Eastern European alcoholic drinks at a store in London, 30 July 2008. Polish nationals make up the largest foreign national group living in the UK. (EPA/Andy Rain)

On April 24, students from King’s College London and Indiana University will discuss the challenges of integration in an era of populism during a News-Decoder webinar. Below, Emma Bapt touches on the experiences of two students who will appear on the panel and on the impact that the rising number of immigrants has had in the UK.

By Emma Bapt

Whether it’s going to the pub with work colleagues on a Thursday night in the UK or keeping up with football scores in Italy, integration is about embracing the cultural norms of a country that is not one’s place of origin.

While integration can pose different challenges to each new immigrant, foreign-born people living in the UK have to grapple with common issues of identity, customs and religions, whether residing in Britain for one year or 30.

Between 1993 and 2015, the foreign-born population in the UK more than doubled to around 8.7 million from 3.8 million, according to the The Migration Observatory. The highest growth came between 2005 and 2008, just after the European Union expanded in 2004, drawing large numbers of East Europeans into the UK.

There has been a statistically significant increase in the population of non-UK born nationals. In 2015, 13.3 percent of the UK’s population was born abroad, compared to 8.9 percent in 2004, according to the Office for National Statistics.

In 2015, the five most common countries of birth for usual residents born outside the UK were Poland, India, Pakistan, Ireland and Germany. London is home to the largest number of migrants — 3.2 million foreign-born people in 2015.

In the age of Brexit, the issue of integration is especially poignant. Brexit proponents took a hard line against immigrants during the campaign, and after British voters chose last June to leave the EU, authorities reported a spike in anti-immigrant incidents that they said eventually started to taper off.

Brexit’s long-term effects on integration are uncertain. Will growing aversion to immigration hinder integration? Will foreign-born nationals feel that their place in the UK is threatened?

Integration is a life-long process.

The two students from King’s College London who will be participating in News-Decoder’s webinar on integration next week have had radically different experiences integrating in Britain.

Arsentiy Novak moved to the UK from Ukraine 12 years ago. Kit Keane, from Arlington, Virginia, moved to London only last September.

Novak has lived in the UK since he was eight years old, speaks with a British accent and eats British food. “I feel integrated,” he said. “I feel British.”

But he feels integration is a life-long process and “there can be no full integration” since countries are constantly changing and evolving.

“I never expected Britain needed to change to facilitate my way of life,” Novak said. “I was the one who needed to integrate to understand the country I am living in now. And I think that I have succeeded, with the hope that I have also preserved my individuality.”

During the webinar, Novak will examine pressures that integration can put on one’s individuality. He is particularly interested in challenges to freedom of tradition and religion. Should migrants bend to local customs?

Can cultural appropriation be measured?

In an urban university praised for its openness, in a city known for its diversity, Kit has grappled with integration issues since her arrival in London last year.

The American woman says she has had difficulty integrating culturally. In some classes, she has had to grapple with preconceptions about her coming from a country that elected Donald Trump as president.

“We’d begin every class with me having to justify the alleged stupidity of the American electorate,” she said.

Keane is intrigued by the notion of cultural appropriation — the adoption of the elements of one culture by members of another culture. How much does one need to integrate culturally to feel integrated? Can cultural appropriation be measured, or is it a personal feeling that differs from person to person?

Integration challenges one’s sense of identity, religion and traditions. Brexit’s lasting impact on integration will remain uncertain for some time to come. Novak and Keane offer examples of some of the challenges immigrants face as they strive to integrate into a new culture while preserving their origins.

Emma Bapt

Emma Bapt is a second-year undergraduate student at King’s College London, studying History and War Studies. She has lived in London, Singapore, Hong Kong, Milan and Paris. News-Decoder’s summer intern in 2016, she is one of King’s College London’s student ambassadors to the educational news service and founded the News-Decoder club at the university.

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