According to the 2021 census, approximately 34,000 Chinese live in Scotland, forming one of the largest ethnic groups besides the Pakistanis. Asylum seekers have been increasing in recent years from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) (National Records of Scotland, 2014). However, most research on the UK refugee integration has provided scant information on the Chinese population from the PRC. Asylum seekers and refugees (ASR) overall face a unique set of challenges, and there has been limited information regarding the Chinese ASR for researchers, policymakers, or professionals working with this population. Better understanding and communication between both sides would help improve resettlement outcomes, enhance social development, and improve the well-being of the Chinese ASR population.
Overview of the Problem Area
Challenges impact refugees’ overall well-being as they face an unfamiliar environment and culture. Refugees must adapt to a totally new environment, language, culture, and at the same time cope with the loss of their homeland and their familiar way of doing things (Tran, Manalo, & Nguyen, 2007). The social and physical environment in which one lives impacts mental health outcomes (Kawachi & Subramanian, 2007). Some scholars have found that individuals who have experienced greater levels of trauma at the pre-migration stage have a higher risk of developing psychological disorders long after resettlement (Steel, Silove, Phan, & Bauman, 2002). Others have investigated into suicides among refugees resettled in the United States due to various reasons, such as a lack of resettlement services and social support and frustrations with separation from family (Hagaman et al., 2016). In addition, Stewart et al. (2008) revealed several interrelated challenges facing refugees, such as language difficulties, inadequate information on services, and social isolation.
Asylum seekers and refugees’ needs and concerns, no doubt are far more significant than others, who came to the United Kingdom with their financial assets and skills. Literature mainly focuses on Chinese migrant resettlement in the host country but has scant information on Chinese refugees and asylum seekers in the United Kingdom. Regardless of the legal status, people from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) share similar political, cultural, and social background. A review of the perspectives of resettled migrants could, therefore, provide insights into the asylum and refugee population. Studies conducted with Chinese migrants in the United Kingdom show that they struggled with finding accommodation, learning English, finding adequate work, and were likely to suffer from isolation. Poor English language proficiency, limited social support network, and ongoing racial discrimination have a negative impact on their daily lives (Lam, Sales, D’Angelo, Lin, & Montagna, 2009; Lo & Chen, 2014). Overall, there is limited recent research on finding out the voice of the Chinese refugees and their perspectives in the host country.
A qualitative study was conducted on the constructs of well-being with 25 Chinese asylum seekers and refugees in Glasgow prior to this study to explore the subjective well-being of this population (Cheng, 2018). The top five themes that emerged were children’s education, social relationships with own ethnic group, employment and financial independence, access to health care, and freedom of speech and association. From what participants have mentioned in the interviews, they were struggling with issues such as language barrier, social isolation, emotional health/mental health, inadequate information, lack of awareness of services, poverty, perceived discrimination, and unclear legal status in the United Kingdom. The Chinese population was portrayed as an isolated but a close-knit community. Many participants reported that their poor English language skill was one of the most significant obstacles in expanding their social circle outside the Chinese community. All these can engender a sense of powerlessness and exclusion in the host country and negatively impact their overall well-being. It can be argued that the negative impact of social isolation on mental health and well-being is likely to be cumulative as each deprivation prompts others (Strang & Ager, 2010). Therefore, understanding social connections and their roles in people’s lives could be the first step toward effective solutions for the asylum seeking and refugee (ASR) population.
Objectives of Study
This research study aims to explore the social connection patterns of participants and find out the resources and support the Chinese ASR population have and from where they receive the support. The research question of this study is “What is the pattern of social connections like in the Chinese ASR population in Glasgow”?
Social Capital and Social Connections
Both Coleman and Putnam highlight the importance of resources, which are reproduced and made available to individuals in social networks. Putnam’s theoretical framework (1993) highlights that social capital is differentiated according to its capacity to produce “bonding” and “bridging” networks. Bonding capital promotes relationships and networks of trust and reciprocity that reinforce bonds and connections within homogenous groups. Bridging social capital, in contrast, is outward looking and involves building connections, relationships, and networks of trust and reciprocity between heterogeneous groups and communities. Finally, linking capital allows individuals to access and link across different formal and informal resources. Woolcock (1998) describes the linking capital, which involves the capacity of social capital to develop relationships and networks of trust and reciprocity that allow individuals to access and link across different formal and informal resources. Putnam (2000) emphasizes the notions of trust, reciprocity, and civic engagement as particular forms of social capital generated in social networks.
