Migrants have far more to offer than hard work and wealth creation, yet too many exist in isolation from the rest of society

Inaction on integration is not an option for any of us if we want our towns to be pleasant

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The Independent Online

Few church services in Britain are busier than the Polish-language mass at St Mary’s in Boston, Lincolnshire. On an ordinary Sunday morning the pews are so packed that the congregation spreads into the entrance hall, with more still craning their necks through the doorway.

The market town is starkly divided by immigration, with nationalities existing in parallel but rarely mixing in a meaningful way. Champions of migration use the economic case that immigrants bring a net benefit through hard work and taxes. But new arrivals can contribute much more than cash to our communities if we let them.

Over the past year I have kept returning to Boston, researching a book on the lives of 10 people who have recently made their homes in Britain. When the EU expanded in 2004, it was to this small town that many migrants travelled, attracted by agricultural and factory work. Now, one in 10 Boston residents originate from eastern Europe, the highest proportion of any town in Britain.

I went to church with Klaudia Cichawa, a teaching assistant at one of Boston’s primary schools who first moved here from Poland in 2008. Since arriving, she and her husband Karol have had two daughters and she’s passionate about her family becoming integrated into Britain. But they are living in a town where the odds of that happening are stacked against them.

The worst-case scenario for integration is lived out in places such as Boston, which feels like several towns in one. Rapid change, a lack of foresight and an increasingly hostile indigenous population creates an atmosphere of division that puts up unseen walls between “eastern European” and “British” areas, souring the community and prompting mistrust on both sides.

Inaction on integration is not an option for any of us if we want our towns to be pleasant. Without efforts to help migrants feel part of this country we will only further the kinds of divisions that make Britain ugly. Boston is not the only place where immigrants are pushed away from assimilation. Klaudia and Karol’s feelings towards Britain are echoed by many others I met across the country, who want to be included in the UK yet continue to find integration elusive. Even in London, often seen as the ultimate model for multiculturalism, Emad and his mother Nawal from Syria, rarely have meaningful encounters with anyone of a different nationality.

 

Researching the book meant spending time with people at dramatic moments in their lives but the bulk of the time was spent in people’s homes just letting them talk. In several cases this was the first time a British person, other than immigration officials, had shown an interest in getting to know them. Whatever political decisions are made about how many people we allow into the UK, the way we interact with those already here must improve.

There are straightforward moments when we can come together; the challenge is whether we harness them. There was something uplifting about seeing Boston’s previously neglected Catholic church reborn with a Polish congregation. But how much more so if the British and Polish congregations were mixed and singing each other’s hymns rather than holding separate services? Difference can be celebrated without preventing us from doing more together.

Targeted integration projects can work, too: take the Maryhill Integration Centre in Glasgow. When Hristina Lazhovska arrived in Glasgow from Bulgaria three years ago, this was the place that pulled her from the grasp of depression. Faced with a choice of working for their future in Britain or having a life of poverty together in Bulgaria, she and her husband Georgi decided to leave their five-month-old baby Pepe in Bulgaria with her in-laws. The separation was like a bereavement and the women at the centre picked her up again and helped her to feel part of the city.

But badly executed attempts at integration can exacerbate problems. In Boston, Klaudia’s Polish Saturday school students were asked to write poems about the town for an integration project but didn’t actually interact with any British kids as part of it.

If new arrivals are to settle properly as fellow citizens and not aliens, we need to share their experiences. But digital breakthroughs have made us all less social. For new migrants it is even easier to keep one foot in the country they have just left. Almost everyone I met had television beamed in from their own country, or at least in their own language. The internet provides useful forums for scattered diaspora, bringing welcome support at times of isolation. But this only makes it easier to live a separate life from British people.

So how can we patch up these divisions? If there were easy, natural ways for new arrivals and long-standing residents of Britain to do more together, many would leap at the chance. Existing institutions such as schools, churches, workplaces and sports clubs can all do more to encourage this, according to the Social Integration Commission – which recently found segregation costs the British economy £6bn a year. The study showed people in the UK increasingly seek the company only of those most like themselves, with profound consequences. The resulting drop in social mobility and increased isolation between groups means that problems are emerging in areas from employment to health, costing the UK the equivalent of 0.5 per cent of GDP.

Public and political attitudes to immigration are increasingly intolerant but that shouldn’t affect how we treat those already settled here. Once someone has made a home in Britain, what they need from other citizens is empathy and welcome. If we fail to offer this, there will be many more divided towns like Boston.

‘Finding Home: Real Stories  of Migrant Britain’ by Emily Dugan (Icon Books, £12.99)

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