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Findings from the National Conversation on immigration: Perceptions of integration shape attitudes to immigration

by Rosie Carter

Since February 2016, HOPE not hate has travelled to over sixty different towns, cities and rural communities across all regions and nations of the UK as part of the National Conversation on Immigration, the largest public engagement on immigration ever undertaken. Together with British Future, we’ve had over 130 conversations with ordinary members of the public and local stakeholders about all aspects of migration.

What has been striking  in our findings are not just distinct local differences in attitudes, but also the centrality of integration in shaping attitudes towards others.

Everywhere, we’ve had nuanced and constructive debates about migration. Much is positive, but the conversations can also be cathartic, as participants air their anxieties and fears. Many voice concerns about ‘control’ or criminality, about migrants adding pressure to public service or abusing welfare benefits. Often, people link their concerns about immigration directly to integration:

“Overall, it [immigration] is more positive than negative, but there are some exceptions. If you go somewhere you have to embrace it, embrace the language, embrace the culture”
Participant, Berwick-upon-Tweed

For most people, integration is not assimilation, but comes down to mutual respect, tolerance and understanding. Fears about integration often stem from perceptions that for settled communities, there is more give than take.

Where residents have meaningful social contact with migrants, they are able to base their opinions on these social interactions, rather than on “community narratives” drawn solely from the media and peer group debate. But not everyone has meaningful contact with people who are different from themselves, and perceptions that integration is not working are reinforced by encounters which seem to confirm suspicions.

The pace of change in some places has felt overwhelming. While people generally mix well in workplaces, some people we’ve spoken to have felt uncomfortable working in factories or warehouses alongside EEA nationals with whom they cannot communicate, and feel their working environments have become less cordial as a result. It is not that people don’t want to mix, but they sometimes feel that migrants do not want to be part of their communities, especially where they feel their efforts to be welcoming are rejected.

Participants are generally positive about the role of schools in promoting good community relations, and feel that children in schools mix well and learn about each other’s cultures. But they often feel that parents keep themselves to themselves, and see language barriers responsible for much of this. Simultaneously, stakeholders in almost every place we’ve visited have told us that English language classes are inadequate, or do not meet the needs of migrants working long hours or with young children.

Often, integration problems are seen to be concentrated in certain areas. People we have spoken to often cite cities such as Birmingham or Bradford as areas they fear, where they believe immigration has “taken over” and resulted in a loss of English identity. Sometimes these comments are in response to the changing look and feel of the UK’s towns and cities, but low-level anti-Muslim prejudice underpins much of these sentiments. While not always explicit, people commonly raise concerns about a lack of compatibility of Islam with a British way of life, often in areas with less diverse populations.

It is not uncommon for participants to cite media stories about bans on nativity plays or tell us that they feel unable to express their national identity. While pro-migration camps may ridicule these narratives, it is worth understanding that these stories stick as they resonate with some people’s broader outlook. If we are to shift the narrative rather than reinforce divisions, we need to find better ways to engage with people on integration issues who do not see immigration and multiculturalism working for them.

“You hear certain people say ‘don’t go to this area’, it’s like Chinese whispers going around. I think that could be detrimental to people wanting to get to know each other.”
Participant, Preston

Sometimes, integration concerns are voiced in reference to particular neighbourhoods. Often these are in poorer areas with cheap, private rental accommodation but little infrastructure to accommodate the new populations moving in. As one stakeholder in March told us, “You’ve got one house or a flat, but with ten times the rubbish outside and six times the number of cars”. Associations made between migration and neighbourhood decline feed concerns about a lack of integration, and perceptions that migrants are not respecting the ‘British way of life’.

Further, perceptions of ‘failed integration’ can inform wider concerns about control. For example, when we visited Bolton, ‘undesirable’ migration and a perceived failure of integration were automatically linked. Members of the panel thought that ‘genuine’ claims for asylum could be identified through claimants’ willingness to integrate, and that migrants seeking benefits could be spotted through a lack of respect for British culture.

People also tell us where they think integration is working. Most people think schools are doing a good job in actively promoting positive diversity and helping children to mix well. We are also told where integration works well organically and often goes unnoticed, such as in workplaces or sports clubs. People really value community initiatives that draw people together, or inclusively celebrate events. These not only help people to meet and better understand one another, but can help build an inclusive civic identity.

Social contact between migrants and local residents is key to integration, and to improving community relations. But social contact cannot be forced, and is not always possible. Further, negative encounters can have a forceful effect and reinforce an underlying view that people from different backgrounds do not mix well. It is clear that tackling a number of issues such as English language provision, or residential segregation are important. But we also need to start challenging dominant narratives that multiculturalism is not working. We need to find better ways to engage with those who hold anxieties, so that is not just those peddling anti-migrant or islamophobic views who are heard.

Join the National Conversation on Immigration now.