Emily Loud, from the Wonder Foundation, discusses integration in modern Britain
Immigration and the challenges of community integration scarcely leave the news these days, and everyone seems to have an opinion on how or why it should be achieved. Most recently it was Labour’s Chuka Umunna’s turn to weigh in.
Across the grandstanding from various ends of the political spectrum, one thing is consistent – the burden of action is almost always placed exclusively on the group of immigrants in question. This misses an obvious yet neglected point: it takes effort from both natives and immigrant populations to build an integrated community.
The consequences of a lopsided approach to integration played out in recent research conducted by the Wonder Foundation, our London-based education charity, into barriers to English language learning. One of the key factors preventing vulnerable migrant and refugee women in the capital from improving their English skills was the complete lack of practice opportunities. As one woman we interviewed put it, “we just don’t meet native speakers”. For women who were poor, vulnerable and lacked confidence in their language skills, there were almost no mechanisms for them to talk to British people, advance their knowledge of English and get involved with the local community.
The responsibility for integration cannot fall upon migrants alone if they do not have opportunities to meet UK citizens. It has to be a two-way process. From our experience, we know that vulnerable women from many backgrounds are looking for the chance to make new friends, meet their neighbours and participate fully in London life. We found that initiatives where native and established speakers of English can get to know migrant women were appreciated where they exist, such as at the Baytree Centre in Brixton. These can be supplemented with voluntary conversation meet-ups, such as those held by our friends at Xenia, and even events like the one we’re holding later this month, bringing together young people and refugees to problem-solve.
But such efforts are not enough. As a society we must go further, and communities cannot do this alone. We must secure political will at the local and national levels to tackle integration in this way. A first step is then to provide safe spaces where different groups can meet, where those who are vulnerable, isolated or stigmatised feel confident to build new friendships and experiences.
Concrete solutions should not stop there, especially since addressing isolation in practice is more sustainable and effective than theoretical discussions of British values in promoting inclusion. One attractive option is to fund schemes that help nationals and better-established migrants mentor English learners. Volunteering is another important strand, as, when programmes facilitate those with lower language capabilities, it can bring different people together to achieve joint, positive aims. It can be a tool for showing us common goals, recognising the skills and contributions of others.
In the wake of the Brexit referendum result and the rise in hate crime that has accompanied it, building solidarity between communities in these ways is more important than ever. Our research provides a practical guide to where to start, and a positive way forward. But to make it happen, English-speaking communities must accept that integration is our responsibility, too.