IT’S GOOD TO TALK. . .

Yvette Cooper, M.P. – Chairperson of the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee – welcomed the talk-fest organised by British Future and Hope Not Hate on the topic of Immigration and Integration.  Branded the ‘National Conversation on Immigration’, gatherings have been held in 60 venues across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, involving over 550 people.  Sunder Katwala (British Future) told a gathering held in London, on 17th May, that ‘people need a voice. . . (particularly after) the reset moment of Brexit’.  The interim results highlight the fact that if the personal can be political, so too can the local.  People tend to see the big issues through the local lens of their community experience.  These public conversations – which prioritized people that are ‘undecided’ in their views about immigration – are being supplemented by opinion polling and stakeholder discussions.  The final report will be released in September 2018.

THEMES FROM THE NATIONAL CONVERSATION

Motivated by concerns that recent debates around immigration has been divisive and dominated by the loud voices of those with decided views (both pro and anti) the conversations offered space for more considered discussion.  On this basis it was established that most people who participated in the citizens’ panels were ‘balancers’, who see both the pressures and benefits of immigration.  They were also prepared to be constructive, pragmatic and influenced by a sense of fair play.  The majority of meetings were held before recent media coverage of the ‘Windrush’ scandal, but the common themes of recognising the contribution of immigrants to the UK; the need for clear immigration policies and procedures; and the fair application of these controls, ran through all the conversations.  Jill Rutter (British Future) noted the more positive tone of the face-to-face discussions as compared to the vitriol of many on-line spats on the subject.  Rosie Carter (Hope Not Hate) stressed the importance of giving people the space to have deliberative conversations that allowed them to share both their hopes and their anxieties.

There is also common ground to be unlocked around integration policies and strategies, with integration/inclusion being seen as a two-way process.  Fluency in English is seen as a basic requirement and opportunities for positive social contact matters: lack of contact results in higher levels of prejudice against ‘the other’.  Business and civil society organisations currently make important contributions, but there needs to be effective government strategies (at national and devolved Assembly levels) and Local Authorities can be pivotal in imaginative approaches to integration.  Current Government policies that fail to deliver accessible language training and refuse asylum seekers the right to work.  Hate crime is not acceptable and social media companies need to take greater responsibility for the content they host.

SOCIAL INTEGRATION, INCLUSION, COHESION, ENGAGEMENT – AND WHATEVER YOU’RE HAVING YOURSELF. . .

Words matter – but so does local perception.  Concerns expressed about the perceived impact of immigration on employment standards in Chesterfield differed from the experience in Southampton, where there were anxieties over pressure on school places.  Derry-Londonderry and Merthyr Tydfil saw exchanges about immigrant access to welfare benefits; while Gloucester had little experience of contact with either refugees or immigrants.  The vagaries of public perception were also evident with demands for tighter ‘controls’ when there was little or no knowledge of the measures allowed under current legislation.

Limited, and misinformed, public perception is a point that was taken up in the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee on Immigration Policy (January 2018).  Not only is there an over-estimation of the number of refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants in the UK, and the fact that some 30,000 people are placed in detention each year, but there is ignorance of the legal responsibility on employers, landlords, health providers and banks to act as outreach tentacles of the immigration system (with potential fines and/or prison terms attached for failure to comply).   Interestingly, neither the Interim Report on the National Conversation nor the House of Commons Select Committee Report comment on the role of certain media outlets in fostering public misinformation.

Both reports recognise the need for effective policy measures to address pressures on public services and housing in areas where there has been large scale migration.  The Controlling Migration Fund for England (a title reflecting ‘hostile environment’ narrative) needs a re-vamp; whilst Local Authorities need to dust off integration strategies.  The lack of any consideration of the potential contribution of effective community development strategies to local cohesion and inclusion is disappointing, but perhaps not surprising, given the virtual disappearance of such policies into the pothole of British Government thinking.  The Social Change Initiative is currently taking forward local discussions around place-based community inclusion approaches from a community development perspective.  A meeting held in Hull, the day following the launch of the National Conversation Interim Report, argued the need to acknowledge the importance of supporting pockets of opportunity and activism at neighbourhood level alongside networking activists to share good examples of inclusive community development.  At least one participant pointed out – “The critical word is connection- with people, with allies (usual and unusual), with resources and with power”.

Senator Ratna Omidvar (Senate of Canada for Ontario) drew on her personal experience as an Iranian refugee.  In a powerful testimony she drew the parallels between her experience and those currently seeking refuge – “We all leave one life for another. . .We all share the same story with the same chapters”.  She identified those chapters as arrival; rejection; renewal; redemption; offering the view that Canadian immigration policies work because Canadians understand that well-thought through and managed immigration is in the national interest.  Alongside this, effective integration strategies have effectively – “stitched refugees and immigrants into Canada”.  Although recognising ongoing challenges of racism and prejudice, Ratna suggested that the Canadian mantra of Peace, Order and Good Governance has delivered a polity that is in sharp distinction to its neighbour to the south.  “They send people to the moon”, she said.  “We have health care”. 

Arguing that the space for constructive disagreement over important policy priorities, such as immigration, is good, the Canadian experience highlights the fact that public narrative and perceptions matter.  If the end goal is inclusion, then the public must feel a sense of ownership of the process rather than relying on governmental dictat.  For this reason the Community Sponsorship of Refugees scheme, now well-established in Canada, was celebrated as offering ‘intimate relationships’ between resident Canadians and incoming communities.  Ratna referenced refugee family sponsorship by groups as varied as Dog Walking Clubs and a Breast-feeding Mothers’ Support group, as well as neighbourhood and church groups.  People need to ‘touch and feel’ the story of refugees and immigrants.

IT’S GOOD TO LISTEN. . .

“The hardest part is yet to come”, suggested Yvette Cooper, M.P. as the UK faces into a post-Brexit world.  Unrealistic government targets for immigration are notional in nature.  Seemingly dysfunctional Home Office procedures and systems are bringing an already overly-complex immigration system into disrepute; and no-one knows how, when and if the 3 million plus EU citizens currently living and working in the UK will be registered and/or their legal status.  And all this without even a mentioned of Ireland/Northern Ireland and the border!

Her plea for an open and honest debate was re-iterated by Matthew Ryder, Deputy Mayor for Social Integration, Social Mobility & Community Engagement, London.  Importantly, he also emphasised that “Taking the middle ground between imagined extreme positions does not help the debate”.  What is required is an evidence-based discussion which both includes people, but is also grounded in an understanding of the crucial contribution of contact work, participation, building relationships and equality.  No magic bullet, but the need for transparent and fair immigration policies; regionally and locally sensitive integration/inclusion strategies; and community approaches that have the reach to counter misinformation and support inclusive community participation around common issues.

There was, of course, much talk about ‘echo chambers’ and ‘bubbles’ – even though reference to stories and chapters may have been more fitting in the British Library venue – but hey, this is London.

For further information on the National Conversation on Immigration – www.nationalconversation.org.uk

Closing Date to respond to the Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper – 5th June 2018.

Avila Kilmurray, 18th May 2018