Yeovil: Information on immigration needs to be clear, accessible and trusted

The National Conversation’s last visit in the South West was to Yeovil, a town of 45,000 in South Somerset. Our conversation in Yeovil valued the contribution of EU migrant workers, who they saw propping up the local health service as well as agricultural industries, but also held some concerns about a perceived unfairness of migrants having preferential access to welfare benefits and public services.

“The hospitals wouldn’t run if we didn’t have doctors from abroad, but I do see a strain on the schools, with kids coming in who can’t speak English”

Yeovil is an area with no substantial history of immigration and rates of migration are below the national average, with just 6% of the population born overseas. The town has a large military presence and the Ministry of Defence is a major local employer, so the town hosts a number of soldiers from Commonwealth countries. More recently, the town has seen new arrivals form the EU to work in the area’s food and farming industries, mostly from Poland and Portugal.

Somerset has had to adapt to migration more quickly than many other parts of the UK. As one stakeholder put it:

“Nobody comes here. There’s no university, we don’t have touring theatre companies… Somerset’s still in the early stages of welcoming people from other countries”

While immigration rates are low, all of our citizens’ panel members told us that they had friends, colleagues and neighbours who were migrants, and that there was a good sense of community. However, they felt that there was a lot about immigration that they did not understand, or know enough about:

“I don’t know enough, there’s not enough information readily available, unless you can read white papers and that… There’s nothing given to you in basic English, we’re not given facts easily enough”

We have previously written about the importance of contact, and how in places with low rates of migration, such as TrowbridgeDurham, or Gloucester, limited contact with migrants resulted in limited awareness of immigration and the creation of ‘local narratives’ which sometimes manifest through prejudice. People’s own experience with deprivation, unemployment and local decline can be blamed on migrants when they are considered an invisible mass, as opposed to people they know. People absorb information on immigration based on what resonates with their own worldview.

Our panel in Yeovil predominantly got their information on immigration from the television, naming documentaries they had seen images of undocumented young men arriving in the backs of lorries, or of the camps at Calais. At the same time, they did not trust what they saw on television, or read in the news and often felt that information on immigration was politicised and could be biased.

They wanted to see more accessible information about immigration, as while many had taken to internet research in order to build a better understanding of migration they did not feel that clear facts were generally available to the public in comprehensive formats.

As with many other panels, the group in Yeovil also wanted to see more cross-party working, to ensure issues such as immigration were not used for political gain. But they also did not have much faith in politicians, and felt sceptical that they were not always told the truth by those in power.

These are concerns and demands we have heard in many places across the UK, for more information about immigration processes and the regulations currently in place, as well as more accurate data on how many people are arriving to the UK. But there is a challenge to ensure this information is accessible and is trusted by the public.

The immigration debate has been polarised, and much information on immigration has been conflicting and at times, contradictory. But migration is a human process and it can be difficult to always have accurate information.

Yet our conversations across the country have shown the strength of public engagement in rebuilding trust on immigration, and the conversations themselves have often given participants greater clarity and understanding of migration and immigration policy.

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