Carlisle: Cumbria is less diverse than rest of the UK, how does this affect views on immigration?

Carlisle, a city of around 100,000 in Cumbria just south of the Scottish border was the National Conversation’s 37th destination. Cumbria has seen a steady increase in its immigrant population since the millennium, but is still thought to be among the least diverse areas of the UK, with a migrant population less than half of the UK average.

In Carlisle, we held a conversation on immigration with people aged 25 and under – a group whose views tend to be underrepresented in national surveys. The panel reflected on the lack of diversity in their local area, and many of them felt that immigration was not an issue that they talked about or considered very often:

“I don’t really know, I’m from up here, you don’t really see it like. You only really get Turkish barbers and that. I guess there’s some Polish people, but I don’t really know anything about it”  – Citizens’ panel participant

Most had little contact with migrants and the group had a limited understanding of immigration policy. Over half of the group were unsure of what Brexit is, or what it might mean.

The panel were, like many other young people we’ve spoken with, positive about the cultural impacts of immigration on the UK, and felt that cultural diversity made their lives more interesting . Most felt that they held different opinions on migration to their parents and grandparents as even though Cumbria is less diverse than rest of the UK, most had grown up celebrating different cultures and many knew people with different ethnic backgrounds to their own.

While participants saw economic benefits, such as migrants doing jobs that British people might not want to do, there were broader concerns about work, skills and education. Literacy levels in Carlisle are below the national average, six wards in urban Carlisle are among the most deprived 20% in England and poverty affects many. We were told of high rates of reliance on food banks. Youth unemployment was an issue for many on the citizens’ panel, who felt that even if there was work available, it was often not worthwhile due to irregular hours or the high cost of childcare. Some felt that migrants taking low skilled work could further limit opportunities for those who don’t do so well at school:

“If there are people who’ve migrated doing low skilled jobs in Cumbria, which to be honest I haven’t noticed, it would help the situation on the amount of people who are unemployed, [if numbers of EU migrants were to fall dramatically] – it would help people who are living around here” – Citizens’ panel participant

This view of economic migrants in manual jobs contrasted with that of stakeholders who felt that certain industries such as construction or the care sector were heavily reliant on migrant labour, as they could not source adequate numbers of staff locally. We were told of one employer offering transport for staff from 50 miles away, who still met shortages.

Throughout the citizens’ panel discussion, security emerged as the greatest concern, and it was clear that the recent terror attacks in the UK had a profound impact on how the panel saw migrants. At points in the conversation prejudice emerged, mostly aimed towards Islam and Muslims. Many participants were confused about ‘immigration’, which some thought referred only to Muslims, whom they associated directly with extremism.

Similar to other places with low rates of migration, such as Trowbridge, Durham, or Gloucester, limited contact with migrants resulted in limited awareness of immigration and the creation of ‘local narratives’ which sometimes manifest through prejudice. People’s own experience with deprivation, unemployment and local decline can be blamed on migrants when they are considered an invisible mass. National narratives, such as those on security, clearly have an impact on those who have little contact with minorities themselves.  Contact has long been thought to improve understandings of migration. In areas such as Carlisle, where rates of migration are so low, more needs to be done to rebuild public trust in immigration.

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