It’s a common criticism of politics that there is a style of debate whereby reports on key issues are produced, covered on the news for a day, and then sink without trace.
The criticism rings true of the response to Louise Casey CB’s controversial report into integration. Since its release a year ago, almost nothing has happened.
If Casey’s report diagnosed some problems accurately, its prescriptions were ineffective. It appeared to work under the assumption that migrants are choosing to exist in silos and needed a more prodding and a compulsory integration oath to force them out. Casey dwelled excessively on Muslim communities, insisted that integration was “not a two way street” and suggested new migrants should be taught how to queue and take out bins.
But her core argument – that it would be dangerous to allow to social segregation and that a national strategy is overdue – is reasonable. So are some of the fixes she offers, such as more funding for English language lessons which have been cut dramatically since 2010.
This was an argument taken up by the parliamentary group on social integration who had a major report out recently. Unlike Casey, they acknowledged integration was a two-way street, and that anti-migrant mood music set by the tabloid press and some politicians is a major barrier to newcomers feeling settled and able to participate. Our own research came to the same conclusion in 2014.
The report proposed a new focus on ESOL and digital learning, welcome centres and support for locally-led cohesion schemes, and reform of the citizenship system to provide clearer, fairer pathways. Again, little happened. Sara, a participant in our recent project exploring integration and photography, says, “It’s not just English classes for foreigners but libraries and schools for everyone that have been cut. So who respects the English language or integration or culture now?”
As well as an absence of policy, there’s a conflict over what integration means. The well-worn narrative remains one of compelling people to integrate. But integration isn’t something made-to-order and in any case many British people (including isolated elderly people or cut-off communities, but also people everywhere who rarely venture outside their bubble) are poorly integrated, often due to economic factors.
Meanwhile Michelle, one of our migrant activists, says that integration is “something that happens in the heart.” It is an organic process fostered by meeting a neighbour, taking up a sport or art, conversations in the supermarket, engaging with local debates or elections, or any number of small interactions. It is something government should actively facilitate rather than direct.
If the political will for a new integration strategy does not exist, they could at least begin by removing the worst barriers to cohesion. Most migrants in the UK are integrated and our communities are more mixed than many on the continent; an integration strategy, while important, would be needed by a minority, mostly newcomers. Often people would otherwise be settled, but the current level of discourse and policy on migration pushes them away. Assessing the impact of current policy would go a long way “Our knowledge of who we are can become diluted by someone else’s idea of who they think we are – when we’re described as thieves or cockroaches not as human beings”, says Michelle.
At Migrant Voice we argue that representation improves integration. To one participant in our project, integration is, “learning to share the place we live in, and be able to share our experiences and celebrate our differences. To feel safe, dignified and welcomed.” Our 2014 research into the migration debate found that around just one in ten migration stories carry a migrant perspective, and participants in that research repeatedly told us the tone of the media debate exacerbated isolation and disenfranchisement.
Meanwhile the “hostile environment” strategy to make life harder for undocumented migrants has also affected documented migrants and citizens too, placing checkpoints in public services and making renting, working and other basic necessities harder, often along racial lines. The 15,000 children separated from their parents by family migration rules have little chance at effective integration. Failure to settle the issue of European citizens’ rights post-Brexit has caused nervousness beyond even the millions of Europeans affected. Policies like these, combined with the drumbeat of negative rhetoric, hold back the potential of newcomers to make their contribution and quickly become a part of the society surrounding them.
With searing divisions in society at home and overseas becoming ever more apparent, it’s crucial that we find new ways of bringing people together. Maintaining a strong society is one of the most fundamental responsibilities of government, and the issue cannot be ducked. Nor can it be solved with vague appeals to “British values” and blaming newcomers for supposedly not wanting to participate.
It’s time for a strategy that levels the barriers keeping people apart, rooted in a positive, bold vision of what we want our country to be.