show menu

Promoting integration through social connections

Last updated:

The focus of this section is on ways in which resettlement countries can provide assistance and support to refugees to enhance social connections in the receiving community. Refugees will need to navigate various practical tasks in an unfamiliar environment, often with limited fluency in the language of the receiving community. Providing early social support can help reduce anxiety and assist resettled refugees to gain a sense of control and independence. Early positive relationships in the receiving community have other benefits, such as restoring a refugee’s sense of belonging. This type of support can be facilitated by integration caseworkers, youth workers, volunteers (i.e., buddies, mentors). Whenever possible or relevant, resettled refugees should be placed close to family members. The support provided by family is a vital resource in the integration process.

Supportive relationships with members of established refugee and diaspora communities can also help resettled refugees to build their connections with the receiving community. Through these connections they can access other important integration resources such as employment, volunteering opportunities and a wider social network, as well as opportunities to participate in wider community activities.

Social connections between resettled refugees and members of diaspora communities are particularly important in this regard. Supporting refugees to reconnect with the cultural and religious institutions that are familiar to them can assist them in maintaining their cultural integrity while building a new identity in the receiving community. At the same time, it should be kept in mind that some refugees might not seek contact with the refugee community of the same origin due to personal circumstances and reasons for flight from their country of origin.

When establishing a new programme, think about:
  • establishing processes and services to address the different needs of resettled refugees during the integration process.
  • establishing placement policies to enhance social inclusion.
  • identifying opportunities for resettled refugees to participate in local cultural, community and recreational events.
  • incorporating information about family reunion provisions and settlement support programmes in orientation information provided to resettled refugees.
  • support for the development of volunteer programs in the community.
  • professional development and support for integration caseworkers and volunteers, including language training for interpretation.
  • building the capacity of integration-related services that support resettled refugees.
  • building and supporting the capacity of refugee-led and community-based organisations.
  • determining the feasibility of establishing a community sponsorship programme to engage individuals, local communities and organisations in the reception and integration process along with appropriate training, support and monitoring for sponsors.
Factors affecting access to social support available to refugees

The benefits of social support are well established. Studies in a number of countries indicate that individuals with supportive relationships in their family and community have better physical and mental health than those with limited or lesser quality support. Social connection is especially important for resettled refugees with psychosocial needs and for those facing particular integration challenges, such as women at risk, older refugees and refugee children and young people. As indicated in the section on planning programmes many resettled refugees will have experienced disruption to supportive relationships and to connections with their communities in the course of their flight and experiences in the country of asylum.

Most resettlement countries have arrangements in place to ensure that resettled refugees:

  • have access to basic integration resources and systems.
  • have access to some form of specialized social support and assistance to build supportive relationships and connections in the receiving community.

Personal contact between resettled refugees and members of the wider community, meanwhile, helps to foster mutual understanding and empathy and to promote greater community understanding of and support for refugee resettlement and diversity more generally.

Resettled refugees who have been adequately supported in their integration process will have a greater sense of motivation to become part of their new communities. They will also contribute their skills and attributes if they feel they are part of the community.

A number of factors may influence the support available to resettled refugees, including:

  • their fluency in the language of the receiving community.
  • their psychosocial needs. For example, uneasiness or anxiety may prevent refugees from accessing formal social support service as well as developing supportive relationships with people in the wider community.
  • their health condition. For example, complex medical needs can mean a family has added barriers in accessing support available;
  • their age, gender, and diversity.
  • their family composition. For example, loss or separation from family members can result in unaccustomed social roles such as a refugee becoming a head of household or being without extended family support.
  • whether they have family members in the receiving community or established links with support networks.
  • background context. For example, resettled refugees from rural communities may require more intensive support to deal with the process of integration, particularly if settling in highly urbanised communities.
  • the extent to which support services, in particular those that serve refugees, are developed. 
  • the existence of established refugee and/or diaspora communities and their capacity to provide support.
  • the broader social climate – in particular, the extent to which newcomers are welcomed; the level of understanding of the refugee experience; and the extent of support for refugee resettlement.
Planning issues to consider
A person greeting a child

The long-term objective of integration programs is to ensure that resettled refugees have access to the same level and quality of services as nationals, and that refugees come to feel part of their new community. However, refugees may have particular and intensive support needs in the immediate post-arrival stage, which are unlikely to be met by existing services available to nationals. For this reason, a number of countries have established specialised services to assist new arrivals with long term integration support, see for example section on integration casework management section.

