Trowbridge, Wiltshire: What shapes attitudes to immigration?

From Enfield, a London borough where an estimated 40% of residents identify as White British or White Irish, the National Conversation visited Trowbridge last week, a market town on the edge of rural Wiltshire- a local authority where just under 7% of the population identify as BAMER, far below the national average.

In both of these areas attitudes to migration among our groups were mixed. We had a lively discussion about pros, cons and complexities of immigration, and there were strong opinions held by members in both groups. But different personal experiences of migration seemed to have shaped people’s attitudes to immigration in different ways.

In Enfield, participants in our focus group were generally comfortable with migration, and most saw it as part of everyday life. As one member of our citizens’ panel put it, “If you’re born in London, you don’t really know anything else”. Most of the panel had a family history of migration, and all had friends and colleagues who were migrants. In Trowbridge, many people spoke about their concerns surrounding the national impact of immigration, but that migration was not something they often talked about or were particularly concerned about in their day-to-day lives. Migration was just something they didn’t generally see.

There is evidence to suggest that people consider ‘migrants’ and ‘immigration’ very differently, and that people tend to associate positive contributions to individuals or specific groups of migrants while seeing ‘immigration’ as an issue tied to negative consequences. Perhaps contact with migrants in our communities feeds into a different understanding of immigration. A local stakeholder in Trowbridge told us, “people are generally very comfortable with people they meet… but it’s the rest”.

This raises questions about where opinions are formed, what influences the way people think about immigration, and about how resilient communities are built. How does contact with migrants in our communities shape this, and what else influences people’s perceptions of migration?

In Trowbridge, where immigration levels have generally been low, it seemed clear that the media had played a large role in the citizens’ panel’s understanding of immigration and that, on the whole, this had not been a positive representation.

Locals voiced concerns about immigration linked to things they had seen in the press, about age-disputed refugees, migrants cheating on English language tests and benefit tourism. But this was a self-reflexive conversation where negative comments about immigration were seen as a response to media influence. Other members of the panel voiced frustrations that they were only told one side of the story, demanding more positive stories from migrants and refugees contributing, “seeing some of the end results, not just the ones we see on the media”.
While groups in Enfield and Trowbridge were both exposed to the same national media sources, contact with migrants within the community, or lack thereof, may have had an impact on resilience to this.

As the National Conversation moves forward, next to Northampton then Southampton, we hope to learn more about what it is that contributes to the way people perceive migration, and how this fits in with wider questions of trust and control.

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