Assimilation Challenges for Refugees

Editor’s Note: The following article is published as a background guide to GPI’s 2023 Think-a-Thon. To learn and register, we invite you to click here.

Linguistic and Cultural Barriers

For many refugees arriving in host countries, one of the most immediately apparent and significant barriers is language. Depending on the refugee’s country of origin, it is often the case that even the volunteers, local authorities, and humanitarian aid workers assigned to work with them do not speak their language–which can create significant difficulty in accessing vital information that enables the refugee to make informed decisions. Government institutions frequently do not provide adequate access to language education for incoming refugees, forcing them to rely on information and advice gleaned from fellow refugees or friends. The gap not only causes significant trouble with day-to-day interactions that are essential to proper integration, but can also impact a refugee’s ability to access essential services. Regardless of the skill level or experience incoming refugees may have, the language barrier often bars access to the job market and their ability to achieve social and financial stability. While refugee children are typically able to pick up the new language more quickly than their parents and act as translators, their spotty and informal knowledge prevents them from being able to obtain an education, further hindering the integration process. Combined with time spent hopping between countries or in refugee camps, the educational path of refugee children is difficult to navigate and frequently becomes yet another hurdle for them to overcome.

In addition to the linguistic barrier many refugees face, cultural barriers often serve to further hinder assimilation into the host country. Depending on how far a refugee has traveled from home, they may find themselves experiencing extreme “culture shock” upon their arrival: everything and everyone around them functions completely differently than they are used to, which can be both extremely confusing and frightening. For many, the question becomes how to honor and maintain their own culture while absorbing enough of the new one they find themselves in in order to properly integrate. If a refugee spends too much time in the safety of their own community and does not involve themselves with the local one, assimilation into their new home can begin to appear impossible; however, too much involvement can lead to the feeling of a loss of identity and declining mental health or being labeled as a “traitor” by one’s family. Young refugees also often face bullying over their cultural differences, leading to an increased pressure to “choose” one culture over the other. 

Economic Challenges

Many refugees arrive in their host country with few resources and struggle to find employment or access education and training opportunities. Even for those that are highly skilled, securing a job worthy of their qualifications can prove an impossible task. They may arrive without proper documentation or work references to enter the host labor market, or be forced to undergo long and often expensive bureaucratic procedures to obtain official recognition of the professional documentation they already possess. A refugee’s chances of becoming successfully employed diminish significantly the longer they remain unemployed, as prolonged unemployment often causes them to become deskilled. Due to these barriers, many refugees are funneled into low-skilled, low-paying, or temporary jobs. This can make it difficult for them to meet their own basic needs and lead to an increased dependency on their host community, resulting in turn in resentment from that same host community and an increased difficulty in integration. 

Trauma and Psychological Distress

Refugees, especially those who fled from war zones, are typically at an increased risk of developing PTSD or other trauma-related disorders. Whether due to cultural differences, financial troubles, or lack of access to information/resources, the mental health struggles faced by many refugees tend to go untreated, leading to further struggles in integration into their new host community. Trauma responses experienced by refugees can also be further exacerbated by the aforementioned challenges of language barriers, cultural differences, and economic hardship and lead to developmental difficulties for refugee children.

Racism and Xenophobia

Refugees are often inaccurately and negatively portrayed by the media, which, combined with publicly expressed xenophobic and inflammatory sentiments by many Western politicians and public officials, frequently leads to heightened hostility towards refugees within host communities. Even the most generous host countries are becoming increasingly opposed to taking in refugees as they find themselves dealing with their own pressing economic and social issues. In extreme cases, xenophobic comments made by public figures can stoke the flame of an already anti-refugee public sentiment and lead to outward violent attacks and arrests of refugee populations. Refugees experiencing such discrimination may feel excluded from their community and have difficulty finding employment or accessing social services. In turn, the often already poor mental health state of refugees can worsen, leading to further difficulty with relationship building and integration. 


Assimilation and integration are some of the most vital aspects of refugee resettlement, but they can also be incredibly complex and challenging processes. Refugees face numerous difficulties in adapting to their new environment, including linguistic and cultural barriers, economic challenges, trauma and psychological distress, and racism and xenophobia. It is of the utmost importance for host communities to take greater care in recognizing these challenges and providing adequate support to refugees to help them overcome them. In doing so, host communities can help refugees to more successfully assimilate and integrate into their new home.

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