In some countries the primary responsibility for integration and social support lies with the government. Social support is an area where it is important to engage other partners, among them non-governmental agencies (NGOs), grassroots initiatives, refugee-led organizations and volunteers from receiving communities. They tend to be locally based, have a wider support network and a detailed knowledge of local resources and systems.

Mainstreaming of integration services

Some countries integrate the services they provide to refugees in the services they provide to nationals. This can be an effective way to quickly immerse refugees in their new communities. Mainstreaming offers refugees and nationals equal treatment and opportunities, while targeting and addressing specific needs that refugees may have. Having reviewed the range of services they provide, countries often decide to add specialised programmes to support integration because it can address gaps in refugee-specific support and expertise. Specialised services are normally tailored to meet the needs of specific refugee populations and, within them, the specific needs of individual refugees. Mainstreamed services must also evolve, of course, to reflect the changing profile of a population.

Effective Inclusion of Refugees Toolkit 

This toolkit, developed by UNHCR and the Migration Policy Group,  provides participatory approaches for practitioners at the local level. The toolkit builds on the practical experiences of municipal authorities and local actors in translating national policies into solutions such as appropriate housing, access to documentation and social and economic inclusion. These solutions work best when refugees are fully included in their design and development. Refugees bring a wealth of skills, and experience and a willingness to contribute to their new communities. We know that refugee participation in decision-making helps to build confidence in exercising basic rights and fostering a sense of belonging and trust in host communities. Participatory approaches lead to smarter policies and more impactful programmes. Yet managing the effective participation of diverse constituencies can be challenging, especially when meeting refugees' needs in project design. This tool is designed to help local authorities do exactly that.

Initiatives to build social support

Volunteer programmes

kids wall climbing

Volunteers are well placed to offer personalised, flexible and informal support and can serve as mentors for resettled refugees. In most countries, volunteers fulfil supplementary rather than core integration functions. Involving volunteers in delivering services to refugees adds value to the service, creates a broader social network and fosters positive interactions between resettled refugees and the wider community. For example, social and leisure activities, support with language and befriending schemes. The assistance they give refugees who have specific needs, for example older refugees or one-parent households, can be especially valuable.



Video - Buddying

Rossana Leal and her family fled Chile in 1976 when she was nine years old after her father was detained by the Pinochet regime. Having been resettled by UNHCR from Argentina, she always remembers the warm welcome that the family received from the small mining village in Scotland – with a party, bagpipes and toys for the children, and the coal shed that winter remaining stocked by generous villagers. This was her inspiration years later when, moved by the plight of Syrians arriving in Europe, she set up the Buddy Scheme in Hastings, UK. Wanting to recreate the welcoming environment she had experienced, Rossana pairs locals with refugees, and together they share meals, visit local sites and festivals, run sewing groups, driving lessons and children’s activities. Rossana’s volunteer work has created a community of more than a hundred people who are forming new friendships and providing hope, as refugees build a new life in the UK.

Some countries offer befriending, buddying or mentoring programs. Usually, the volunteers in such programs provide transport, assist with language learning, give guidance on services and local activities, accompany them to appointments, etc.

Volunteer programs are not ‘cost neutral’, requiring considerable investment, ongoing support, and monitoring, including:

  • identification of suitable volunteer candidates;
  • screening to ensure that they explore their motivations, understand their obligations and that they are aware of the boundaries of their role. Many volunteer programs also require routine police clearances to optimise the safety of clients;
  • ongoing training and support;
  • quality assurance and accountability measures;
  • debriefing mechanisms;
  • oversight to ensure volunteers are not exploited, especially if they are from the refugee community;
  • public liability insurance.


The New York HOME program, has volunteers take on essential roles in welcoming refugees and asylum seekers. HIAS harnesses the capacity of private citizens to foster social, economic, and civic integration. Volunteers are recruited through congregations and other organized communities to fill essential roles and make a financial contribution as families are getting on their feet.

Capacity building in refugee and diaspora communities

Established refugee and diaspora communities can help receiving communities prepare for new arrivals, in addition to extending hospitality and support themselves. Local community actors, including faith-based groups, community associations and student societies, also play critical welcoming and support roles. In some countries, the authorities formally develop partnerships and networks with community stakeholders and local media to promote welcoming and integration initiatives.

