Learning Objective
Learning objectives
  • Understand key concepts regarding migrants’ integration, including social inclusion and social cohesion
  • Recognize the importance of migrant integration policies in supporting wider social cohesion and fostering stability and prosperity
  • Understand the challenges and opportunities of migrant integration
  • Explain why local authorities and non-governmental stakeholders are central in facilitating migrant integration
Integration, inclusion and social cohesion in the context of migration

Integration is a social process that concerns the incorporation of groups of people – such as minorities or newcomers – into a society. Migrant integration is the process by which migrants become a part of their new community in the country of residence. Yet the concept of migrant integration has been defined in different ways in different countries (Pennix, 2003).

In EMM2.0, migrant integration is understood as:


The two-way process of mutual adaptation between migrants and the societies in which they live, whereby migrants are incorporated into the social, economic, cultural and political life of the receiving community. It entails a set of joint responsibilities for migrants and communities, and incorporates other related notions such as social inclusion and social cohesion.

Integration is a multidimensional process that affects all aspects of the lives of migrants and of receiving communities. In practice, this means integration extends beyond migrants’ economic inclusion or access to services. Integration also involves migrants’ ability to establish themselves in new communities, a process which includes psychological, linguistic, social and political or civic dimensions, among others [Immigration Policy Lab (IPL), 2018; United Kingdom, Home Office, 2019a)]. These dimensions are interrelated. For instance, linguistic abilities are needed to develop social ties or to understand how to access services. However, they progress at different speeds.

This definition also highlights the role of receiving societies in migrant integration. Integration takes place at the individual, family, and community levels and involves not just migrants and communities but also authorities, the private sector and civil society. Just as with the dimensions described above, these levels are interrelated, but the processes of integration at each level may not happen at the same pace. Further, it is important to understand that the societies migrants are seeking to fit in to are themselves not homogenous settings. Societies, like migrants, are highly diverse, and textured by inequalities such as age, gender or social class. This social diversity means that migrant integration is always a complex process and always context specific.

Finally, migrant integration is closely intertwined with broader societal processes of social inclusion and social cohesion. Though these processes involve the whole of society, however, social inclusion and social cohesion are central to how migrants develop a sense of belonging to their new community and a sense of autonomy over their lives in the new context of their residence.

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social inclusion

the process of improving the terms of participation in society for people who are disadvantaged on the basis of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status, through enhanced opportunities, access to resources, voice and respect for rights [United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs


UN DESA, 2016, emphasis added.

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social cohesion

The absence of fractures or divisions within society and the ability to manage such divisions. A cohesive society creates a sense of belonging, promotes trust, fights exclusion and marginalization and offers its members the opportunity of upward mobility.


Social inclusion and social cohesion each refer to a different principle: social inclusion refers to equality and fairness, while social cohesion refers to trust and solidarity. In the context of migration, these terms have specific meanings:

  • Social inclusion relates to equality and fairness in access to resources and opportunities. It enables migrants to benefit from the services and opportunities available, and to contribute to society and enjoy upward mobility;
  • Social cohesion establishes trust and solidarity as the basis for social ties among migrants and the receiving society, as well as for reciprocity and redistribution of resources. It enables migrants to find a place in society and be recognized as its members.

Social inclusion and social cohesion are central principles for policies that promote integration. They are complemented by a third, equally fundamental principle. This third principle concerns respect for and protection of rights as well as prevention of discrimination. This principle is necessary for migrants to have the conditions to develop the autonomy and agency to achieve their potential.

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Figure 1. Central principles underpinning migrant integration
To Go Further

This chapter discusses the integration of newcomers, not the integration of returnees. Read more on the sustainable integration of returnees in  Return and reintegration of migrants.

The importance of managing migrant integration

Policies encouraging the integration of migrants are important for three main reasons. First, they address the need to manage the presence of migrants who already reside in the country either on a permanent or temporary basis. Migrants already in the country have needs that must be addressed and fundamental rights that must be respected, protected and fulfilled. Their attempts to find work and participate in society may be complicated if access to the labour market, health and education systems or language learning is not supported.

Second, interventions to promote integration, inclusion and social cohesion benefit receiving societies and migrants alike. For migrants, support in becoming established in the new country and in participating in institutions and social and cultural life without discrimination enables them to achieve the goals that drove them to move. These aspirations may be related to finding a job, pursuing education, feeling safe or seeking a better life. For societies, the benefits are numerous. Socially well-integrated migrants do not just pay taxes. As acknowledged in the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (objective 16), they are in a better position to fulfil their potential and become productive members of society, using their human and cultural capital to enhance innovation and contribute to prosperity (see more examples of benefits in, for instance, IOM, 2019a: chapter 4; IOM, 2021a).

