Shrewsbury: Are we more divided on immigration than we think?

Shrewsbury was the 21st stop for the National Conversation, an ancient Shropshire town on the Welsh border.

As with any place we visit, we hold a meeting with stakeholders before our citizens’ panel. Each meeting sees a different mix of people working in fields that will be impacted most by changes to future immigration policy. We’ve spoken to councillors, as well as those working for their local authorities,  NHS recruiters, colleges,  business groups and employers of migrants in the food and farming industries, community and faith groups, and those working in the migration and refugee sector, to name a few.

Our stakeholder meeting in Shrewsbury mostly featured those working and volunteering in the refugee sector, most working on projects to settle the Syrian refugees Shropshire has taken, or offering English language classes to recent migrants, including unaccompanied minors.

The group gave us a useful insight into the migration situation in Shrewsbury and Shropshire and we were given a sense of the strength of civic society in the area. They also gave their views of public opinion in the local area and we were told about a “ripple of negativity” in the area, an about racist incidents locally and of generational divides in the way immigration is seen. However, the group felt that broadly people in Shrewsbury generally saw immigration as a positive thing, and as an area with little immigration concerns were not as loud as in other areas of the country. Those working with refugees felt that the public had been very supportive over taking in Syrian refugees, and that community events celebrating diversity, such as a recent Iftah, were supported by the general public.

One stakeholder mentioned that her understanding of public opinion was framed around what she saw in her own social circles which did not necessarily reflect the status quo: “my friends are supportive, I wouldn’t say my most of Facebook friends are”. Indeed, as with many places the National Conversation has visited, the citizens’ panel did not echo the views of stakeholders, especially in relation to refugees.

The citizens’ panel in Shrewsbury were recruited to be representative of the local population, a mix of men and women of different ages and different social backgrounds. Most were ‘balancers’, seeing both positive and negative impacts of immigration with most leaning towards a more optimistic view of migration. Generally, the panel were sensitive and sympathetic to the plight of refugees, more so than on many previous citizens’ panels. But there were some clear concerns. Media stories from about young undocumented men arriving into the UK from Calais had clearly impacted the way the group thought about refugees, and some felt that 60 refugees was too many for Shrewsbury. Others felt resentful, not at refugees themselves but felt that refugees are given more support than local people.

Participants generally did not have contact with refugees in their day-to-day lives, and had little understanding of the systems which regulate their legal status. It was clear that stakeholders were doing a good job to help refugees integrate, and there were good support systems in place through a strong and united civil society. But stakeholders often painted a different picture of migration and community relations in Shrewsbury to what we heard on the citizens’ panel.

As a stakeholder on a previous panel told us, there had been a surge in support for the Refugees Welcome movement following Brexit, and for many, this was “flying the flag of not-in-my-name”. Research conducted by HOPE not hate after the EU referendum showed that most people feel the country is more divided following the EU referendum. The ‘immigration debate’ has been quite polarised, dominated by loud voices from both the very pro-migration and the very sceptical. Getting involved in community initiatives to make others feel welcome is obviously a positive step taken by many, but civil society should be careful not to distance themselves in a way that could alienate the majority.

We hope that by opening up the conversation on immigration we can begin to find common ground, to bring people together and find immigration solutions that work for us all, including migrants, refugees and receiving communities. We encourage others to join us- and have resources available on our website for civil society to host their own conversation on immigration. Leaving the European Union will be a long and complicated process, and we face some difficult discussions. It has never been more important that we start to talk to those who might not always agree with us and find common ground.

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