People are being trained to discuss immigration in a more constructive way, in workshops developed in the wake of the EU referendum.
The participatory sessions have been created in response to the toxic debate around refugee and migration issues in the UK – which peaked with the murder of Yorkshire MP Jo Cox last June.
The Batley and Spen representative, who campaigned for refugee rights, was killed by far-right sympathiser Thomas Mair a week before the country narrowly voted in favour of Brexit.
Media coverage and public feeling has become increasingly hostile towards migrants over recent years – a trend exacerbated by the bitter referendum campaign. During the months leading up to the election, EU migrants – along with refugees – were frequently used as scapegoats for many of Britain’s problems.
Since then there have been reports of migrants being verbally and sometimes physically abused on the streets, and many people feel uncomfortable broaching the subject, even with friends and relatives.
“Immigration has a clear net benefit for the country.”
Nick Stevens, South Yorkshire organiser for anti-racist organisation Hope Not Hate – which is running the sessions with the campaign group Global Justice Now – says new forms of persuasion are now needed.
“From an anti-racist perspective, the fact is that immigration has a clear net benefit for the country – but this doesn’t relate to people’s lived experiences,” he said.
“Immigration is a very polarised debate and very often you end up with the two sides shouting at each other. Shouting ‘racist’ at people who don’t share our views won’t change anyone’s mind and debates about the issue can be uncomfortable, upsetting and angry.”
While many people would expect to target their efforts towards the most ardent racists, campaigners suggest focusing on those who may be more on the fence.
The two-pronged approach taught on the workshop involves empathetic listening and a form of questioning that aims to challenge assumptions.
Free sessions take place on 25 February in Manchester, Salford and Liverpool, with others following over the coming weeks in Leeds and Macclesfield.
Stevens said: “We have to think about who we should try to have conversations with. It’s not really worth picking out the most hardcore racists – instead it’s worth thinking about people who are undecided or passively supportive.
“We want to get people to reflect on narratives put out by the media and question their own assumptions, in the hope it will shift opinions.”
Global Justice Now director Nick Dearden says people’s genuine concerns about the implications of immigration for their communities and local services must be acknowledged.
The vast majority of people are not racist but are frightened about the future and blame outsiders for failings by successive governments, he adds. Although politicians and newspapers have blamed migrants for our problems for decades, immigration has increased – causing frustration for many ordinary people.
“Things are going in a really dangerous direction – we know from history where things can lead if we blame people who don’t look or act like us for our problems,” he said.
“People have real concerns about their areas suffering and their public services being overstretched, but we believe it doesn’t have to be like this. The problems in this country are a result of political choices by governments, and this is what we want to challenge.
“The skills we gained via this training allow us to engage with people’s concerns.”
“It’s perfectly possible to create a decent health service, welfare state and social services in a country as wealthy as ours, and to have freedom of movement – there just needs to be political will.”
The workshops have already taken place in several towns including Bexhill in East Sussex. Attendee Christina Lucey says she would previously shy away from conversations on immigration for fear of conflict but now feels better equipped to engage sceptics in debate.
She said: “Even within families there can be arguments about different opinions and Brexit has exacerbated it. People are being spoonfed bad information by the media but the skills we gained via this training allow us to engage with people’s concerns that are frightening to them.
“I’m not generally brave enough to go there at social gatherings but think I could challenge people more effectively now.”
For more information see the Events section at globaljustice.org.uk