04 May 2021

Discrimination and integration of refugees in cosmopolitan Berlin

What determines the successful integration of refugees in Berlin? And what shapes their willingness to integrate into German society? In his master dissertation, Zong Yao Edison Yap shows the huge complexities of integration and how they challenge the image of Berlin as a cosmopolitan city. His findings, which he details in this interview, won him the 2020 Ladislas Mysyrowicz Prize and are now published in open access as part of the Graduate Institute ePapers, thanks to the support of the Vahabzadeh Foundation.

Why did you decide to focus your dissertation on refugee and migrant integration in Berlin?

This research topic is borne out of two things: my interest in refugee and migrant integration and my own personal struggles with being a migrant in Europe. Coming from Singapore and being ethnically Chinese, I was insulated from a lot of the discrimination that minorities face, but upon moving to Europe I experienced all of a sudden a host of discrimination and microaggressions and have been working through these issues since. The research is a reflection of that process – but rooted in the experience of refugees and migrants in Berlin.

What was your methodology?

I conducted semi-structured interviews with refugees and migrants. Questions centred on their social, political, religious and cultural experiences and how these experiences changed over time. As you will read in the paper, I had to use the snowball sampling method as many of the refugees I approached had research fatigue and did not want to be interviewed – this sampling method of course injected a degree of bias.

Based on my literature review, I first developed a set of topics to cover in my initial interviews with a couple of respondents. Later, I used NVivo to perform the initial coding to identify key topics and new ones which I had not initially conceived. I then reiterated this cycle with subsequent batches of interviews, so that with each cycle of data processing, I uncovered additional nuances that would render my data richer. Oftentimes, I would go back to the earlier batch of respondents and pose these new questions.

Overall, I tried my best to let the data guide the interviews and questions (as in grounded theory). This proved extremely useful because it introduced new perspectives which I had not expected, such as the refugees’ experience of “intergenerational” discrimination by Arab immigrants who had come decades or years prior to 2015.

What are your major findings?

As conveyed by the persons I interviewed, experiences of discrimination reflect issues with integration (or the lack thereof). My findings show that the project/process of integrating migrants and refugees is made incredibly complex by some of the following issues:

  • How do the city and its people see itself/themselves? This self-perception and the continuously shifting “equilibrium” underscore that one’s integration is in a constant flux.
  • Feelings of discrimination and one’s integration are deeply intertwined. One’s belongingness is mitigated by a multitude of factors (e.g., legal status, nationality, religion, values, intergroup dynamics, cumulative impact of poor integration of former immigrants) and levels (e.g., geopolitical developments, institutions, etc.). The external environment is just one part of the story – add to this the refugee or migrant’s agency in navigating through this labyrinth and you will have a myriad of outcomes when it comes to one’s feeling of belongingness and willingness to belong.
  • Noting the burden of the “refugee” label, should refugees even be treated as a separate entity to be “integrated”?

Finally, I bring into question the issue of cosmopolitanism: if refugees or migrants have to adopt or perform markers of “German-ness” to fit in, how is that commensurate with cosmopolitanism? The expectation of migrants and refugees to integrate or assimilate into the host society inevitably underscores the limits of cosmopolitanism. Add to that the shifting boundaries and diverse interpretations of what “German-ness” actually means.

What are you doing now?

Since 2019, I have been working at the International Trade Centre’s SheTrades Initiative – a programme that promotes gender inclusivity in international trade – where I have led Communications, IT sector development in Bangladesh, Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria, and have facilitated the development of international definitions for women’s entrepreneurship. In my current capacity I am working on the trade policy side of women’s economic empowerment.

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This e-Paper was published thanks to the financial support of the Vahabzadeh Foundation. It reproduces Zong Yao Edison Yap’s master dissertation in Development Studies (supervisor: Alessandro Monsutti), which won the 2020 Ladislas Mysyrowicz Prize.

Full citation of the e-Paper:
Yap, Zong Yao Edison. Stratified Belonging, Layered Subjectivities: The Complexities of Refugee Integration in Cosmopolitan Berlin. Graduate Institute ePaper 38. Geneva: Graduate Institute Publications, 2021.

Interview edited by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner picture: excerpt from an image by Sergiy Palamarchuk/