Third, not supporting migrants’ incorporation into society can have a range of negative consequences:

  • If unemployed, migrants and their families can become a burden on the State and will not be in a position to contribute to the extent of their potential, which represents a loss for the State;
  • Not providing migrants with the same opportunities as nationals to access health, education, social protection, work and justice systems can lead to exclusion and expose migrants to vulnerabilities. If this is systematic, it can exacerbate the risk of marginalization by, for instance, pushing migrants into intergenerational poverty and general disadvantage;
  • Where resources are strained and there is a perception that migrants are being more supported than the local population, social tension and hostility towards migrants can emerge;
  • If anti-migration narratives circulate freely and xenophobic attitudes and actions are not visibly penalized, they can create – or exacerbate – polarization. This can increase social tensions and further exacerbate discrimination and existing inequities;
  • Where policies fail to prevent – and ultimately contribute to – exclusion, this can result in actual conflicts and social unrest.

Promoting integration requires proactive measures that address the needs and interests of migrants and societies alike. If the process of integration is not started early and does not support all of those involved, the risk of disengagement grows, as does the risk of exclusion. Migrants who worry about the lack of support for themselves and their families are less motivated and less able to invest in their integration. If the environment is hostile to foreigners, migrants may find solace and gain resilience from retreating into their cultural networks and traditions (Van der Veer and Tolsma, 2014; McAuliffe, Kitimbo and Khadria, 2019:168). At the same time, policies that are not mindful of the needs of receiving societies risk not only disengaging them but inviting resistance instead of the needed openness towards newcomers.

Building inclusive and cohesive societies is not achieved with quick measures. Supporting migrants’ integration is complex, as migrants now come from a wider range of places, and move for more reasons than was once the case. Adjusting institutions and societies to this intensified diversity is challenging and will require long-term measures as well as resilience to learn from trial and error (Gallagher, 2018).

This is not an issue only for highly developed destination countries. Much migration happens between neighbouring countries and in the southern hemisphere (as part of south-south movements) (IOM, 2019a). These countries face challenges to integration as well.

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Key data sources

Measuring integration is essential to understand if integration policies are achieving their goals. It is also important to try to anticipate and respond to migrants’ needs. However, this is challenging because the pace of migration and the profile of “newcomers” changes rapidly (their origin, education backgrounds, family size and legal status). Services must allow for this rapid change while remaining context specific.

There are various other challenges to measuring integration. For instance:

  • Although several countries are interested in achieving successful integration, the level of commitment to analysing the results and outcomes of integration policies and tools varies.
  • It is difficult to determine the key elements that indicate real progress in integration, and it is nearly impossible to measure all of its dimensions. Integration is a multidimensional process, and indicators often focus on selected aspects of these dimensions at a given point in time. They provide a limited snapshot of an ongoing process.
  • Concepts and definitions are not standardized across countries, and there is no common international tool to measure integration outcomes (Huddleston et al., 2013).
  • Measuring migrants’ access to rights is complex and involves considering both laws that are in place and how they are implemented in practice.

Successful migrant integration can be understood as decreasing differences between how migrants and nationals score when measured against key socioeconomic markers as well as decreasing differences in what concerns access to services, institutions and lifestyles. In other words, integration involves enabling migrants and other members of society to enjoy the same opportunities and have a common sense of recognition, participation and belonging.

However, integration is not a linear process (Portes and Zhou, 1993). As noted above, it involves various dimensions that are interrelated. These dimensions mutually reinforce each other, but they may progress at different speeds and in different ways for different people. For instance, immigrant families may feel they are better integrated linguistically and economically but not socially. Integration is not solely a function of the time spent in the destination country, and there is no one path towards a predefined goal or outcome.

Measuring integration becomes more complicated when the assessment involves more qualitative questions, such as questions on cultural or social life.

Recent efforts to better measure integration include:

  • European Commission and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Indicators of immigrant integration. In 2011, the European Union identified key indicators to monitor the results of integration policies in the areas of employment, education, social inclusion and active citizenship. These were the basis of comparative work across OECD countries on outcomes of integration policies for migrants and their children (OECD and EU, 2018) and for integration at the local level (OECD, 2018).
  • The Survey bank on migrant integration and social cohesion was developed by IOM through the Joint Global Initiative on Diversity, Inclusion and Social Cohesion (DISC Initiative), a multi-year initiative that serves as a global platform to share, learn, develop and implement innovative strategies and interventions on migrant integration and social cohesion. The survey bank holds over 500 field-tested questions that capture different dimensions of migrant integration outcomes, allowing for better comparison of data. These resources aim to facilitate evidence-based and coherent policy and programme development, and to help organizations design and execute more effective strategies for local integration. The survey bank consolidates surveys from government agencies, universities, international and regional organizations, academic researchers and recognized consulting firms.
  • The IPL/IOM Migrant Integration Index is currently being piloted in three countries as part of the DISC Initiative. The index is a multidimensional common measurement tool that aims to assess the ability of migrants to successfully establish themselves in the receiving communities. This tool is meant to inform interventions, policy formulation, and broader development outcomes.
  • The United Kingdom Home Office Indicators of Integration framework (2019a). The accompanying toolkit offers guidance for using the framework.
National sources

