She Belongs: The Integration of Female Migrants and Refugees

by Esmee Johnston /
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Nov 13, 2023 / 0 comments

Migrant and refugee women across the globe face a number of challenges, often intensified by their gender, including workplace discrimination, domestic violence, and a lack of language proficiency. These are just some of the many obstacles these women face throughout their journey of integrating.

It is imperative to recognise that that what women migrants and refugees are faced with are often a result of systemic and societal factors in their host country. 

When addressing these challenges, a multifaceted approach is critical; this ensures that language and cultural training, anti-discrimination, and the promotion of gender equality are included. Through supporting female migrants and refugees with integrating in their host country, a more diverse and inclusive community is created, which benefits for the host country and the individuals seeking to build a new life.

This article will highlight the gender-specific challenges migrant and refugee women face in these situations, and look into strategies which address these issues all while ensuring safety and promoting integration.

She Belongs: The Integration of Female Migrants and Refugees

Migrant and Refugee Landscape in Scotland

Scotland has a long history of welcoming migrants and refugees, with people from all corners across the globe seeking to make the country their home. 

This diverse population of migrants includes people from various countries from the Middle East, Asia, Africa, the Americas, and the European Union. 

Among these migrants, females are a significant portion and often overlooked segment of the migrant population. 

She Belongs: The Integration of Female Migrants and Refugees

Understanding the demographic distribution of female migrants and refugees is crucial to addressing their individual needs for integration into Scottish society. This journey is a multi-faceted process for female migrants and refugees, sometimes with implications of their human rights. The current demographic profile of female migrants and refugees in Scotland reflects its rapidly evolving tapestry of migration. Historically, Scotland has attracted women from all different countries and backgrounds, although primarily from countries such as Poland, Lithuania, and Romania; these women come seeking employment opportunities and a better quality of life.

There is quite a different female demographic coming from countries affected by conflict and displacement, such as Syria and Ukraine; they are seeking safety and refuge in Scotland. Marital and family status is one of the main reasons for female migrants and refugees heading over to Scotland both historically and with war refugees. They either arrive in the country as single individuals, with their family, or through family reunification. 

The reasons for women migrating to Scotland are also largely multifaceted. Some women come to Scotland to look for economic opportunities, such as the ability to work or to build on their career; others migrate to Scotland for educational opportunities or for family reasons. 

Furthermore, women seeking asylum are part of Scotland’s humanitarian commitment, with the country offering safety to those fleeing conflict and persecution. 

The demographic profile of female migrants and refugees in Scotland highlights the complex nature of female migration and the unique stories the come with it from individuals travelling into the country. 

It is also important to note that in December 2019, around 45,000 individuals were moving into Scotland from overseas with 17,000 people leaving within this period. This highlights that a majority of those that move to Scotland choose to stay and build a new life, including female migrants and refugees.

To offer as much aid as possible, the Scottish Government and numerous Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) are committed to understanding the needs of female migrants and refugees through offering as much support as possible for their integration journey. 

Through doing so, they recognise that it is crucial to understand that successful integration is essential for migrants’ overall well-being and social inclusivity. 

Challenges of Integration

There are four main areas where female migrants and refugees face particularly gender-specific challenges. They are traditional gender roles, social isolation, language barriers, and educational gaps and documented work experience.

Traditional Gender Norms

Traditionally, women are burdened with additional household and childcare duties compared to their male partner. Due to this, their challenges with regards in integration are twofold. Across the European Union, traditional gender roles values are strongly and negatively associated with the integration of female migrants (i). It is important to note that traditional gender roles and responsibilities can hinder the integration of female migrants and refugees, as this can lead to limited access to education, employment opportunities, and social networks. When there are strict limitations on the roles and expectations of women within their families, it can be challenging for women migrants and refugees to break through these barriers and step out with their comfort zone.

Migrant and refugee women who find themselves seeking further education or employment opportunities will need to break through the gender norms they and their family members are familiar with. Due to the shift of the roles and expectations of each family member, this can be especially difficult  the women. The changing roles in one’s interpersonal life can also result in the loss of normal social relations, as well as the unfamiliarity of their new role in society. 

Role theory provides a valuable framework for understanding the traditional gender roles which female migrants and refugees often encounter. This theory highlights that these women carry established roles from their countries of origin, which come with expectations and norms related to their behaviour, responsibilities, and identities. In the case of female migrants, they are often expected to conform to both their traditional caregiving roles while also being expected to have a most independent role within their host culture. This can ultimately lead to role strain and social isolation as they try to balance both expectations.

Additionally, Identity and Role Performance Theory emphasises the complex interplay between traditional gender roles and the pressures female migrants and refugees face when adapting to new cultural norms and expectations. When these women migrate to a new host country, they may experience some tension between their traditional gender roles and the evolving roles they need to grow accustomed to in their host community. Both of these expectations come with specific behaviours, responsibilities, and self-identifying roles they are expected to follow.

Due to this, it is important to recognise the pressures female migrants face and support their navigation of these roles in a diverse and evolving world. 

