Lerwick: Migration is a topical issue in rural areas like Shetland

Shetland is no stranger to immigration and emigration. Since pre-historic times it has seen the arrival of different peoples. Following Viking colonisation, Shetland was a Norwegian rule until the 15th century after which it was annexed by Scotland. The Scandinavian influence can still be seen in Shetland’s words, accents and faces. Centuries on, work continues to bring migrants to Shetland, from mainland Scotland, England and wider.

An important aim of the National Conversation on Immigration was to make sure that the locations we visit represent the geographic diversity of Britain. With 17% of the UK’s population living in predominantly rural areas, we felt it important to talk to the residents of small market towns and surrounding villages. So visits to March and Dungannon have been followed by a trip to Shetland, where we heard a variety of views about migration.

“They do a very good job. I have friends who are migrants, but the housing can’t cope with a big influx”.

Today, out of a population of 24,000 – of whom 7,500 live in Lerwick – just over 5% of people have been born outside the UK, similar to the average for Scotland. There numbers include long-settled residents, mostly of South and East Asian origin, as well as more recent arrivals from the EU, mostly from Hungary and Poland. In Shetland, migrants are undertaking both low- and high-skilled jobs, including in fisheries, aquaculture, health and social care, construction and catering. Unique to this part of the UK are migrants who have come to to marry men (and sometimes women) who live in isolated areas and have not been able to meet a local partner.

Not included in the statistics, however, are Shetland’s short-term migrants, who intend to stay for less than a year and are not officially counted in the net migration statistics.  The oil and gas sector Building the new gas plant at Sullom Voe required hundreds of construction workers, many of whom came from abroad on short-term contracts. Tourism and fishing are also  important to the Shetland economy and also employ many short-term or seasonal workers.

While many of the issues discussed by the members of our Lerwick citizens’ panel were similar to those raised elsewhere, there were some differences. There was more support for seasonal migrant workers than many places we have visited; many on our Shetland panel were happy for the number of seasonal migrants to be increased, which is likely to reflect their importance to the tourist and oil economy.

While we were there we met a number of migrants who clearly loved Shetland and had forged new friendships through common interests such as wildlife conservation and knitting. We discussed whether migrants who come and live in tight-knit rural communities find it easier or more difficult to integrate. Both the stakeholders and the citizens’ panel felt that there were sometimes language barriers, with a small number of new arrivals lacking fluent English. However, there is a strong incentive for migrants to learn English in Shetland, as it is more difficult to survive without it than in cities such as London or Birmingham.

Migration is a topical issue for those who live in Shetland, as it is in some other rural communities.  It featured in the EU referendum debate which at times divided the fishing community from the rest of the population.

Demography is now part of this discussion as Shetland had a thriving economy, but an ageing population.  Until the 1970s, Shetland had a falling population, often when young people left to continue their education and did not return after their studies. The discovery of North Sea oil stopped this decline, with the population now steady. But young people still leave and some business leaders want to encourage the immigration of those aged 25-40 so as to provide essential workers.

Our panel had mixed feelings about such a policy. While new workers would be welcome, the panel had major concerns about housing pressures, telling us “until we get more houses we should not take in more migrants.”

There is a severe housing shortage in Shetland and with it comes high prices of both rental and purchased property. There are also not enough construction workers to serve Shetland’s needs – according to the local press you might have to wait two or three years to have a new kitchen or bathroom installed on your property. While we were there we heard that plans to build 250 more affordable homes risked grinding to a halt through a shortage of builders. That deficit could be overcome by attracting skilled migrants, but it is a catch-22 situation as high housing costs, as well as the falling pound, act as a disincentive to move here. Expensive air and ferry fares also discourage would-be migrants from the UK and further, as holiday visits ‘home’ can be costly.

The Shetland citizens’ panel had many of the same views on immigration as other groups we have met, in rural and urban areas. Views about refugee protection were quite similar to those voiced elsewhere, for example. But the housing pressures were a much greater concern, even more so than in places such as Cambridge. Making sure that everyone has somewhere to live is key to securing a consensus on immigration in Shetland.

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