Usually, indicators of integration have focused on various key areas (such as social, cultural, economic and political integration), and the main data sources for these are found at the national level. Major instruments to collect integration data are censuses and household surveys, particularly labour force surveys and living conditions surveys that focus on topics such as employment rates, wages or income, occupation, activity rate or qualifications. Specialized migration surveys can also provide informative data on education (such as the highest level of education attainment or dropout rate); housing (such as property ownership, housing cost overburden or residential segregation by socioeconomic status); and social and cultural inclusion and exclusion (such as participation in local social and cultural organizations and events), among other subjects. Public opinion polls also help to understand the attitudes of receiving communities towards migration, while surveys of migrant populations are also useful to learn about their experiences in daily life.

Given the central role of cities in hosting and integrating migrants, collecting and comparing such data at the subnational level is also highly informative.

International sources

Useful sources to inform policymaking on migrant integration at an international level include:

  • The IOM Global Migration Data Analysis Centre (GMDAC) Migration Data Portal offers resources on migrant integration. These provide an overview of the main sources of data on integration, as well as their strengths and limitations.
  • OECD and European Union, Settling In 2018: Indicators of Integration, 2018. This report presents the results of a comprehensive international comparison of integration outcomes of migrants and their children. It uses 74 indicators related to the labour market and skills, living conditions, civic engagement and social integration.
  • Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) does policy-oriented research on different areas of migration, including the migration–integration nexus.
  • The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy is an American-based platform that develops work on integration policies, including policy research and analysis.
  • Migrant Integration Policy Index (MIPEX) is a tool to measure policies to integrate migrants in European Union Member States and beyond. MIPEX is not intended to assess the outcomes of integration policies, but rather to assess the legal and normative frameworks of different countries regarding integration.
  • Intercultural Cities Index. Developed by the Council of Europe, this index aims to analyse the progress that local administrations are making towards an intercultural focus in public governance and performance.

Indicators should always be analysed without losing sight of the context in which they were created. They likely reflect a particular understanding of what “successful integration” means. For example, MIPEX and the OECD indicators in Settling In 2018 were developed with traditional countries of destination in mind; they may therefore not be directly applicable in new countries of destination (Bauloz, Vathi and Acosta, 2019).

See more information on key sources of data, research and analysis in Stage 2: Data, research and analysis for policymaking.

International instruments, initiatives and dialogues
International law and principles

There are no international binding instruments specifically related to the integration of migrants. From a legal perspective, there is neither a right nor a duty for migrants to integrate under international law (IML, 2019). However, integration does involve rights and obligations: migrants are entitled to the same fundamental rights and are bound by the same legal obligations and duties as nationals in the country they live in. As such, States’ obligation to fulfil fundamental rights to, for instance, education, health, adequate housing or family life, must cover migrants admitted into the country. In practice, this obligation enables and fosters migrant integration and social cohesion.

Moreover, the human rights framework is guided by the anti-discrimination principle, which all States must follow regardless of whether they have ratified conventions. This principle states that all human beings are entitled to human rights without distinction as to their race, sex, language, or religion. This includes migrants, irrespective of their status. This principle is fundamental to integration, as migrants are more vulnerable to discrimination (read more on the principle of non-discrimination Human rights of migrants: An overview).

Several international and regional instruments specifically intend to protect the economic, social and cultural rights of migrants, all of which are relevant to integration. In addition to those listed below, international instruments have provisions related to integration in that they protect the right to an adequate standard of living; adequate housing; health; education; social security and welfare; equality and recognition before the law and justice (see details in Human rights of migrants: An overview).

Global Instruments

Note: This list is not exhaustive

The picture below lists some of the rights that are crucial for migrants’ inclusion. These rights are established in international treaties, many of which are related to international human rights law and international labour law (see the list above). Some rights are part of customary international law, as is the principle of non-discrimination (read more in Bauloz, Vathi and Acosta, 2019: Annex 6.

