Swansea: Immigration is only one among the many issues facing this country

Swansea was the National Conversation’s second visit to Wales, the second largest city in Wales. Here our citizens’ panel told us that they felt Swansea’s history as a port meant that they had got used to migration.

“I think it’s a bit different in port cities, we are used to foreign faces and different cultures.”

Swansea has seen many waves of migration since its docks were developed in the 19th century, with new arrivals to the city including the English, Irish, Italians, Chinese, Poles and Bangladeshis. Migrants from the EU are just the latest in the long line of arrivals in Wales’ second city. In the last 20 years, Swansea has taken in asylum-seekers and refugees and today it provides a home to about 900 asylum-seekers. Its two universities educate many international students. Today, about 10% of Swansea’s population has been born overseas, although this is lower than the UK average of 14%

For our Swansea participants immigration was only one among the many issues facing this country. As the National conversation on Immigration has progressed, we have found that immigration is a much more salient and high profile issue in some places and less so in others. In some places it is an issue that our citizens’ panels discuss fairly regularly with family, friends and work colleagues, in other places less so. We found immigration mattered much more to those we met in Merthyr Tydfil than it did in Swansea.

There may be a number of reasons that immigration was not a particularly salient issue for our Swansea participants. Swansea’s long history of immigration means that many of its residents have grown up seeing immigration a normal occurrence. There has been no large-scale and rapid migration movement into Swansea, unlike some other parts of the UK such as the Fens . Indeed, just 3% of Swansea’s population are estimated to have been born in the EU, much lower than in many places we have visited. International migration into Swansea is something that has taken place slowly, over many years.

Trigger events and media coverage can make migration a salient issue for the public. So it may have been the case that immigration was not in the news in the week that we visited Swansea. Individual and local social media posts can turn immigration into an issue for everyday discussion. In many places, those who we have met have talked about the role of social media – mostly Facebook – in increasing the prominence of immigration as a topic of everyday discussion.

Our Swansea citizens’ panel had many views they wanted to share with us and we had an interesting discussion about the current free movement rules for EU nationals and future systems for this group. Many of our citizens’ panel did not know that there were regulations that applied to EU nationals, governing their rights to stay in the UK and their access to benefits. Instead they thought that free movement mean that any EU national could move here and immediately claim benefits. This is not the case – EU nationals can only claim benefits if they have worked in the UK and are ‘habitually resident’.

A key demand from the Swansea citizens’ panel was that the future systems for EU migration made sure that those who came here could support themselves through work. We were told:

“We need better checks and to make sure that they either they or their family can support them when they are here, so they don’t go straight on benefits”.

The contribution made by EU migrants was a big theme of our discussion. Our Swansea participants were content to keep the numbers of EU nationals at about the same level, as long as they could be assured that migrants had come here to work. They did not know of the complex restrictions that prevent EU migrants from claiming benefits. They were unaware of the academic analysis that shows that most recent EU migrants are in work. This raises important issues about how immigration statistics and policy are communicated and assimilated by the public. This is an issue that the National Conversation on Immigration will consider in greater depth as our visits progress.

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