20/05/2014 08:43 BST | Updated 20/07/2014 06:59 BST

UK: Divisive Narratives Around Migration Can Fuel Tensions in Communities

According a YouGov poll published for the first time since the start of the financial crisis, the economy no longer tops the list of issues the British public is most concerned about: immigration is now on a par with the economy, with 52% or respondents saying it's the main issue facing the UK today.

It is not difficult to see a link between these new findings and the fact that immigration has dominated public debate in the lead-up to this week's local and European Parliament elections. Despite the rise of populist and far-right parties which expound less than favourable views on immigration throughout the continent, nowhere else in Europe has the debate been allowed to dominate the mainstream as much as in the UK.

In my work across different communities in England with peacebuilding NGO International Alert, I have seen the effects that the polarisation of public discourses on issues such as immigration, welfare and inequality can have on communities. These issues are deeply divisive.

Some have argued that the debate on immigration is necessary, and that politicians and some sections of the media are finally catching up with an issue that has long been in the public's mind. But the British public's perception of immigration issues has been wrong before. Research for the Royal Statistical Society and King's College London has shown that whilst the British public believe on average that 31% of the UK population are migrants, the actual percentage is 13% (15% if accounting for undocumented migrants that might be present in the country).

Results of the YouGov poll come just as other research shows that the number of migrants from Romania and Bulgaria employed in the UK has fallen since restrictions were lifted on A2 nationals' right to work in the UK and in seven other EU countries. Whatever the reason (which experts and pundits with varying political positions will rush to defend or demolish) it is obvious that the expected 'flood' of migrants from the two countries has failed to materialise.

Our reportUntold Stories of Good Relations, co-authored with community interest company Talk for a Change and based on work carried out throughout 2013, presents some evidence that the tenor of the current national debates is having an impact on vulnerable groups and communities.

The charity Childline, for instance, reported an alarming increase in racist bullying in schools. Many practitioners working in communities are reporting an increase in hostile attitudes and behaviours towards vulnerable and marginalised groups. We know from our international work in over 30 countries around the world that divisive narratives, if left unchecked, can contribute to community tensions and reduce community resilience and social bonds.

In the meantime, the United Kingdom is becoming one of the most unequal countries in the developed world. Many organisations we worked with were dealing directly with people most strongly affected by the changes to the welfare and benefits system - both the unemployed and working poor - who were often also bearing the brunt of cuts to their local services.

It is important not to infer a causal relationship between poverty and lack of community cohesion, as some deprived areas are also very cohesive. However, we did register an anxiety, that communities under pressure themselves were more likely to scapegoat others. When this happens more extensive responses are required. Our work on good relations uncovered such responses and 'untold stories'. For example, the youth organisation Aik Saath works to promote understanding in schools where there is tension between young people, while community organisation Who Is Your Neighbour (WIYN) create Safe Space conversations where local people can be honest, raise questions and fears and say things that 'you're not allowed to say'.

Such groups and the work of thousands to create good relations is often hidden and not championed but it is vital in maintaining social glue. We need less rhetoric and divisive narratives and more of these interventions!