According to Bourdieu (1986), social capital derives from the size and type of social networks one can access and draw upon. Migrants’ ability to mobilize social capital and successfully engage in bridging may thus depend on the cultural capital such as language, skills, and educational qualifications they possess. Factors, such as social class and inequalities, are particularly relevant in migrant research. Trust, the cognitive aspect of social capital is critical in the process, which affects the overall well-being of individual and community as well. The Chinese asylum/refugee population, the targeted group of this research, have been identified with a low mobility of social capital and very limited cultural capital. Many are slow to build trust and are suspicious of others, especially those who seek political asylum overseas. Understanding the pattern of social connection can help reveal crucial information regarding this population’s social support system and the development of their social networks.
“Indicators of Integration” Framework
Participants from a previous phase of this study (Cheng, 2018) mentioned children’s education and their learning opportunities, employment and financial independence, health, freedom of speech and association, and support from own ethnic group as core constructs of living a good life. They fall into the categories of the domains in the “Indicators of Integration” framework (Ager & Strang, 2008). The framework (Figure 1) draws on social capital theory to explain the types of social connections that are crucial for well-being:
Bonds refer to emotional support and informal local knowledge people share with others who have the same identity and cultural background. Bridges provide access to services and facilitate the exchange of resources beyond one’s own family and the cultural group, while links are for accessing rights and contributing to the shaping of society (Putnam, 1993; Woolcock, 1998). Isolation has a direct impact on emotional health through the lack of emotional support. It also leads to a lack of local knowledge, which in turn further limits access to services including both physical and mental health. On the other hand, the building of bonds can lead to feelings of emotional support and confidence. Some have argued that to build “bridges” between bonded groups, there need to be opportunities for people to meet and exchange resources in ways that are mutually beneficial, thus generating reciprocal relationships and inter-cultural trust. Besides, insecurity of rights, as evident in participants, has a direct impact on well-being. It can be argued that the negative impact of social isolation on mental health and well-being is likely to be cumulative as each deprivation prompts others (Strang & Ager, 2010).
It is essential to explore how Chinese asylum seekers/refugee population understand social support in their living environment, and how they get access to support and resources. Overall, social network and social capital play a very crucial role in the resettlement process. It is therefore practical to find out what this population are aware of regarding resources and support in the host community, and what they are utilizing currently as formal and informal support networks in order to foster further social development.
Research Process and Methodology
Setting Up the Study
This study aimed to learn about the pattern of social connections and social network of the Chinese asylum seekers/refugee population to inform service providers and community planning. This study collaborated with the Chinese Community and Development Partnership (CCDP). The manager of CCDP has offered practical advice and office space for conducting the research activities.
Participants were recruited on a voluntary basis, and the researcher has explained the design of the study, which utilized the participatory research method. All participants understood that participation was voluntary, they could leave anytime, were not obliged to talk about anything they did not want to, and that no information obtained from the research would be identifiable with any particular participant. Participants have signed the consent form in their language before participation in the study.
This research study is the second phase of a research project, in which 25 Chinese refugees and asylum seekers were interviewed to elicit what living a good life means to them in the United Kingdom (Cheng, 2018). The researcher asked if participants were interested in taking part in the second phase of the research and 17 participants agreed to do so. The inclusion criteria for both phases 1 and 2 are the same—only Chinese asylum seekers and refugees (ASR), aged 18 and above from the PRC who have been living in the United Kingdom for less than 10 years will be recruited. Exclusionary criteria include Chinese ASR who are not from the PRC and/or have been living in the United Kingdom for more than 10 years. Also, anyone under 18 years old will be excluded. The researcher has recruited 24 people for this study and they were grouped randomly into three groups. Eight participants were invited from each group, and participants confirmed that they would participate on the phone. However, the turnout was five, six, and four participants for Group 1, 2, and 3, respectively, on the dates of the participatory research. All participants were female, and their place of origin is the PRC. They speak Mandarin, while some speak both Mandarin and Cantonese, which is a dialect in some parts of China. The age range of participants is between 20 and 48. All participants were either granted refugee status or asylum seekers residing in Glasgow for not more than 10 years.
