participants are between the ages of 18 and 83, and mean age is 34. Ninety-five percent of the participants are between the ages of 18-54 and almost 60% of the participants are between the ages of 18-34. Male participants (65.1%) are represented more than females (34.9%) in the data set. Most of the people are from Syria (55%), followed by people from Afghanistan (12%), Iraq (12%) and Eritrea (8%).

 

Analysis of Refugee Worries

SOEP Refugee Data has a set of variables regarding worries of refugees. These include worries about financial situation, worries about health, worries about people’s hostility to foreigners, worries of not being able to stay in Germany, and not being able to return to the country of origin, worries about the result of their asylum application, worries about being forced to return to their country of origin and worries about losing the workplace. Among others, “not being able to stay in Germany” is the issue that respondents worry mostly in all three years. Further analysis shows that worries about not being able to stay in Germany is correlated with their worries about “the results of their asylum application”. In the first year of the survey, this could be understandable assuming that many people did not have the results of their asylum applications during the survey; however, the correlation still exists both in 2017 and 2018 indicating, either that people still did not get their asylum application results, or that there are other variables that explain better this continuous relationship between these two different worry items.

Data shows that more than 90% of the participants received a decision of their asylum application in the second year, and even more in the third year of the survey. Even after receiving a positive outcome of their asylum application, people still have worries about their stay in Germany and initial recognition of a protection status is not a powerful variable to reduce worries about staying in Germany and having long-term plans for the future. Preliminary analysis indicates, even refugees receive resident permits for number of years, their concern not to be able to stay in Germany does not fade away immediately. On the other hand, individual level factors such as “feeling independent from others” and “self-awareness about individual capacities and responsibilities” are negatively correlated to worry about not being able to stay in Germany. This means, when people feel more independent and develop self-awareness of their individual capacities their concern not to be able to stay in Germany drops significantly.

According to further correlation analysis, (which include variables related to feelings and characteristics of individuals), worries about not being able to stay in Germany positively correlate with “feelings of non-belonging”, having “a general habit of worry”, and the perception that “others have influence on their life”. In addition, people who think “life depends on their actions”, and who have a more “positive attitude towards the world” have a negative correlation with the same worry, meaning they are less worried about not being able to stay in Germany. In other words, this worry item is connected to feelings of dependency and as people feel more independent and more in control over their lives, they have fewer concerns about staying in the destination country. Negative feelings such as sadness, weakness, feeling torn between worlds increases the worry of not being able to stay in Germany and people with more positive feelings are less likely to have this worry.

The second most worried issue amongst participants of the survey is the economic concerns of individuals. Over three years covered by the survey, economic concerns are stable and people have a similar amount of concern about their economic future. Another worry that is stable over the years is the worry about health. Since we have the same individuals in our data set for three years, we observe that these individuals did not experience improvements in their health condition. Correlation analysis indicates that worries about health are related to the variables measuring physical pain and psychological weakness. In other words, people who reported physical pains and feel psychological weakness are more likely to have concerns about their health. In addition, feeling isolated and disconnected is also correlated to worries about health.

Our analysis showed that the variable related to worry about hostility to foreigners in Germany is the least worried issue across years, with a slight increase in 2018. This worry item has a positive correlation with “feeling isolated” and “feeling left out” items. This means that when people feel isolated and left out, they are more likely to worry about hostility towards foreigners. The same variable negatively correlates with “feeling welcome today”, that is, people who feel welcomed are less likely to worry about hostility towards foreigners in Germany. At the individual level, people who claim they can deal with stress easily are also less likely to worry about hostility towards foreigners. Feeling welcomed as well as having individual capacities to deal with stress reduces the worry about hostility towards foreigners in Germany.

Worries about not being able to return to the country of origin is the second least worried issue, and over the years, this worry has become less important. People who have connections and family members in their country of origin are more likely to worry about not being able to return to their country. When people develop connections with the host community, or if they live with their family members in the host country, or if they feel welcomed in the host country, they are less worried about their inability to return to their country of origin.

We also ran factor analyses to provide more explanation to the data structure and increase the explanatory power of the data by identifying underlying factors that are otherwise difficult to observe. The purpose of the factor analysis is to reduce the number of variables to observable groups of variables. It can be used for larger data sets to assemble common variables into descriptive categories (factors). Two factors emerged in the data that could help us to understand the variables close to each other in the data set: “Negative Feelings and Worry” and “Isolation and Disconnection”. Negative feelings are related to health and physical concerns and other physiological issues developed by refugees during their process of integration. Disconnection factor includes variables related to the lack of attachment, feeling of being left out and feeling isolated in the host country. Factor analysis results indicate that reducing negative psychological impacts and increasing the level of attachment to the society might reduce overall worries. As this analysis mostly relies on correlation statistics and factor analysis results, future research could look at these two factors and study possible causal relationships among different variables.

 

Conclusions

Examination of refugee worries (concerns) will help us to understand the integration process and individual adaptation mechanisms of refugees to host countries. Studying and addressing the root causes of worries will increase the positive outcomes of integration. The relationship between uncertainty and worry is highly applicable in the refugee context because the process that refugees have been going through involves many uncertainties and worries at different stages, from the time they decide to leave the country of origin until they adapt to the host state.

Individual level characteristics are not strongly connected to various types of worries. In other words, most of the refugee worries are not internal and not directly related to individual characteristics. As an external source, displacement experiences are much more related to refugee worries than their individual characteristics. According to our analyses, current refugee worries are related to external issues and individual characteristics have limited explanatory power to understand sources of refugee worries. This finding provides a window of opportunity for policy makers; if worries were examined closely and their underlying reasons understood, it will help to develop better integration policies by addressing external issues, rather than trying to change individual level characteristics. This finding also suggests that, refugee worries are less related to country of origin level determinants, but more on refugee experiences during displacement and their stay in the host community.

At the individual level, close examination of refugee worries will reduce negative psychological impact of the integration process, because the source of most of the worries are externally located and addressing them will contribute to the psychological wellbeing of refugees. In addition, when refugees develop more positive attitudes about the overall integration process, they are more likely to participate actively in the process, and will take greater initiative to be part of the host communities. Therefore, policy makers should focus on inclusion measures and support programs that will reduce uncertainties in the process and will eventually give individuals feelings of strength to achieve their goals. That will also help refugees to be independent individuals having the ability to take their own decisions.

 

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the George C. Marshall Center, the government of the United States of America or the Federal Republic of Germany.

 

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