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Figure 2. Legal framework of inclusion

Regional instruments

Most regional cooperation agreements are based on trade and the free movement of goods and services. Only a few of them make any reference to the movement of persons, and even fewer to integration issues. The European Union is the regional political and economic union that has advanced the furthest in developing law binding Member States with regard to specific migration and integration issues.

European Union policies that are relevant to integration

Since an area of freedom, security and justice was created in the European Union in 1999, a number of efforts have focused on better managing migration and incorporating European Union non-nationals within the European Union area. Among these are: establishing regulatory frameworks for, among other things, long-term residence or family reunification; laying down rules on equal treatment of persons irrespective of racial or ethnic origin and equal treatment in employment and occupation; creating specific funds to promote integration actions; and developing a system of indicators to assess the results of integration in the Member States.

The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (2021–2027) is a relevant binding regulation for European Union Member States, as it ensures respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities, as part of protecting core principles and rights for the Union.

More recently, the European Union Cohesion Policy focuses, as one of its priorities, on the social inclusion of specific social groups such as migrants and ethnic minorities. It is aligned with the New Pact on Asylum and Migration (2021–2027)  as well as with the European Union Action Plan on Integration and Inclusion (2021–2027).

Other regions also have relevant regional agreements. For instance, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) General Convention on Social Security (2012) and its Supplementary Act (2013) aim at strengthening the extension of the coverage of social security of migrants and their families, and guarantees the portability of their social security rights within the region (see also ILO, 2019).

Initiatives and commitments

Global initiatives and commitments

Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development

At the core of Agenda 2030 is the commitment to “leave no one behind”, including through efforts to combat discrimination and promote equality. Such an approach is particularly relevant to migrants, who are often disadvantaged and face barriers to access services, enjoy their rights and participate meaningfully in the societies they live in. The Agenda 2030 can effectively enable the overall process of integration. Specific Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) address particular aspects of integration.

Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development
  • TARGET 10.2
    By 2030, empower and promote the social, economic and political inclusion of all, irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status
  • TARGET 11.1          
    By 2030, ensure access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services and upgrade slums.
  • TARGET 16.7
    Ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels.
  • TARGET 16.9
    By 2030, provide legal identity for all, including birth registration.

SDG indicators provide information on access to basic services (including essential health care, basic education and social protection), on how well migrants are faring in comparison with the receiving communities (namely, in terms of their education level, labour market outcomes, employment conditions and poverty), and whether migrants are more likely than non-migrants to be subject to discrimination and violence (in different forms). They help assess to what extent institutions are inclusive of migrants and whether migrants benefit from equitable access to opportunities.

Global Compact for Migration

The Global Compact for Migration emphasizes through its 23 objectives the importance of migrants’ integration, mainly through objective 16, “Empower migrants and societies to realize full inclusion and social cohesion”. Its main commitment is “to foster inclusive and cohesive societies by empowering migrants to become active members of society and promoting the reciprocal engagement of receiving communities and migrants in the exercise of their rights and obligations towards each other”. Acknowledging that “fully integrated migrants are better positioned to contribute to prosperity”, objective 16 also seeks to reduce disparities and avoid polarization in order to promote inclusion and social cohesion.

To meet this objective, concrete suggested actions include:

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Figure 3. Actions to empower migrants and societies to realize full inclusion and social cohesion (Objective 16 of the Global Compact for Migration)

Other relevant objectives include:

Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration
  • OBJECTIVE 3(d)
    Provide newly arrived migrants with targeted, gender-responsive, child-sensitive, accessible and comprehensive information and legal guidance on their rights and obligations, including on compliance with national and local laws, obtaining of work and resident permits, status adjustments, registration with authorities, access to justice to file complaints about rights violations, as well as on access to basic services.
    Provide access to basic services for migrants.
    Empower migrants and societies to realize full inclusion and social cohesion.
    Eliminate all forms of discrimination and promote evidence-based public discourse to shape perceptions of migration.
    Invest in skills development and facilitate mutual recognition of skills, qualifications and competences.

New Urban Agenda

Adopted at the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III) in 2016, the New Urban Agenda outlines commitments to sustainable urban development and to making cities foster prosperity and well-being. Significantly, it fully integrates migration into the strategic planning and management of cities. It recognizes that the local level is the level where the interaction between migration and other social issues is mostly felt, and where responses to migrants’ needs are provided directly.

Regional initiatives and commitments

Some regional initiatives and commitments also include considerations of migrant integration, including equal treatment of migrants and cross-border workers while working and living in other Member States; access to social security systems; double taxation; and recognition of qualifications, among others. These initiatives include:

Inter-State policy dialogues

Integration, like other aspects of migration, is considered an internal matter. Nevertheless, migrant integration is the focus of several inter-State consultation mechanisms:

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