Methods of Investigation
This study employed a tool for mapping social connections, developed to aid in humanitarian settings and in contrasting cultural contexts (Strang & O’Brien, 2017; Strang & Quinn, 2019). This tool uses participatory activities to understand potential connections and the types of social resources of which the population in the study are aware of, using the categories of “Bonds,” “Bridges,” and “Links” (Ager & Strang, 2008). Building on the notions of social capital, the researcher also measures “reciprocity,” which is the opportunity to give besides receiving, and “trust.” Both reciprocity and trust are essential for emotional well-being and maintenance of positive relationships (Putnam, 2000). It aims to explore the social connections that the Chinese ASR identify as resources in maintaining well-being in Glasgow.
This study employs sample real-life problems to explore connections associated with “bonding,” “bridging,” and “linking” capital. The social connections produced in this method are relevant for participants as potential resources in their daily life context. It uses the connections generated to develop “connectedness” scores for individual participants and also for the social resources that the group has identified. The three problems were picked to explore their access to emotional support (bond), practical help (bridge), and access to rights (link). The three problem scenarios used are as follows:
Who would you speak to about the problem or ask for help if your cell phone was broken?
Who would you speak to about the problem or ask for help if you felt lonely?
Who would you speak to about the problem or ask for help if you had issues with your housing?
The researcher plotted responses on a large sheet of paper mapping each answer to either a person or an organization mentioned in a circle with a line linking them to the problems for which they were accessed. The process took about 25–40 minutes depending on the size of the group and the participants of each group. The range of social connections mentioned was plotted according to the geographic proximity using the categories such as household, neighborhood, Glasgow city, within the United Kingdom, and overseas (Figures 2–4).
Card Sorting Tasks
It is aimed to explore individual connectedness, opportunities to give help, and levels of trust. The researcher noted down the lists of social connections both people and organizations generated by the previous task during the refreshment break. Each item on the list was given a number and written on a small card. After the break, participants were invited individually to the card sorting task according to three questions:
Have you spoken to or asked this person/organization for help in the last 6 months? (Yes/No)
How much do you trust this person/organization to do their best to help you? (a lot/a little/not at all/not applicable)
In the last 6 months, has this person/organization asked you to help them, or talked to you about their problems? (Yes/No)
This exercise was done individually in the other conference room to ensure privacy and confidentiality. Responses were recorded by the researcher for each participant, while the staff members of CCDP were having a friendly chat with other participants in the main conference room.
The data from this participatory exercise were used to compile a collective “map” of social connections for each group. In each of the social map diagrams, the connections mentioned by participants were plotted according to geographic proximity starting from their household, neighborhood, and extend out to overseas. Individual responses from the card sorting tasks were then used to collect the levels of connection and help to give (reciprocity) for each of the connections. All the information was plotted on the map of each group accordingly (Figures 2–4).
For the trust aspect, participants were asked to indicate if they trusted the person or organizations “a lot,” “somewhat,” or “not at all.” A weighted scale was used to correspond to responses from participants—a value of “3” for response indicated “a lot”; “2”for a response indicated “somewhat,” and “1” for a response indicated “not at all.” Then, the total scores for each potential social connection were calculated. As participants were also given the choice of not rating a particular person or organization since they did not know them and thus could not comment on those categories, a total “trust” score was calculated for each category as a percentage of responses to that category. By this process, all the data from the three social mapping groups could be combined, and the persons and organizations mentioned could be ranked according to levels of trust (Figure 5).
Chinese asylum seekers and refugees (ASR) seldom seek help from mainstream service providers or engage in workshops to learn about the available resources in the host country. The assistance of the caseworkers at CCDP has eased the process of this participatory exercise since some participants have known CCDP and the workers for some time, and have built a trusting relationship with the agency. Some participants also have known the researcher from participating in the earlier phase of research on well-being constructs, and have built some rapport. Overall, the participatory activities showed that participants have limited awareness of potential support networks and services available to them in the host country.
