New Migration Realities

Understanding integration in Britain in 2016

7 December 2016

Focusing on the linked agendas of economic disadvantage and fair chances remains the most promising way forward for promoting better integrated societies

Shamit Saggar

This short paper explores what is happening in the behaviour and outlook of two constituencies. The first are ethnic minorities and they are the default subject of political debate. In particular, second and third generation settled groups – most notably Pakistanis and Bangladeshis – appear more segregated (and disadvantaged) than would have been predicted a generation ago. They also face a bleaker economic future than others such as Indians and Chinese, are characterised by strong inward-looking social and family ties, and are linked to an oppositional and grievance political narrative. In short, some ethnic minorities are far more integrated socially, culturally and economically than others. The second constituency is the white ethnic majority, even though there is little track record of this group thinking or behaving politically in a cohesive manner. Britain’s white majority are of course integral to future integration, and small changes in their patterns of social networks and family/household formation can lead to significant integration impacts.

These constituencies sit very much in the foreground of integration politics. In the background there is the larger question of how successfully Britain adapts to ethnic pluralism as its future. Britain is undergoing a significant change in its social fabric and ethnic comparisons, rivalries and possible division have the potential to splinter national identity and everyday social cohesion. This short paper looks at some aspects of this story, and proceeds in four parts. First, it examines the background to and definition of integration, noting over half a century of development in ideas and practices, particularly on issues of difference and similarity between natives and migrants. Second, the paper highlights four areas in which recurring tensions and disputes have occurred: perceived threats to social cohesion, geographic dispersal and concentration and the impact of large-scale immigration on political trust. Third, it considers the role of compulsion in addressing integration challenges, noting some of risks involved and the unintended consequences of past experience. Finally, the paper addresses some “what should be done?” and “what should not be done?” questions, noting the central challenge of ethnic group segregation and also the trade-offs between different types of policy intervention. It concludes that focusing on the linked agendas of economic disadvantage and fair chances remains the most promising way forward.

What is integration about?

The degree to which visibly and culturally distinct immigrants blend in has been a feature of the political landscape for over a half a century. In 1949 the Royal Commission on Population embraced the need for Commonwealth migration to fill labour shortages but stressed the need for the newcomers to become just like us. For the best results, it was necessary that the immigrants should be: “of good human stock and not prevented by their religion or race from intermarrying with the host population and becoming merged in it”.[1]

Later in the 1960s this original understanding was widened by liberally-minded Labour and Tory governments to embrace cultural diversity both for the scope it provided immigrants and also for the benefits it might lead to for society as a whole. Britain has subsequently muddled along in its immigration and integration policies without a settled definition of the idea of integration, the areas in which it would be most valued, and the formal responsibilities that might be placed on individuals and institutions.

There has, however, been a degree of discomfort – though not a full backlash – about the unintended consequences that these arrangements have resulted in. For instance, strong, enduring levels of residential segregation among particular minority groups have been criticised as leading to inward-facing, oppositional cultures. Equally, public bodies have come under pressure to take an active part in ensuring that ethnic groups mix in housing, educational and other settings.

These concerns can seem distinctively new and unique to Britain. Neither is the case. They can be summarised as three challenges, each of which are as much intellectual and emotional as they are political and practical:

  • Are they like us?
  • Can they become more like us?
  • What can be done to ensure greater overlap and shared experiences – to create a new and different sense of “us”?


The first of these can be interpreted in two very different ways. “Being like us” is a compositional matter and rather assumes that natives and immigrants are very different on all indicators. But in terms of the human capital profile of the latter, it is often the case that migration demand is driven by the need for workers who are necessarily different in particular ways to the host population. Having more of the same makes little sense, particularly in the short term. However, there is a strong ethno-cultural flavour to the “like us” question. If the newcomers have distinctive cultural patterns, it will be important to try to bridge and narrow the differences that arise. In some aspects, the differences can be unacceptable in terms of societal norms, and family and gender relations sometimes throw up controversial examples. But in other aspects the differences are ones that segments of the host population might be attracted to in some way – for instance a greater willingness to support elderly members of society or a smaller reliance on the state for personal or family care.

