Skip navigation
The Progressive Policy Think Tank

Settling the migration debate

Tim Finch and Phoebe Griffith argue that the migration debate is best understood by seeking to address the tensions that arise not between 'citizens' and 'migrants', but between people who feel more or less settled in and committed to their community.

Tanya is a single mother in her 40s. She lives in Normanton, a suburb of Derby. Earlier this year she invited us into her home to share a cup of tea and some local gossip with 'the girls' from her street. It was an ethnically mixed group: a young Asian housewife, a West Indian pensioner, a white professional woman, an Irish grandmother. Just a couple of decades ago the diversity of this group of neighbours would have been striking. Now it is commonplace: the fact that they all ate different foods, frequented different churches and spoke with different accents went unremarked during our conversation. Such diversity is a fact of life in communities like Normanton.

However, while Tanya and her friends seemed oblivious to their differences, a strong element of the bond that tied them together was concern about recent immigration into their area. This might seem ironic, even hypocritical. Given that they all had migrant backgrounds themselves, they might be expected to have been sympathetic to newcomers, to have understood the challenges of moving to a new country and a new community, and to have welcomed others following in their footsteps. Tanya and her friends were not the sort of people who instinctively were wary of others just because they didn't know them or they came from a different place. So what was at the root of their concern?

Constant churn

While the focus of recent debate has been on numbers, for the women in Normanton the high levels immigration the UK has experienced for more than a decade was not the main issue. They all recognised that Normanton was an area that has long been characterised by migration, that it is what is often called a 'community of primary settlement'. At the heart of their concern was a sense of insecurity brought about by the rapid and seemingly constant change they saw around them. Their own journeys to this terraced street in the English Midlands had been many and various, but they now were all settled. This was their home. But they felt the same was not true for more-recent immigrants.

The women told us stories of all the comings and goings in the street over the past three years. For six months, one house had been occupied by 25 eastern Europeans. The house only had two bedrooms, so the women reasoned that they must have been sleeping in the shed or the kitchen. A year before an even larger group of migrant workers had taken up residence in two houses. Another house they suspected was used as a cr??che for the young children, as the women used to see toddlers in nappies being taken there. In short, what concerned the women in Normanton was not so much the scale of migration but its nature: it was transient and characterised by what geographers label 'churn'. People came, left, and were then replaced by new arrivals – 'one day you wake up and think, where have they gone?'

Moreover, their new neighbours seemed to have little interest in their surroundings. The local schools were having to cater for a steady flow of new children with different (and often quite complex) needs. Many arrived halfway through term only to leave again shortly after. In the words of one local housing officer, 'we are in a state of constant catch-up'.

Staying or going?

On an earlier visit we had met Farzana and Analetta. Their contrasting experiences highlight the differences between the immigration trends of recent years and those of the past.

Farzana is 23. When we met she was wearing an intricate hijab. Her speech was peppered with slang, she had a noticeable Midlands twang and a no-nonsense sense of humour. We talked about her family and early years in Pakistan. Her father set off to Britain when she was a toddler. He got a job at a local factory, where he is still employed; her mother followed a couple of years later; Farzana stayed in the homestead in rural Pakistan with members of her extended family. She came to Britain once her father had saved enough to buy the large terraced house where she still lives with her parents and seven siblings. When she was younger, trips to Pakistan were rare. Flights were expensive and her parents never quite trusted the border officials. 'They were always worried that they wouldn't let us back in,' she joked. Since then her desire to go back has slowly receded. Even her mother, who speaks little English, now calls Normanton home.

Analetta is Roma and in her 50s. Forced out of the Czech Republic and later Slovakia by discrimination and hostility, she arrived in the UK three years ago. She had little idea of what she wanted to do other than find work and learn some English (she has yet to sign up to ESOL classes because she has can't afford the fees). After some months 'couch-surfing', she now shares a small, privately rented flat with her husband. They both work shifts – she does nights at a local flower-packaging firm. She keeps in regular touch with her children and grandchildren back home with Skype, and visits when she has holiday – she has a European passport and flights are affordable. She has few friends and hadn't met any neighbours. When we talked about her plans she confirmed that she had a vague aspiration to stay in the UK, but her future was far from certain.

Migrants like Farzana's father came to the UK with the idea of working hard, saving up, and putting down roots. Maybe, one day, they would return to their country of origin – but it was probably a distant dream. For Analetta, work and the prospect of a better life are also important, but given that EU free movement offers her other options, her long-term commitment to Britain is less certain. When Farzana's father made the decision to move it would have a seemed a once-in-a-lifetime decision. This is less true for Analetta, given that it is both practically but also emotionally much easier to migrate these days – particularly within Europe. Tanya and her neighbours have few issues with migrant families like Farzana's; but they associate migrants like Analetta with what is wrong in their community. In Analetta's case, language barriers and a punishing work schedule leave little opportunity for the kind of interaction that would enable her to build bonds of conviviality with her neighbours. And anyway, if she is another recent migrant just 'passing through' why should she, or they, bother? The scope for misunderstanding and irritation is obviously magnified under these circumstances.


Read IPPR's graphic novel, Be here now, for six stories of life and change in modern Britain.

It is based on research conducted for our recent report, Shared ground, on strengthening and localising integration policy in our communities.


Looking forward

It is now commonplace to observe that migration is one of the biggest issues in British politics. While it is unlikely that it will decide the outcome of the next election (see Ford and Somerville in IPPR's Immigration under Labour), it is sure to feature strongly in the debates and on the doorstep. Any political party wishing to be part of government will have to promise that it will keep a tight control on immigration. Modifications to the immigration system, including the tightening of some rules, will always be necessary, and provide some scope for offering the public reassurance. But this alone is unlikely to allay the fears of people like Tanya and her neighbours.