Levels of Connection of Participants
The data suggest that the participants have access to bonding capital with their family members. Most live with their husband and children in Glasgow, and participants mentioned their husband as the person whom they will call for practical support when their cell phone was not working and if they have issues like no electricity in the house. A participant mentioned her husband asked her to give a call to the Chinese cultural officer to inquire about a Chinese person, who might know where to fix the broken cell phone.
Many participants discussed the specific types of help they ask of their husbands. Help related to technical advice such as broken pipes or machines are likely to be dealt with by husbands. When discussing problems in the household, especially children’s issues or emotional support, most participants think that they would not talk to their husbands as those are not their duties. Some said that taking care of children, especially young children, and cooking for the family are the female’s responsibilities. They also did not trust that their husbands would be careful enough to care for young children. Some mentioned they would never ask their husbands to clean the house or take the garbage out to the street as this might affect their self-esteem negatively. Besides, older children, especially those who are 11 years old and above, very often take up the role of support for their mothers. They help with problems in the house and things like cell phones not working. Parents also turn to older children for help with getting information on the Internet, and request them to make phone calls to concerned departments or agencies to resolve issues because of their very limited English language skills.
Chinese friends in Glasgow
Chinese friends who know English well are the most “valuable” resource for the participants. If they are unable to help, they sometimes can point participants to the right person or place to resolve an issue. A few participants mentioned they did not want to overload their friends for help with translation, especially when they have limited capacity to offer any favor in return. Many participants rely on their close Chinese friends for support, especially when they feel isolated. Some of them have been in Glasgow for about 3 years, and have not been able to make friends. The very few close friends they have in their lives are deemed precious to them. Some participants mentioned they know a lot of Chinese people, but they only have a few close friends to turn to for practical and emotional support. A couple of participants have talked about seeking help from neighbors who are not Chinese, and some said that the local people are helpful to them.
Extended family in China
Some have kept a close relationship with their own family, especially their mothers in China, and talk to them frequently on the phone. They resort to video chat with their family in China, especially for the connection between their children and children’s grandparents, who have not physically seen the children since they were born in Glasgow. However, participants would not share their problems with families at home since they do not want their elderly parents to worry about them, and they are too far away and have no resources to help. Some might phone their family and friends in China when they are bored. A participant quoted a Chinese saying, “When you are home, you rely on parents; when you are outside home, you rely on your friends,” which is very appropriate in this situation.
Local people and non-Chinese
Very few mentioned local Scottish people as a resource because of the language barrier, and a lack of opportunities to connect and communicate with them. Some participants meet the local people through attending children’s playgroup in local libraries or community centers, or through the circle of their children’s friends. During the discussion, some participants also mentioned they tried to avoid contact with African people since they do not feel safe around them. A couple of participants mentioned that they are rude and dirty. On the other hand, another participant said that she had befriended a Sudanese, and they help each other with childcare at times.
Local Support Services
Participants were able to mention some support agencies in the neighborhood or Glasgow wide. Most of the participants are aware of the local libraries, community centers, housing office, CCDP, and Chinese shops. A few have mentioned Scottish Power and Glasgow Sports, run by the Glasgow city council, for sports facilities such as gym and swimming pool. However, only a few participants think of the Citizens Advice Bureau or the Scottish Refugee Council, which provide information and resources for asylum seekers and refugees. None of the participants has mentioned talking to their doctors or mental health professionals for any emotional support. One participant has mentioned a local Chinese church offers a lot of support and friendship for her. Participants also reported that they were heavily reliant on the Internet to locate information to resolve their issues and also to connect with friends and family. Calling from phone apps such as “We-chat” via the Internet is free and having a good Internet connection is deemed very important.
No participants have mentioned any UK national agencies such as the Home Office, members of Scottish Parliament, local councilor, Samaritans, or Helpline that might help with legal issues, asylum claims, or access to housing or financial support. It is observed that they are not aware of the functioning of the wider Scottish and UK society and thus are not fully aware of their rights in the host country.