This social change can be daunting for female migrants who may be struggling to juggle family responsibilities while adjusting to their new cultural environment at the same time. 

Consequentially, due to this shift in family dynamic, female migrants and refugees often feel the most culture shock, and are left with a feeling of disequilibrium and disorientation due to adjusting to an unfamiliar and new way of life. 

These factors play a subsequent role in the stress that women migrants and refugees feel when integrating into a new culture.

She Belongs: The Integration of Female Migrants and Refugees

Social Isolation

Most female migrants and refugees may experience social isolation due to cultural differences or a lack of social networks within their host country. As a result of these factors, they can feel an increasing amount of pressure to integrate, due to their family responsibilities and the lack of a support system in a new country. Migrant and refugee women will often find that their mental health and their emotional wellbeing are negatively impacted because of the stressful experience of adapting to a new culture, trying to find work, and integrating within their local community…all while caring for their family. Additionally, because of these factors, they may also find it difficult to find the time to access crucial support services which they may need to navigate a new life in they host country. 

Cultural differences, while enriching, can also cause for social isolation within a community. Female migrants and refugees may find it challenging to navigate creating a new life surrounded by unfamiliar customs and traditions; this further reinforces their feeling of being on the fringe of society. While the men of their family have similar experiences, it is important to note that many of these families must adapt to a Western way of living, and the women in the family are often burdened with most social challenges. This is mainly due to the fact that gender stereotypes limit women’s autonomy and decision-making processes. 

Limitations like these increases their exposure to the systematic violation of their human rights. Recognising these issues is a crucial step in addressing the challenges faced by migrant and refugee women and working towards gender equality, social inclusion, and the protection of their human rights.

To create a more equitable environment, advocacy, education, and policy changes will offer for an increasingly supportive environment for migrant women to thrive and exercise their rights. 

She Belongs: The Integration of Female Migrants and Refugees

Language Barriers

Language barriers can also have a large impact on female migrants and refugees. As mentioned before, women are more likely to bear family responsibilities; due to this, there can be great difficulty to adjust in finding the time to learn a new language.

Migrants and refugees who do not speak English will also face difficulties in accessing essential services, finding employment, or integrating and participating in their new local community. 

While language services are provided to migrants and refugees in countries across Europe, such as Scotland, men and women do not equally participate. For example, in Germany in 2016, only 25% of women participated in an integration course which offered language proficiency classes by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees. In comparison, 35% of men participated in this same service, mainly because they had more time to do so compared to their female family members (ii).

These statistics highlight the gender-specific challenges that women in migrant and refugee families face compared to their male counterparts. While these integration courses are a step closer towards integration into society, it is crucial to address the difficulties women face in order to make these services as effective as possible to everyone who needs them. 

If there is a linguistic divide, it can be difficult to access any educational opportunities, which, in turn, can make it increasingly difficult to advocate for their human rights or seek assistance when needed. 

She Belongs: The Integration of Female Migrants and Refugees

Education Gaps and Documented Work Experience

Across the globe, 63.5% of women migrants and refugees are in the labour force, compared to about 48% of non-migrant women. While this is a positive figure, it is still important to acknowledge the reality of the difficulties women migrants and refugees face in their journey to finding employment. Most of the migrant and refugee women who work in the informal economy are limited to or have non-existent enforcement of labour protections, which puts them at risk of labour rights abuses, sexual and gender-based violence, racism, or xenophobia.

Language barriers can often have a large impact on female migrants and refugees, as they may not be able to access the services they might need to ensure their employee rights are maintained. 

Additionally, employment disparities are also linked to a lack of language proficiency. Although discrimination on the job market is not as common in Scotland anymore, female migrants and refugees are more likely to find themselves to be confined to low-wage employment or in roles that do not match their qualifications and work experience. Not only do these employment disparities  result in economic vulnerability, they also prolong a cycle of disadvantage, creating further career barriers and obstructing economic independence. 

She Belongs: The Integration of Female Migrants and Refugees

Support and integration Programmes

There are currently two ways that migrant integration is supported in Scotland. 

1. Scottish Government Initiatives

The UK Government and the Scottish Government have implemented various programmes and policies to support migrant and refugee integration. The Scottish Government has implemented the New Scots Integration Strategy, an inclusive approach to supporting the integration of newcomers in Scotland. This strategy includes initiatives that offer guidance on housing, employment, social inclusion, and guidance on seeking other social services. This integration strategy has offered migrants a pathway to integrating in their local community through guidance from Scotland’s national and local governments. 

As well, the Scottish Government has provided funding for English language courses specifically tailored for newcomers. Programmes like these help migrants improve their language proficiency, enabling them better access to services, find employment, and social inclusion, benefitting female migrants and their families.  

It is important to note that although this strategy offers guidance to all newcomers, female migrants and refugees also largely benefit, as they receive further guidance and services where needed when it comes to family responsibilities or other gender specific difficulties they may be facing.

