Skip to Content

Transforming Divided Societies into Welcoming Communities


Migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers (newcomers) are becoming a more prominent social presence in NI, making up 4.52 percent of the population. NI has reached net inward migration since the end of The Troubles, signalling the potential for a society to become open to new communities in the post-conflict space. The experience of newcomer integration has shown something else entirely, along with the added challenges faced in other parts of the United Kingdom (UK) from accessing services and gaining integration, newcomers must also navigate the still divided majority communities of Unionists and Nationalists.

The post-COVID setting makes our project particularly relevant: A number of challenges can be expected depending on the positionality of the newcomer, in addition to the general challenges to economic participation that are particularly acute for those whose asylum processes is not yet complete. For females, the increase of expected home office working, distance learning for children, and other care needs (e.g. for elderly family members) will place gender expectations of domestic/waged labour divisions at home, and threaten to reverse the progress toward gender equality. For newcomers in general, access to labour market starts via personal contact networks in private sector employment. These have been particularly hard hit as a result of the COVID related lockdown, causing considerable shortfall in income levels across newcomer communities with potential to considerably hamper preference for education and intercommunity interactions, increasing the long-term economic marginalisation.

Project Design

The Inclusion of newcomers in non-deeply divided societies in ‘normal times’ is challenging. However, the economic challenges that are expected to follow the COVID crisis is likely to worsen exclusion in the short term, inhibiting the ability to participate in NI society and worsening relations between newcomers and the established communities. Previous research, particular the QUB based ESRC funded project Exclusion Amid Inclusion (EAI) has identified areas of marginalisation that we now seek to address. In “Welcoming Communities” project we seek to assess whether this equality can be achieved through enhancement of participation of newcomers in the economy, in society and political arena. This will in turn address the lost opportunity for NI, as newcomer participation will help create a more plural society by acting as a potential bridge between the divided ethnic groups promoting non-sectarian political interactions.

Our past research identified that state subsidies/grants/vouchers help amortise the lack of economic participation of newcomers in the short and medium term, but they do not help newcomers identify sustainable pathways to integration. Furthermore, the lack of effective longer-term inclusion ensures that opportunities for societal participation are limited, which particularly impacts more vulnerable newcomers, intersecting on ethnic bases:

  • Economic opportunities for asylum seekers are more limited compared to newcomers from the EU.
  • Opportunities for accessing further education are particularly constrained for individuals of migrant background
  • Women are the most severely affected by lack of social mobility and often have pushed into unwaged labour to provide family care/support, home education.

This project employs a Participatory Action Research (PAR) methodology to empower newcomers and not treat them as objects of study. Newcomers will work together with the research team to not only drive the central questions and identify the causes of marginalisation, but also identify the areas where response can be most effective. Armed with this knowledge the QUB team will collaborate with policymakers and grassroots organisations to produce:

  • An actionable policy plan to enhance newcomer participation in social and economic life in the region.
  • Design and implement a series of capacity building trainings with migrants and policymakers that will help address social inequalities for the former and assist in outreach for the latter.

Capacity building training will target females newcomers, who experience particular vulnerability in the COVID circumstances due to the increase of expected home office working, distance learning for children, and other care needs (e.g. for elderly family members). These circumstances threaten to reverse the progress toward gender equality as women are expected to fulfil the majority of these duties.

Planned Impact

For newcomers in general, access to labour market starts via personal contact networks in private sector employment is limited and in a divided society even more so. This project seeks to empower newcomers and grassroots organisations to develop strategies to navigate these problems and ways pathways to communication with policymakers on the  issues faced by newcomers. The research component will work with a cross-section of newcomers to draw an accurate picture of the barriers to  socio-economic participation. This cross-section takes into account race, gender, skills, literacy and language differences that may create disparities in participation of newcomers in life in NI. We will map the differences based on different positionalities, ultimately allowing for a clear view of the problems facing newcomers in NI.

At the following stage the project works in collaboration with grassroots organisations that help newcomers to develop a workshop tool so they can prioritise work on key areas of marginalisation. This tool will identify what issues can be solved within the capacity of the newcomer community and which issues require further interventions (either in terms of capacity, funding or policymaker engagement). The goal of this collaboration is to create an operational group of participants as co-owners of this project, developing tools and running them in the communities affected.

Research into vulnerable communities should not be extractive and does not lead to further marginalisation of newcomers at a minimum, but it should also lead to developing something valuable that will service newcomers and organisations now and in future.  We will bring NI-based partner NGOs and our international contacts from academic and NGO community with significant experience of female migrant integration in Bavaria, South Tyrol, Kosovo, North Macedonia together to develop workshops that will seek to address newcomer women’s marginalisation and offset the social and economic pressures that they face. By making use of the data collected in the research phase the workshops will be sensitive, appropriate culturally and linguistically, in line with group perceptions and will have them actively addressing their own issues. Our activities will foster empowerment, encourage more participation, and promote strong female role models also for the next generation of newcomer women in NI.

Additionally a series of  consultative engagements to translate those findings into actionable policy to address participation through a collaborative policy-practice outreach group that that will be housed at QUB and made up of human rights and political experts and key representatives of the partner NGOs. This group will create a strategy for engaging local influential policymakers and carry out expert lectures to local ministers, political parties, civil servants at different levels of governance. QUB will host a series of workshops with newcomers direct input to draw a full policy proposal as well as a policy engagement approach for political parties in NI.

In the spring 2021, jointly with Studyseed we are also offering as part of our pilot project to help education attainment of Female Newcomer Students

Call for Projects: Creating Welcoming Communities

This is a pilot Participatory Action Research (PAR) project supported by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust (JRTC) and draws upon findings from the ESRC funded project Exclusion Amid Inclusion. This project is aware that migrants, asylum seekers and refugees who come to Northern Ireland have arrived into a divided society that impacts their ability fully engage socially and politically. Organisations that have been established to represent the interests of these communities have run into difficulties in establishing funding streams and creating cooperative relationships that are equitable and empowering due in part to social and political conditions unique to Northern Ireland. 

This initiative will seek to work with 6-8 representatives from different community based organisations (CBOs) in Northern Ireland that provide services to migrants, asylum seekers and refugees communities.  The initiative is to deliver bespoke workshops to communicate key organisational skills that are key to the successful obtaining and implementation of funding projects. Over a 12 week period we will provide training support and encouragement to these organisations that will seek to address their identified needs, providing training in identified areas that will help their organisation grow.

This will occur over a 12 week period, through attending one bi-weekly session for key members of the organisation to work collaboratively with QUB staff and members of different organisations.

The project employs a PAR approach, which means that those selected for the project will contribute to building evidence of the lives of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees in communities across Northern Ireland through a collaborative research approach. This means the training sessions  will be created on the needs of the organisations and may include (but not limited to facilitated sessions addressing advocacy, programme evaluation, research skills and policy engagement.

The training will include participatory research training and mentorship for the organisations so that they can apply to support their own work. The research component will involve practicing data collection among their communities as practice and as means of delivering  the most authentic representation of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees life in Northern Ireland that will contribute to the creation of a policy recommendations and event to advocate on behalf of the community.

We have been supported in the development of this programme by a number of organisations:

  • Belfast Islamic Centre
  • Migrant and Minority Ethnic Council

Read more on the Call for Projects here