Limited awareness of services and resources
Participants have limited knowledge of where to locate resources and services such as translating services and legal advice. None of the participants mentioned broader support services offered by the British Red Cross or the Home Office. Participants especially those who have been in Glasgow for a shorter period pointed to obstacles in accessing formal support services as they were not aware of services available to them. Also, all participants have mentioned that their limited English skills are a significant barrier to communicating with host country and other local agencies, which provide resources and services to asylum seekers and refugees.
Patterns of Trust
We can see from the chart (Figure 5) that close Chinese friends, friends who know English well, and CCDP together with the local library and the Internet are ranked highest in trust. The next highest rank connection is the family members such as husband, children, and family in China. Participants tended to trust those from their own country the most except the Chinese shops, which has the lowest trust score. Some participants commented that the Chinese business people are sometimes not very honest. Most participants are mothers of school-age children, and they tend to use the libraries as a resource for their children. Some mentioned it would be excellent if the library could provide more local information in the Chinese language so that they can be more informed about what resources and services are available. Most playgroups meet at local libraries where participants are familiar with the place and their staff. This can be the reason why participants most trusted the library and see it as helpful. Besides, participants turn to the Internet very often for solutions and advice, and a lot of them trust the information they found online including medical advice for children.
Very few participants appeared to know of the Scottish Refugee Council, Home-start, or Citizen Advice Bureau and thus could not comment on how much they trusted these organizations. The trust score generated, therefore, was from a small number of participants. Also, participants tend not to see Police as a resource and have little understanding of the role of Police. One participant talked about calling the police because of the person who stayed on the floor above hers kept stomping on the ground and disturbed everyone’s sleep at night. She said the situation was better for a week, but the noise came back. She did not think the Police could do much to help them in this regard.
Opportunities for Reciprocity
The last question asked was if participants had been asked for help by others, or talked to about others’ problems. The researcher just asked for a “yes” or “no” answer to check with participants’ opportunity for offering help to those they have to seek help from in their network (Figures 2–4). Most participants reported that their husbands and children asked for help often ranging from cooking to homework. Besides, participants mentioned their close Chinese friends often asked them for help with caring for young children. A participant mentioned her Chinese friends at Church would sometimes ask her to make some food for them since they liked her food very much. She was very proud and showed the pictures of the food she made from her phone.
A few participants considered a call from the caseworker at CCDP for filling out a survey as a request for help. They were happy to report that CCDP needed their help and said that they were willing to support the agency, which has been a great resource and gathering point for the Chinese mothers and children. The last group of people that they help often is family and friends in China. A participant mentioned that her brother was out of a job, and has asked for some financial help for his family with two young children. Another participant said that her friend asked her to purchase some baby formula and send them to China since she could not trust those sold in China. Others have mentioned being asked for material and financial support. However, there were very limited opportunities for them to help in the local neighborhood in the host country.
Participants mentioned that they would seek support from only a few close friends. They might not want to ask their husbands or family and friends in China for help. Also, some do not want to bother their most valuable friends, who speak English well if they cannot return the favor. According to Ho (1994), self-respect and feelings of shame are significant problems to Chinese people’s help-seeking behavior. Many Chinese consider self-respect to be more important than seeking social support at difficult times. “Lian” (face) and “mianzi” (face with the connotation of reputation) are the two central conceptualizations of face in the Chinese culture. “Lian” refers to society’s confidence in the integrity and moral character of a person; the loss of “Lian” makes it hard for a person to function properly in his/her community. ‘Mianzi,” on the other hand, has a connotation of a person’s reputation and public image built upon that person’s successes in life. Disclosing one’s weaknesses or problems to others results in a loss of “mianzi.” Losing face is highly undesirable for a Chinese individual since it will not only lead to a loss of social reputation and status but also bring shame and embarrassment to the family (Ho, 1994). The feeling of losing face if they are not capable of returning favors might influence their help-seeking decision as well. All these could lead to isolation and frustration when one has to handle problems on their own.
Implications for Policy and Practice
This section will focus on discussing some recommendations in easing the challenges of the Chinese ASR in the United Kingdom. In the social mapping exercise, issues included social isolation and mental health, lack of trust and access to information, limited opportunity to contribute in host country, as well as low English proficiency. The insights emerged from this study point to important implications for policy and practice.