The Scottish Government has also established the Refugee Women’s Strategy Group (RWSG) to ensure that the voices and experiences of female refugees and migrants are heard in the policy making process. This group represents the views of female refugees and migrants from all backgrounds, and recognises that there is a strong need for more gender-sensitive integration policies, as well as asylum claims. The aims of this group also includes improving access to sexual violence services, addressing the barriers to employment for migrant  and refugee women, and making information to services for migrant and refugee women more accessible. 

2. Non-Governmental Organisations

Numerous Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and community organisations play a vital role in assisting female migrants and refugees when integrating in Scotland. These organisations offer a range of services, such as employment support, language assistance, legal aid, and social inclusion programmes. Some of the many NGOs working in this field include:

Women’s Support Project: This organisation works across Scotland to end violence against women. The charity aims to support migrant, refugee, and asylum-seeking women who find themselves to be socially isolated or are experiencing any violence or abuse for their partners or family members. They offer support through offering short courses, community-based events, and training and resources to service providers and community organisations.

Radiant & Brighter: This organisation focuses on the integration of migrant and refugee women in Scotland, mainly through finding employment. They offer various support services, such as mentoring, employability training, community participation courses, cultural competence training, and much more. Female migrants and their families have benefitted from working with this organisation, as they have learnt how to integrate in their local community and find employment—while their children are able to join groups such as their local choir, where they are able to socialise with others and make friends. 

Saheliya: This organisation offers specialist mental health and well-being support for black, minority ethnic, asylum seeker, refugee, and migrant women and girls in the Edinburgh and Glasgow area. Through having women from a variety of cultures working within this organisation, those working in the organisation have a great understanding of how race, gender, and culture affects the mental health and well-being of the individuals seeking their services. They offer services such as practical and emotional support, counselling, and offer childcare for children under the age of 7 to ensure mothers are able to access their services. Their aim is to promote mental well-being and combat and the effects of discrimination and abuse these women may have had to face.

These are just some of the many great NGOs which aim to help and support migrant and refugee women when integrating in Scotland. 

Enhancing Integration and Protecting the Human Rights of Migrant Women

While it is recognised that the Scottish Government is committed to supporting migrant and refugee women and their families in integrating into Scotland, it is important to note that the current support provided to them can still be further improved. Designed and tailored courses which help mitigate existing gender differences and promote social integration for women is crucial to create equal integration services.

Here are my top three suggestions:

1. More accessible language programmes

Comprehensive language programmes can be further expanded and made more accessible to migrants and refugees across Scotland. These programmes can be ensured to be culturally sensitive and tailored to the diverse migrant and refugee women who seek these language services. In doing so, this empowers women to communicate effectively, access further support services, and participate in their local communities. Through focusing on language proficiency and cultural understanding, employment will also become more accessible to these women and their families. 

2. Creating clearer pathways for job opportunities for migrant and refugee women

Creating pathways for skills recognition and professional development can help women access better job opportunities, as well. The Scottish government can enhance this further by offering more aid with developing individuals’ skills. Through fostering further acceptance of New Scots’ prior work experience and qualifications, migrant and refugee women can further develop their careers within Scotland, ultimately leading to economic empowerment. This also breaks down one of the many barriers that working migrant and refugee women face when finding work and integrating in their host country.

3. Expanding educational and vocational training programmes outside of school

Additionally, expanding access to education and vocational training programmes which address the gender-specific challenges migrant and refugee women face on a daily basis when integrating can further enhance their employability and economic independence. Through making the services they need more accessible and commonly known to those who need it, there will be more pathways for individuals to find employment. 

These recommendations do not only enhance the integration of migrant and refugee women, but also protect their human rights, as they have more accessibility to additional services and have been given further guidance to speak up about their rights and needs. 

Through having increased access to economic opportunities and being able to speak the local language, a more inclusive community can be fostered. This will also give migrant and refugee women the skills to address fundamental aspects of their lives, such as housing, healthcare, and social inclusion. 

By implementing measures like the ones suggested, Scotland will be able to foster a more inclusive integration structure and create a more diverse society, where one’s rights and contributions are respected as well as protected. 

She Belongs: The Integration of Female Migrants and Refugees



 i Albrecht, C., Pérez, M. H., & Stitteneder, T. (2021). The Integration Challenges of Female Refugees and Migrants: Where Do We Stand? CESifo Forum, 22(02), 39–46

 ii Albrecht, C., Pérez, M. H., & Stitteneder, T. (2021). The Integration Challenges of Female Refugees and Migrants: Where Do We Stand? CESifo Forum, 22(02), 39–46. 



Please click the photo below to read more articles in this series:

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Esmee Johnston is the Human Rights and Migrant Integration Editor at Wandering Educators. Motivated by the desire to make a positive impact in the world, is currently studying her master’s degree in Human Rights and Diplomacy at the University of Stirling. This degree is taught in partnership with UNITAR, offering the opportunity for her to broaden her knowledge on human rights matters. She is very passionate about the human rights of migrants and the importance migrant integration has on this topic.

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