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22 August 2016

We must listen to Leave voters but Britain cannot go back to the bad old days

Brexit should not pull apart the UK's well-earned reputation for openness, equality and respect. 

By Chuka Umunna

By voting to leave the European Union last month, the British people decided to reject freedom of movement and, in an instant, changed the terms of our national debate around immigration. Politicians from all sides now have to accept that reality and design a new immigration system that both works, and reflects people’s concerns.

Later today I will be in Boston, Lincolnshire, to talk about this with local residents, community groups and faith leaders in the place where the Brexit vote was largest – more than three quarters of voters in Boston opted to leave the EU. I’ll be there as Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Integration, beginning an inquiry into immigration and integration. We will produce the first stage of our report later this year that will make recommendations on the design of a post-Brexit immigration system.

For many, the referendum amplified the very worst elements of the immigration debate. Too often the loudest, most divisive voices dominated. Some of the rhetoric about people from Poland and Romania was all too similar to that used against Black and Asian people in the 60s and 70s, and we may be seeing the consequences with incidents of racism increasing dramatically. Complaints filed to police online hate-crime reporting site True Vision increased fivefold in the days following the EU referendum and there have been reports of European and British-born ethnic minority people being told to “go home”, and that the UK has voted for them all to “leave”. Racially derogatory terms that we thought had long ago become socially unacceptable are appearing again.

We simply cannot allow Britain to slip back into the bad old days where such terms of abuse were acceptable and it was ok to say we should “send them all home”. A vote to Leave does not mean a vote to pull apart Britain’s well-earned reputation for openness, equality and respect.

We must reassure those who have made Britain their home that they are welcome, but also ensure that they are integrated into our communities as we build a new immigration system. Politicians on all sides need to understand how estranged many people feel and we must also stop falling back on the ideological assumption that immigration is inherently good, and therefore anyone who thinks otherwise is closed-minded, bigoted or prejudiced. I argued strongly for a Remain vote – and my area recorded the largest Remain vote in the country – but this was a point I made during the campaign.

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I believe EU migration has been fantastic for our cultural life and economy but, in too many communities, it has also put pressure on public services, and threatened people’s sense of security, identity and belonging. Leaving the EU is not going to make all that go away, and immigration into the UK will continue – the Vote Leave campaign misled people when it suggested otherwise. But now it is time for mainstream political leaders, on both sides, to show leadership.

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For a roadmap, we could look to Canada, which has developed an immigration policy based on understanding that where settled populations and migrant groups are encouraged to meet, mix and lead interconnected lives, trust grows and communities prosper.

The Tory manifesto at the last general election promised a fund to support those communities which bear the brunt of immigration to the UK – where pressure has been put on schools, GP surgeries and housing levels. This new government, led by Theresa May, must now act to fulfil their election pledge. I believe these funds should also be used to support social entrepreneurs to launch more grassroots initiatives facilitating meaningful engagement between migrant groups and existing communities.

A post-Brexit Britain may be different to the UK of the last 40 years, but the problems around integration won’t disappear. At times, it seems that we politicians argue endlessly about who we should let into our country and why, but, though the issue of numbers is important, we haven’t spent enough time thinking and talking about what happens when migrants settle in Birmingham, Belfast or Boston. That task is now more urgent than ever.