I’m the proud son of an immigrant. My father arrived here from Nigeria in the mid 1960s, with nothing apart from his suitcase. He worked his way up, starting with cleaning cars before moving on to his own business.
When he arrived, signs outside hostels said: “No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs” – signs we thankfully no longer see today. Like many young black newcomers, my father witnessed a stream of prejudice, but strove to integrate into British society.
A new report released today by the all-party parliamentary group on social integration, which I chair, calls for urgent action to tackle the still disappointingly toxic nature of our country’s debate around immigration, which is impeding integration and progress towards building a more cohesive society.
Throughout the inquiry, the group tried to focus on exploring the lived experiences of immigration and multiculturalism, as experienced by both the settled population and immigrants themselves. It is clear from the evidence we have taken that immigration has impacted on different communities in different ways. Many of the accounts were positive, but in other instances we have encountered a sense of bewilderment at the pace of change.
It is, however, impossible to ignore the poisonous tone of the EU referendum campaign, which has itself become a huge obstacle to creating a socially integrated nation. In fact, 62 per cent of second-generation migrants feel that Britain has become less tolerant since the Brexit vote.
Through our work, we met with newcomers and longstanding residents in Boston in Lincolnshire, Halifax and Dagenham. Communities in these areas are too often leading separate parallel lives. Some of the rhetoric targeted at people from Eastern Europe today is not so dissimilar to that which was directed at my own father.
At the same time, immigration policy and rhetoric has become conflated with issues of counter-terrorism and counter-extremism. Immigrants are too often wrongly labelled as would-be terrorists rather than being recognised for their valuable contribution to society.
The first step to building a more cohesive society is to break down barriers. Research from The Challenge, the UK’s leading integration charity, shows that when people from different backgrounds get to know one another and lead interconnected lives, trust grows and prejudice diminishes.
This should start by designing a system where everyone – regardless of their country of origin or gender – has the opportunity to learn and speak English. This in turn allows them to contribute to the economy, become active citizens in their communities and build meaningful relationships with their neighbours. In short, learning English should be viewed as a right. One way of achieving this without breaking the bank could be to introduce a student loan-style system for English language lessons, which immigrants could repay once they earn a salary above a certain threshold.
We must empower our nations and regions to propose their own immigration policy, based upon their local needs. Under such a system, regional leaders would be able to set their own quotas and time-limited region specific visas. An approach like this would instil confidence locally that the immigration system works for all communities and would go some way to addressing local concerns where immigration can put pressure on public services and housing. We must ensure that any system reflects the changing landscape post-Brexit and includes all EU migrants depending on the outcomes of the negotiations.
We urgently need an integration strategy to welcome newcomers and the settled immigrant population into our society, and in turn provide local authorities with the funds and resources to promote integration. Our report calls on the government to bring forward plans to introduce an integration impact fund to finance initiatives in immigration hotspots which bring people together from all backgrounds to meet and mix.
In moving towards a more integrated and cohesive society, as a truly global nation, we should start with the assumption that newcomers are here to make a contribution, and give them the means to do so. Instead of being viewed as a security risk, immigrants should be seen as proud Britons-in-waiting, keen to participate in their communities and contribute to British society.
My own father was a proud immigrant: he worked hard to make a contribution to this country. I’d like to believe he would be proud of the vibrancy and dynamism immigration has infused into our communities and national identity. Now we must work together to ensure Britain continues to be an open and global-facing nation with integration at its heart.
Chuka Umunna is the chair of the APPG on Social Integration