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The Future of Welcoming in the UK

Published 30 May 2024 / By Denis Kierans, Jacqui Broadhead

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First published in the Academy of Social Sciences.

Migration policy will feature highly in the UK’s upcoming general election, while the integration of newcomers will likely have a much lower profile. This is a problem as immigration only works when integration works and many migration questions ultimately become questions of integration: understanding how we welcome newcomers, how communities deal with the pace of change and its economic impacts, and ultimately, how we live well together.

Integration covers proactive policy interventions and natural processes over time. Whilst the UK policy landscape on integration has often been characterised by inertia and a ‘tangled web of responsibilities,’ everyday welcoming also forms part of the water we all swim in.

As a result of this, the UK offers both a warm and a cold climate for welcoming. Cold because of a pervasive hostile environment for newcomers, particularly within the asylum system, and often extremely limited support structures for welcoming. Conversely, recent protection programmes such as Homes for Ukraine and visas for Hong Kong British Nationals Overseas show the capacity of the British people to provide a warm welcome notwithstanding the persistent barriers of under-employment, financial struggles, and unmet support needs. More broadly, the UK has theoretically strong protections under the Equality Act against discrimination, which mean that the UK ranks somewhere in the middle on the international Migrant Integration Policy Index. The UK’s mainstreaming of newcomer children immediately within the education system, and the subsequent strong performance of migrant children within our schools, equally demonstrates how integration can be brought from the periphery to the mainstream.

Finally, devolution is galvanising work on welcoming. The devolved administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have all developed integration strategies in contrast to England and at the UK level. After years of declining numbers of places for those learning English (a key gateway skill for integration, agreed by almost all) numbers are starting to rise, perhaps linked to the devolution of the adult education budget to some areas in 2019. Various independent initiatives including the City of Sanctuary Local Authority Network, Migrant Champions Network of local councillors and our own Inclusive Cities initiative of 12 UK local authorities, demonstrate an appetite for greater action at the local level.

Part of the reason for this is that local communities in the UK have become increasingly expert at welcoming. Starting with the Syrian Vulnerable Person’s Resettlement Scheme, through to schemes for those arriving from Afghanistan, Hong Kong and Ukraine – including through Homes for Ukraine, with its strong element of community-led welcome – many local areas with previously limited experience of welcoming and integration have had to develop capacity at pace, often building the plane on the runway itself. While the design of these schemes has allowed for quick mobilisation and emergency support, with each crisis this scramble for a response feels less than adequate. Short-term, bespoke schemes mean that there has been very limited capacity to build proper infrastructure for welcoming. Resource is often targeted at the ‘front end’ – the first few days, weeks and months after arrival, which, whilst important, forgets about longer-term integration outcomes and excludes newcomers with similar needs who fail to meet the criteria. These bespoke approaches are also expensive, with £2.3 billion spent on Homes for Ukraine as of the end of September 2023.

How can this be improved?  

First, the positive experience of local government-supported resettlement points to the need to recognise welcoming as a permanent function of local government. Acknowledging the severe financial strain many councils are under, shifting funding from short-term per capita schemes to a mainstream funding settlement would allow councils to plan for and build up their capacity, including in relation to a long-term housing strategy.

Second, integration cannot only be the responsibility of local government. While the UK’s migration policy does not include a strong focus on integration, this is not true internationally. In Canada, the long-term partnership between the federal Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship directorate and other agencies includes a focus on integration outcomes. New Zealand Immigration leads the Welcoming Communities programme, working with 34 councils to develop long-term approaches to integration and inclusion, including accreditation against a Welcoming Standard. In the United States, philanthropic organisations have stepped up to promote welcoming. Although both government– and privately-funded approaches have their critics, there is consensus among those working on integration in the UK that we have the worst of both worlds: a largely absent central government and very few other types of funders willing and able to invest over the long-term. The Inclusive Cities Framework provides one option for a comprehensive planning framework over five thematic areas, which local councils and other organisations can use to structure their work and make the case for a more proactive approach to welcoming.

Third, this shift does not necessarily have to mean higher spending. The current system is very expensive and inefficient.  Shifting reactive and crisis-driven spending (including on asylum hotels) to a proactive, devolved system of local and regional partnerships, as advocated by the Commission on the Integration of Refugees has the potential to produce better outcomes for newcomers and local communities – breaking even after three years and providing £1.2bn per year to the UK economy after five years.

Too often, integration and welcoming have been peripheral to policy making in the UK, niche issues without the political salience of migration and disconnected from wider local government priorities on place making and devolution. As the UK heads into a general election, recent experiences of resettlement have shown local government has the expertise to lead on welcoming, bringing community partners together to tackle division. Importantly, the lens of welcoming can give fresh impetus to seemingly intractable problems from tackling poverty and inequality to the effects of climate change, allowing us to see our cities, towns and communities through the eyes of all residents, including their most recent arrivals.