Social connections and networks, degree of integration in society, and trust are some of the important indicators of well-being. In this study, some participants illustrated a strong bonding within the Chinese ethnic networks. They received emotional and practical support from friends and acquaintances, but these were usually other Chinese, who have similar economic and social status. For some families, the bonding capital is stronger and it can serve as a bridging capital at times. For example, a participant received a letter and called a Chinese friend for help. The friend translated the letter and recommended the participant to talk to a caseworker at CCDP, who had links with the immigration staff at the Home Office in the United Kingdom. Having the knowledge and access to Chinese agencies such as the CCDP is significant in providing practical help, and it can serve as a bridge to the broader communities. This pattern of connection is common, but for those families who have a weak bonding capital, they have limited ways to obtain bridging or linking capital. Therefore, they experience more hardship and isolation, which in turn negatively impacts their mental health status.
Migration policy plays a significant role as a barrier or enabler of the development of trust, social capital, and integration for asylum seekers and refugees (Strang & Quinn, 2019). Service providers in the host country need to be aware of the range of ties that refugees choose to draw on during resettlement (Lamba & Krahn, 2003). This study shows that some participants take advantage of close ties such as family and friends, relying on them to make bridges and links. In addition, the host country can promote a trusting and inclusive environment for refugees by partnering with local ethnic agencies to improve access to accurate information and encourage participation in local communities. It will lead to higher community cohesion and ease social isolation when refugees widen their social network in the host country. Concerned government and nonprofit agencies should recognize key Chinese leaders and partners, who serve the asylum and refugee population, and coordinate with them to promote better communication and participation between both the parties in the host country.
Opportunities for both receiving and giving support and help in fact promote mental well-being (Phillimore, Humpheries, & Khan, 2017; Strang & Quinn, 2019). The findings indicate limited opportunities for participants to help others, except for their family members and close friends Participants also consider if they are in a position to return favors before they seek help. Trust is an important marker of social capital and is strongly associated with well-being. For example, participants rely heavily on their older children in their day-to-day activities to convey a sense of trust from mother to child. Helping the Chinese ASR to build a trusting relationship with the host country will certainly be beneficial to them. One way to achieve this is to improve their English proficiency. A lack of English proficiency complicates lives in many ways. Language proficiency eases the difficulty in the acculturation process for migrants, allowing them to do such things as making friends with the local people. The host country can partner with local Chinese agencies or local libraries, which have developed a trusting relationship with the Chinese ASR, to implement practical English conversation classes for this population. Practicality of the content materials, transportation support, the location of classes, and provision of childcare should be taken into consideration by local policy planners when offering English classes for the Chinese ASR. To build solidarity, it will be crucial to encourage participation and improve mutual understanding between the host country and the ASR population. It can certainly be accomplished through careful and thoughtful policy planning and collaboration of all parties concerned.
The findings of this study have significant implications for the host country and agencies working with the Chinese refugee and asylum population. Nonetheless, the sample in this study was not randomly selected and, therefore, the data generated was not representative of the overall Chinese ASR population. The findings indicate a lack of extended family support and change of living environment and culture, which is overwhelming and stressful. This study provides information on the types of networks this population has, and explains why they are limited in some ways and strong in others. The integration into the mainstream local community was very minimal since this population possess little social and cultural capital. It might be hard to reach this group, but the host country can undoubtedly invest in agencies such as the CCDP and other nonprofit organizations to reach out to the Chinese in the area. In addition, offering the Chinese ASR an opportunity for volunteering in the local neighborhood and community will boost their confidence and provide them opportunities to practice their English language skills. It will also benefit social development in the community and foster a sense of belonging. If participants have more opportunity to help in the host community, it might help break some of the isolation they face at home and extend their social network to other ethnic and local communities.
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Caroline Cheng is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Social Work, Northern Michigan University, Michigan, USA. She can be contacted at email@example.com. Vikash Kumar, PhD, MSW, Assistant Professor, Department of Social Work (Northern Michigan University). His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.