Instead, politicians and policymakers need to readjust their thinking to the new realities of migration in the UK and its impacts on people like the women of Normanton. Three shifts will be needed.

'Coming clean' on the new steady state of immigration

The first is greater honesty about the reality of persistent high migration to the UK. It is perhaps paradoxical, but all this flux in Britain's communities is a result of migration to the UK settling into a 'steady state'. As the most recent migration statistics confirmed, net migration of between 150,000 and 250,000 a year has become the new norm, persisting at these levels for more than 15 years through economic ups and downs, changes of government, and despite a steady tightening of border controls and visa regimes year on year.

The current government's net migration target has been, in effect, a last ditch effort to turn this tide of recent history. Its failure is therefore particularly instructive. High migration into the UK, it turns out, is not the result of lax mismanagement of our borders – the accusation current ministers used to make about the previous Labour administration. It's much more complicated – and interesting – than that. The mix of factors driving net migration levels of around 200,000 per annum include increased international connectedness and mobility; the UK's particular place in the world (historically, geopolitically and culturally); the structure and trajectory of the UK economy; the ratchet effect of chain migration over a growing number of years; various treaty obligations and agreements (most notably of course the UK's membership of the EU, which allows for 'free movement' of EU citizens); and the limited powers individual democratic states have to act as a countervailing force against strong global forces.

To reduce migration significantly, therefore, would involve absenting or insulating the UK from these factors and forces by taking steps such as leaving the EU and dropping out of the UN convention on the protection of refugees. Such actions could be taken, of course, but with serious – perhaps dire – consequences for the UK's trading position and diplomatic standing in the world. It is also very likely that such policies would have a negative impact on economic growth as well as changing the nature of the country.

Increasing the commitment of new migrants

The second shift in thinking that is needed to reassure people like Tanya and her friends is an acceptance that a steady state of high migration argues for much more to be done to mitigate the negative impacts of migration on communities like Normanton (with a proviso that there are many positive impacts too, including direct and indirect economic benefits which can help pay for mitigation measures).

Current policies send a clear message to those who come: far from being encouraged to put down roots, their welcome is conditional. Expectations placed on newcomers stretch no further than ensuring they can support themselves financially and make no demands on the welfare state. Visa rules often involve limited periods or further qualifications to extend stays. Little or no effort is made to ensure that migrants know their responsibilities and rights as residents of the UK and particular communities, still less to encourage interaction with British people. Those who wish to become citizens are put through more paces, being made to pass tests and pay (very high) fees, but more meaningful participation in and understanding of British life is not required. Policies which, for example, deny foreign students the right to find work once they have completed their studies and which make it almost impossible for people to be reunited with their families only help to reinforce a message that the UK would prefer if migrants viewed their stay as temporary.

This insouciance about helping and requiring migrants to 'fit in' and become full members of their new neighbourhoods is strange, because IPPR research has shown that promoting greater commitment from newcomers is likely to be popular. Surveys have also found that British people overwhelmingly favour permanent settlement over temporary schemes. All this argues for a greater emphasis on encouraging and incentivising migrants to become full citizens. It is almost counterproductive to see a short-term stay as an advantage simply because it helps towards lower net migration figures.

Helping communities to cope

The third element of a new approach is to pursue a much more active community policy. In areas like Normanton, resources for programmes to welcome and promote integration have been depleted. Initiatives that previously helped to alleviate tensions and increase understanding have been dismantled. Police community and support officers (PCSOs) and community outreach workers no longer pace the streets in an effort to reach out to newcomers and ensure that settled communities feel secure.

There are other actors besides statutory ones, of course, and in some areas – including Normanton – the retrenchment in local services has lead to increased voluntary mobilisation. During our visits to Derby we heard about local Christian groups which have set up welcoming committees for newcomers, delivering 'gift boxes' full of useful information and an invitation to join in local activities. The Sikh gurdwara's breakfast club was frequented by Roma children who'd previously gone to school on an empty stomach. People like Tanya's Irish neighbour were taking matters into their own hands: scrubbing the fronts of homes and clearing out bins that had been left to rot. But whereas in the past grants and support were available, this sort of local voluntary action is now largely left to chance.

Although public funds for such initiatives will remain in short supply, sources of funding could be found, not least by taking a slice of the tens of millions paid by migrants in visa and citizenship fees and targetting it at communities facing particular pressures. Also, if more powers were devolved to local authorities, and they were given greater control over their finances, councils would be more likely to use the legislation that is in place to regulate exploitative landlords and employers who don't pay the minimum wage. At the moment these powers are rarely used, despite the fact that overcrowded houses and businesses that break the rules cause huge irritation to the local residents.

A return to highly directive, target-driven integration and cohesion policy driven from Westminster is not the answer. This was the failed formula under the last Labour government. Telling schools that they have a duty to promote cohesion or sending out directives for funds to be spent in certain ways belittles local actors and is unlikely to be effective. But the alternative should not be to step away and watch some communities swim while others sink.

Conclusion

The women of Normanton provide some key insights into how we can learn to live with a society much more shaped by migration than it was in the past. Acceptance of difference, enjoyment of diversity and an acknowledgment that migration is a fact of life are all now ingrained in most sections of society. People don't expect to live in communities that remain unchanged for years and years. But at the same time, they can't be expected to live in communities in a constant state of flux. We have moved into a high migration era; there is no going back. But that doesn't mean leaving people just to get on with it, and saying they shouldn't complain because overall migration brings economic benefits. It is in Britain's communities that the impact of migration is actually experienced, and it is to this level that the focus of policy should now shift.

Tim Finch is director of communications at IPPR. Phoebe Griffith is associate director for migration, integration and communities at IPPR.