Immigration is personal. For each number, statistic and figure, there is a person; a mother, daughter, brother, grandfather. Experiences of immigration are as variable as the individuals who create them.
Immigration is also national. It is an important component of the history of the UK, and will continue to be a vital part of the future of our society. However, recently criticisms of immigration have become almost deafening, with people voicing concerns over its perceived negative impact on their daily lives and the lives of their families.
I find that often the debate focuses on one or other of these things. There are those who discuss immigration from a distance, as a national, political concern based on findings from statistics, the economic results of an enlarging population, and the numbers of who has arrived and who has left. Then there are others who see the daily lived realities of immigrant peoples and can relate stories of their own or others’ experiences.
Both approaches are vital to our understandings. It is difficult to get the big picture when one focuses only on an individual community, but also difficult to be sensitive to particular needs when faced with nationwide statistics. However, it is the gaps between these discourses that particularly concerns me. It is difficult to reconcile the two, as every individual experience is important but dealing with every individual can become overwhelming. Yet I feel that the reconciliation of national discourses with individual needs, and a thorough investigation of the slippage between the two dialogues, is where more discussion is needed.
For example, the 2011 Census showed that 1 in 8 households in England and Wales are now ethnically mixed. This would appear to show a significant level of successful integration between communities, probably brought about by marriages between people from different ethnic backgrounds.
However, one researcher who presented at the Cumberland Lodge Migration conference carried out interviews on the topic of integration with several migrants in the UK. One interviewee said, ‘When I don’t feel that I’m being treated differently, or in a different situation from British nationals, I will consider myself integrated, that’s the main thing for me.’ This lady was a Russian spousal visa holder. Her family could have been one of the ‘1 in 8’ represented by the Census data, and yet she did not feel integrated.
During the Migration Conference, one thing stood out to me as an example of how this reconciliation might be approached. One speaker discussed a large neighbourhood which had been particularly affected by rapid waves of arriving migrants. This neighbourhood held ‘Myth Buster’ evenings for members of all communities to gather and direct their questions and concerns to each other in a safe environment. All participants in the Myth Buster had the opportunity to act as individuals and as part of a collective. They could seek answers to questions, create personal inter-community relationships, and start to build a new, more united community. The Myth Buster evening recognized that there was potential for conflict and discomfort, and took action to alleviate that. Both communities still had to begin the long process of learning to live together, but they could go forward more informed and with a knowledge of the individuals who make up the statistics. I thought this was an effective example of how national policy can translate into local action and personal experience.
No one will disagree that immigration is a divisive topic in the UK today, and a highly politicized debate. After attending the Migration conference, I am more convinced than ever about the necessity for continued discussion between all sides of the debate. It is only by hearing from all the approaches that a full picture can emerge, and the debate can move ahead.