Immigration is a sensitive, charged and important issue for many UK people – and, by consequence, a crucial topic for politicians. Pick up any newspaper and you’ll see evidence supporting that.
In fact, the heat and controversy surrounding immigration debates seems, to me, a near-constant of British politics. This has an impact, both on the national mood, and on individuals. Despite contributing hugely, overall, to British economy and its culture, I know from personal experience that many immigrants living in the UK may still feel alienated in their own home.
A deeper understanding
Therefore, together with three other immigrants, I wanted to investigate our peers’ experiences, understanding more about their lives and how they identify with British culture. We wanted to know whether they feel their culture greatly influences the UK, or vice versa. We wanted to hear their feelings about the word ‘immigrant’. And so, following training delivered by The Young Foundation, we conducted a peer research-led study.
It was a small study, interviewing seven immigrants over the age of 16 who had experienced the British education system or UK employment. Some were first-generation immigrants – who were either born in another country or have foreign citizenship – and some were second-generation immigrants – who were born in the UK and have two foreign-born parents. We conducted semi-structured recorded interviews, with most participants based in the Midlands or Southern England.
Our research findings relate to three key areas of experience: social, educational, and employment.
In their social experiences, the first- and second-generation immigrants we spoke to described ‘a sense of belonging’ and ‘alienation’ as two sides of the same coin. All participants described experiencing a community with similar ethnicities and culture, and some also identified spiritual and religious communities as a way to ‘belong’. Alienation was at the other end of the spectrum. Some participants found it hard to identify as an immigrant – particularly second-generation immigrants, who had never migrated. Some said British culture is all they know. That created feelings of alienation – not from their country of residence, but from their country of origin.
With immigrants’ education experience, the consensus is that state-funded primary and secondary school education is an advantage, accessible to all. And in the third area of our research, employment, gratitude and financial freedom appeared as the two major themes. All participants acknowledged that the UK is a first world country, with a variety of resources available to aid their career choice. Financial freedom surfaced for similar reasons – but this seemed to come at a cost; one participant described Britain as a ‘work to live’ environment. Some participants also expressed their first-generation family having lower skilled jobs, affecting their level of ‘freedom’.
A brighter future
While this research aimed to fill gaps in literature concerning the lived experiences of first- and second-generation immigrant British populations, replicating it as a quantitative study would allow for a larger sample size and, therefore, more representative results. It would also be helpful to investigate what kind of resources could be developed in wider society that could better support the integration process – and to monitor the usefulness of these resources over time to assess their impact.
Although the findings of this research are limited, the opinions, experiences and recommendations shared are valid and can be a catalyst for positive change in British society. We see no end to the debates and controversy; we know this can contribute to toxic ideas and unsafe situations for UK immigrants. So, as conversations about the benefits and risks of immigration to UK culture and economy continue, we must explore ways to reduce negative perceptions and biases, particularly from stigmatised areas.
Read the research here.