Members of established refugee and diaspora communities have contributed to the social support of resettled refugees: They can provide:

  • language skills – a particularly important resource in countries where formal interpreting and translating services are limited or costly.
  • cultural skills – they can serve as ‘cultural consultants’ or ‘cultural interpreters’. ‘Cultural interpreters’ who use their knowledge to assist refugees to better understand cultural differences and practices.
  • an understanding of the demands and requirements of resettlement based on their own experience.
  • links with social and business networks and religious and cultural institutions.
A child holding a book showing pencil drawing

Importantly, engaging refugee communities in the provision of social support is one way of ensuring refugee involvement in the planning and development of services. Resettlement countries have sought to build the capacity of refugee communities to provide support by:

  • offering training and professional development programmes to members of refugee communities working in social support roles in either a paid or voluntary capacity. These can range from highly formalised, accredited programmes through to relatively informal peer training.
  • work force development initiatives aimed at supporting refugee-led and other community-based organisations.
  • providing funding and technical support to facilitate the development of support services and associations for refugees.

Issues to consider in engaging refugee community support

Members of existing refugee communities have a critical role to play in building social connections for recently resettled refugees. Experience suggests that the following are factors to be taken into consideration:

  • Former refugees bring language and cultural knowledge. However, they may need some support to acquire the skills needed to fulfil their role (e.g. setting boundaries, confidentiality, or providing information about the systems and resources available to resettled refugees in the receiving community).
  • Access to debriefing will be particularly important because exposure to traumatic histories of other refugees may serve as triggers of their own experiences, or those of close relatives and friends.
  • Efforts should be made to recognise the work carried out by former refugees engaged in voluntary roles. For example, in a number of countries, training programmes for volunteers are accredited or voluntary work is given formal recognition, which can enhance future employment prospects for participants.
  • Refugee community support volunteers can maintain an ongoing dialogue with integration caseworkers in the receiving community which can facilitate resettled refugees’ integration.

A decision will have to be made on whether to engage existing refugee communities to support newly resettled refugees. This would be based on the specific context in the resettlement country and the cohort of resettled refugees. There may be religious, ethnic, political and clan-based diversity within refugee communities which may influence their suitability to provide support to all newcomers.

Building the capacity of sponsors
children playing with adult

Community sponsorship programmes provide an opportunity for individuals, local communities, and organizations to be directly engaged in the reception and integration of resettled refugees. Broadening the number and types of actors involved in supporting refugees can increase access to protection and solutions for refugees and build positive voices in support of refugees more broadly. All programmes would normally have in place training and ongoing support for sponsors. For more information on training of sponsors, see for example:

Community sponsorship programmes

Community sponsorship presents another model of integration. Most community sponsorship programmes have been developed relatively recently. State practice is developing in three directions:

  • Sponsored resettlement: Sponsorship as a tool for reception and integration support for refugees who are referred by UNHCR for resettlement and matched with a sponsor.
  • Support for refugees admitted through complementary pathways: Sponsorship can also be used as a tool for reception and integration to support refugees who are admitted through a complementary pathway, such as education, employment or family reunification.
  • Named sponsorship: Sponsorship as a pathway allows communities, individuals or institutions to sponsor and support the entry and stay of named or nominated individuals. The short-hand way of labelling such programmes would be “named sponsorship”.

UNHCR recommends that during the design and building of community sponsorship programmes there should be a focus on three general principles:

  1. Additionality – community sponsorship programmes can expand solutions for refugees and in doing so, do not diminish government-assisted programs but rather enhance them through support of UNHCR-referred refugees. The aim is to effectively contribute to an increase in international responsibility-sharing;
  2. Protection focus – community sponsorship programmes should not endorse or encourage selectivity. The primarily focus should be on individuals with resettlement needs that are referred by UNHCR;
  3. Safeguards – community sponsorship programmes should not diminish State responsibility for protection and solutions. Community sponsorship programmes should also be underpinned by a safety net of government support and rights consistent with international protection standards.

Video – Canada

When Syrian refugee Rabiaa Al Zhouri and her family first arrived to Antigonish, Canada, they didn't know how they would become members of the community. Welcomed and supported by a group of sponsors, the family quickly found their niche.

Video -  Ireland

This video shares the story of how a community in Dublin came together to coordinate and support a Syrian family's safe relocation to Ireland.

