Bolton: Perceptions of immigration built from how we see integration

The National Conversation was in Bolton yesterday, the 11th stop on the national journey; a former mill town in the North West, built from the migration of Flemish settlers in the 14th century with a sizeable South Asian community today. The town, part of Greater Manchester, is still coming to terms with the appalling terrorist attack on Manchester’s MEN Arena just days before. Flowers, balloons and messages of solidarity and remembrance for victims of the attack line the steps of the town hall where the air hangs heavy.

The attack has clearly had an immediate impact on the way in which people perceive others in their communities. From the very start of our citizens’ panel, people told us that the bombing on Monday evening had changed the way they thought about immigration.

“I probably would have a more positive response if it wasn’t for what happened on Monday, if the truth be honest… It’s out of control now”

The attack was not committed by a migrant, but a man born and brought up in Manchester, something which the panel discussed and understood. But press coverage of the suspects’ Libyan heritage, his connections to the Libyan diaspora in Manchester and claims that a Libyan flag was raised outside his family home have had a strong impact on how the suspect was perceived by our panel.

It was clear throughout the discussion that integration was a key issue, perhaps given the proximity to the attack. Many on the panel felt that the attacker was an extreme example of “the minority spoiling it for the majority”, an example where integration has not worked, where first and second generations were living separate lives from the wider community.

Everyone we spoke to in Bolton was proud of the way Manchester had responded to Monday’s events. The citizens’ panel said that they felt closer as a community, through coming together as people of many different backgrounds across the diverse area to stand against hatred. But there were concerns across the stakeholders group that “when it dies down, we’re left to our own devices”. They felt that something more was needed to maintain this spirit and take the community response forward, so that those who had come out did not retreat into even more closed-off groupings.

The lasting impact of the attacks on the wider Muslim community was a concern shared across participants and, sadly, it is clear that the conflation of terrorist activity with Muslims living in Britain is quite deeply ingrained. Muslim participants on the citizens’ panel felt that the attack had set a real barrier to integration for their communities:

“Every time we feel one step closer to integrating, we get sent ten steps back”

There was also a degree of resignation on the citizens’ panel, that events such as Monday are becoming the norm. While older participants made historical comparison to IRA activity, for those who did not live through this, the conflation of terrorist activity with one demographic was more pronounced.

Throughout the conversation, it was apparent that for many, their thoughts on immigration were directly informed by how they saw integration, processes which were sometimes confused. 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.

While the group saw some parts of the town as very well integrated, they also felt that others weren’t. Work will be needed to build stronger communities who can come together outside of the awful and exceptional moment that Manchester has just experienced. Stakeholders acknowledged that integration is not perfect, and that cutbacks to ESOL provision and funding for community projects were not aiding the process. It was also felt that some aspects of existing immigration policy served to inhibit integration. For example refugees were seen to be held back from integrating in the workplace through rules not allowing asylum seekers to work, and an underfunded Home Office causing delays in asylum decision-making, resulting in deskilling and unemployment. The citizens’ panel agreed that receiving communities also have a responsibility for integration, and that greater understandings of other cultures are needed to ensure different groups can live together well and support each other.

Our conversations in Bolton demonstrated how public debates on immigration and integration are interlinked; and that to build stronger, more resilient communities, immigration policies need to go hand in hand with integration strategies and long-lasting approaches to community cohesion.

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