Integration used to happen naturally in British society, but the rate of immigration over the past decade or so has changed that.
In the week when we discovered that Britain’s population is growing faster than those of any of our peer countries – and when the argument about the accuracy of our immigration figures has returned – it’s time for us to look at what the data we have does and doesn’t tell us. Numbers matter in immigration politics. But the numbers we have are not enough.
It is no secret that our immigration and emigration figures are based on quite small surveys, taken at the border, and do not give a complete picture. The Home Office can’t tell us for certain exactly how many people have come here, but it can tell us a fair amount about the direction of travel. There is good news in there – we are reducing, slowly, immigration to Britain. Still, we need to know more, because whatever the overall numbers of people coming in and out, we also need to know how people are living together in a country that has suddenly become much more diverse.
It is, common-sensically, harder to integrate new arrivals if they arrive en masse than if they come in moderate numbers. Anyone who has played or worked in a team knows that it’s hard to integrate large numbers of newcomers joining all at once – the same is true of a nation. Hence the big impact of 1.5 million eastern Europeans arriving in Britain between 2004 and 2010 – the equivalent of 250,000 a year.
Areas previously relatively untouched by post-war immigration – such as Carlisle, where I am from – were forced to adjust. People could feel the dynamics of their community shift, without ever really having had a say in the matter.
Integration used to happen naturally in British society. As a nation, we have traditionally been at ease with the idea that it might take a couple of generations for new arrivals to become fully part of our communities. But the rate of immigration over the past decade or so has overwhelmed the British system of laissez‑faire integration.
It is possible now for many arrivals to be in Britain in body, but not here in either spirit or mind. Ghettos have sprung up and – as a result of immigrants moving near their relatives and many white Britons leaving inner cities – over time they become consolidated outposts of different lands. Research from the demographer Prof Eric Kaufmann shows that nearly half of all ethnic minorities living in Britain – around four million people – now live in areas where white Britons make up less than half the population.
Furthermore, children from particular communities are often – as a result of these population shifts and parental choice – in schools where their own “minority” ethnicity is the majority. And, thanks to technology that was supposed to connect us – satellite television, the internet – migrants are able to insulate themselves from British culture and language. YouGov polling shows that one in 10 of us has a best friend from another ethnicity. But in too many areas there is a lack of contact, let alone intimacy, across ethnic lines.
The good news is that there are things we can do. Theresa May should be applauded for taking political responsibility and accountability for our borders and bringing the UK Border Agency under her control. We need what David Goodhart calls a “Rolls-Royce immigration bureaucracy”. A reduction in the flow of migrants – something that would be greatly aided by a renegotiation of Europe’s unrestrained freedom-of-movement rules – makes easier the slow, organic process of integration.
But we also need to know more. Not just about new arrivals, but also about what happens to them once they’re here. At the think tank Demos, under the stewardship of Trevor Phillips (formerly of the Equality and Human Rights Commission), we’re pulling together all the available data on integration and segregation – with the aim of making it more user-friendly. It’s a mark of the widespread concern about integration that equality campaigners like Trevor take this issue so seriously.
We will only really know whether we’re succeeding in welcoming migrants fully into the fold of British society if we can measure the scale of the challenge and the pace of progress. Our current tools are not up to the task.
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