Different sponsorship models:

  • United Kingdom
    The UK Community Sponsorship programme supports the UK’s existing Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS). All cases are UNHCR-referred. The government matches UNHCR referred refugees with sponsor groups. The program was limited to the Syria situation but will be global and additional as of 2020. For more information, please click here.
  • Canada
    In addition to the government assisted refugee programme (GAR), Canada has one of the longest-running Private Sponsorship of Refugees (PSR) programme. The PSR is principally a ‘named’ programme for non-UNHCR referred cases that are identified directly by sponsors. Sponsors could be charitable organizations or groups of five individuals. More recently, Canada introduced the Blended Visa Office-Referred (BVOR) program which connects UNHCR-referred refugees with sponsors. For more information, please click here.
  • Ireland
    Ireland’s community sponsorship programme is intended to support resettlement at increased levels from previous years and meet ambitious resettlement targets that were unlikely to be met through the government delivered programme. Similar to the UK’s, all cases are UNHCR-referred. The government matches UNHCR referred refugee with sponsor groups. It started as a pilot in 2019, but was formally launched in November 2019. For more information, please click here.
  • Argentina
    Argentina’s programme is technically a humanitarian admission programme since refugees are not provided with refugee status but have a pathway to citizenship. The programme started as a ‘named’ programme but has evolved to include UNHCR referrals further to UNHCR advocacy. The program is limited to the Syria situation, but Argentina has announced its the intention to expand the program to all nationalities in 2020/2021. For more information, please click here.
  • Germany
    Germany’s Community Sponsorship Programme was announced in February 2018. The pilot aims to admit 500 refugees by the end of 2020. First arrivals occurred in November 2019. The target population of the program mirrors Germany’s resettlement quota allocations in 2019. For more information (in German), please click here.
    For more information, please see: European Resettlement Network and  Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative


Building the capacity of existing social support services

At all stages of the integration process, resettled refugees will have contact with social service providers, such as teachers and health care professionals. There are a number of ways in which countries have sought to enhance capacity to extend support to resettled refugees, including:

  • providing professional development programmes to people working in key social support positions (e.g. teachers, health care professionals).
  • work force development initiatives aimed at enhancing the number of personnel with bilingual skills.
  • the development of resource materials (such as videos and manuals) to enhance professionals’ understanding of the refugee and resettlement experiences.
  • special funding programmes to support services and systems to build their capacity to meet the needs of refugee communities.

Placement policies

Social connections can be optimised through placement practices. While these are discussed in greater detail in placement section, the following criteria are important:

  • the presence of established refugee and diaspora communities and family members.
  • the availability of formal social support and targeted services that recognize the different needs of diverse groups.
  • the extent to which the location has a tradition of welcoming and supporting newcomers.

Mutual support programmes

Supportive relationships between resettled refugees at comparable stages of their integration can be fostered either through formalised support groups or by linking people with similar needs and experiences with one another. This has been done, for example, through creating WhatsApp groups or other format. This approach also provides refugees with the chance to share experiences with someone in a similar situation.

UK - Community Development Workers

The British Refugee Council include community development workers as part of their resettlement teams. Community development workers enable newly arrived refugees to identify their needs and aspirations, and to encourage them to pursue set goals. This is done through assisting resettled refugees to develop and take part in social, cultural, recreational and other community activities. These workers promote initiatives that create links between resettled refugees and the wider community. The ultimate goal is to promote the successful integration of resettled refugees through community initiatives that may include areas such as health, employment, housing, education and training. Focusing on community development can also encourage communities to be more open to diversity and share experiences and learning, whilst recognising the importance of retaining culture and identity. For more information, please click here.  

Good practice features

Overall, a sound integration programme would:

  • engage government, non-government agencies and the refugee and wider communities in building social connections.
  • develop strategies for enhancing the capacity of refugee communities to offer support to newcomers.
  • develop strategies to ensure that social support services provided to nationals are accessible to resettled refugees.

 Specific programmes established to enhance social connections for resettled refugees would:

  • provide language assistance.
  • engage refugee communities in planning and implementation.
  • promote mutual benefits for both resettled refugees, the receiving society, individuals and volunteers providing support.
  • provide or facilitate access to support by removing practical barriers (childcare, transport, translation, etc.).
  • promote participation of nationals to programmes that support social connections.
  • provide culturally sensitive and age appropriate support.
  • take account of the needs of the whole family as well as individual family members, including refugee children and youth.
  • build connections and supportive relationships between resettled refugees and wider local communities.