Immigration and Integration: Getting it Right Locally

It’s in everyone’s interests that we get integration right in Britain. And there’s clearly work to do: our society is more anxious, fragmented and polarised than any of us would like. It’s a ‘State of the Nation’ challenge at national level: integration matters to all of us, not just to migrants and minorities.

But getting it right at national level is, at best, only half of the picture. Integration happens where we live: at regional, local and neighbourhood level. It is local authorities, charities, churches and community organisations that are doing the work to bring people together.

So how do you bridge this gap between the national and the local on integration?

On 17 May British Future, HOPE not hate and the Barrow Cadbury Trust brought together 200 people from all over the country to the British Library for a one-day conference, Immigration and integration: getting it right locally. Participants included local council leads on integration, inclusion and cohesion; local charities focused on refugee resettlement and migrants’ rights; churches working to make their own communities more integrated; as well as national NGOs, academics and commentators.

We wanted to share some of the findings of the National Conversation on Immigration, the biggest-ever public consultation on immigration, which has hosted 130 meetings with citizens and stakeholders across every nation and region of the UK. Over the course of a year we have amassed an unprecedented body of localised evidence and information about the issues that affect integration and responses to the pressures of immigration. We have listened to local organisations and citizens about what is working and the challenges that still remain. The conference was an opportunity to share our findings and conclusions, to bring together the people trying to make integration work at local level and, importantly, to learn more.

Yvette Cooper, Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, told the conference about the Committee’s Inquiry into building consensus on immigration, which drew extensively on the findings of the National Conversation. Changing the way we talk about immigration is important, she said, because the immigration debate has too often been polarised and used to cause division. “I just hope that we can, if we try, have this debate in a thoughtful and constructive way, rather than in a deeply divisive way….it is too important to our future as a country to get wrong,” she told the conference.

Matthew Ryder, London’s Deputy Mayor for social integration, social mobility and community engagement, joined Hardip Begol from MHCLG, Graham O’Neill of the Scottish Refugee Council and others to discuss the work that is happening at local level both to change this conversation and to promote integration. “Contact, participation, relationships and equality,” are the four pillars of London’s approach, Ryder said, which was set out earlier this year in the GLA’s social integration strategy, All of us.

Sian Sanders of Cardiff Council talked about the city’s new strategy for integration and the need to have a louder voice in national migration and integration strategies. “As cities have a lot to gain from immigration, so we also have a lot to lose when national models counteract our positive work to promote social and economic integration,” she told the conference.

What became clear over the day was the huge amount of work that is being done to help integration work better, and the appetite to do more still – but also the need to share best practice, to learn from each other and to knit together what’s already happening into a more cohesive whole. We heard countless examples: of Bradford Council’s efforts to engage local Bangladeshi women with the local football team and diversify the city’s annual Remembrance commemorations; of the fantastic work of the Linking Network bringing schoolchildren from different backgrounds together; and from further afield too, with Senator Ratna Omidvar sharing some of the successes of Canada’s refugee community sponsorship scheme.

The Senator opened the event with an inspiring speech, telling the story of her own journey from Amritsar in India to Iran and then, fleeing persecution after the revolution, to sanctuary in Canada. She talked about the importance of good governance to build public confidence in the immigration system nationally, but also about the importance of contact between old and new Canadians in breaking down barriers.

She, too, agreed that getting it right locally was key:

“The perspectives of many people are clearly decided by what they see happening locally. If there is one significant takeaway from this work [The National Conversation on Immigration] and the ongoing efforts in my country it is this: public trust in immigration systems is greatly determined by the ability of government to translate and communicate national interests into benefits that are experienced and shared at the local level. You need to be able to touch it and feel it, not just talk about it.”

Professor Miles Hewstone gave some the theoretical underpinning to the many practical examples discussed, based on his own extensive research into the importance of contact between different groups to break down barriers, including a fascinating in-depth study of Oldham schoolchildren. Promoting inter-group friendships, he said, is the best way to break down stereotypes and promote integration. Sustained, positive contact in local communities, both direct & indirect, makes a difference. “Every time you go out and smile or wave at a neighbour you are modelling positive contact for others,” he said.

Closing the conference, British Future’s Director Sunder Katwala said:

“What I take from today is that there is so much work going on that can be knitted together – but it’s not being knitted together in the way it should be. That’s partly because we’ve never approached integration properly at national level in this country. If we don’t realise that we’ve got to do that now, then when are we ever going to realise it? So sustaining the energy that we’ve heard about today, at this key moment, is really important. There’s a Green Paper in England open for consultation at the moment and we’ve got to show the government that there’s a constituency for not forgetting about this.”

With a packed programme, the only frustration was that there just wasn’t enough time to hear what everyone was doing – including what’s been working well and also those challenges that look harder to address. So we’re keen to ensure that the many conversations started at the British Library don’t end there. We’ll be following up with participants in the weeks and months to come.

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