How immigrants can become “like us” is of course heavily dependent on whether the differences that matter and to be narrowed are about economic rather than cultural profiles of different groups. For instance, there has been steady convergence in areas such as birth rates and family size, and this is in common with demographic trends that settled immigrants experience over time in many western democracies.

But becoming more “like us” in terms of cultural values, norms and practices is less straightforward. For instance, there is reason to think that immigrants from countries with overt totalitarian political environments take time to adhere to democratic values when they join democratic societies. But the lag is short-lived, and is mostly overcome in the political socialisation of their children. Things are not always so straightforward though. A preference for arranged marriages is something that is not easy to separate out from pressure for forced marriages, and all that can be done is to put in place a complaints-driven system to challenge practices that are already taking place. Designing a policy intervention that is genuinely preventative has proven to be elusive beyond using education and awareness to alter attitudes in the medium to long run.

There is a general appeal for the idea of encouraging more interaction across ethnic lines than would take place of its own accord. The main rationale is a negative one, however, which holds that some groups prefer to remain segregated, creating an atmosphere of separateness. The positive case is sometimes overlooked, that is the idea that new values, practices and innovations result from these encounters, and that countries such as Britain (following Canada’s lead) are well placed to encourage and capitalise on such possibilities.

Overall, integration has been hotly contested and has emerged as a frontline issue in party politics and in party competition. Its essence stems from a general –and genuine – desire to see convergence in people’s experiences and influences, but this still leaves plenty of room for dispute around those areas of people’s lives where this matters as against where it matters less or perhaps not at all. One way forward is to focus on opportunity structures and life chances, and to assess how far ethnic background is a significant driver of outcomes. Another way of putting this is to consider what are the dominant factors in Britain that account for difference in areas such as housing, education, employment and health, and then to see if these factors satisfactorily explain the outcomes experienced by all ethnic groups. For instance, there is a trove of ‘ethnic penalties’ evidence that suggests that many settled ethnic minority groups experience a higher unemployment penalty and a lower wage penalty where compared alongside otherwise similar white participants in the labour market. Elsewhere, in terms of political participation, there is strong evidence that shows that ethnicity disrupts the usual factors that shape party choice.

These are both illustrations of a substantive lack of economic integration (in the labour market) and political integration (in shaping political socialisation and partisanship). There are several laboratories of integration that go beyond the labour market and party competition, and these include social networks (with whom do people interact, bond with and develop close relations, as well as places that they frequent or shun), education (attainment rates as well as institutional and course preferences and patterns), and housing (patterns of concentration and dispersal that create or reinforce particular local social or ethnic identities).

Distinguishing between perception and reality on integration

In Britain the substantial rise in immigration from the late 1990s to the present, alongside the threats posed by Islamist-inspired violence, have fuelled the saliency of both immigration and integration as issues. Indeed, these are closely bound together in the public mind, much in the same way as they were when governments first took responsibility for addressing integration and cohesion in the 1960s. The rationale was best summed up by the young Roy Hattersley in 1965 who declared that: “without integration, limitation is inexcusable: without limitation, integration is impossible”.

This dictum has underscored how governments have approached both questions, but it should be stressed that since the mid-2000s the focus of integration has remained on older settled groups whilst immigration as an issue has become less and less about colour or race and more about the scale and rate of EU migration into Britain. Integration politics meanwhile is now dominated by public and government concerns on a wide variety of fronts. It is helpful to list these in rough order of importance and offer some commentary on the extent to which these are fuelled by perceptions that are particularly under evidenced, at odds with what is known, or skewed by anecdotes and group-think. Three concerns stand out:

– Aspects of ethnic diversity call into question the strength of our social cohesion. There is nothing new about the fear that modern societies will buckle under the ethnic and religious diversity brought about by immigration. In fact, mainstream political opinion on this is somewhat torn. On one hand, there is strong agreement that public and private institutions have obligations to ensure that access and opportunities are blind to latent bias or prejudice. Action to support this is seen in many fields ranging from university admissions, appointment to senior professions, boardroom appointments and even casting in the performing arts. On the other hand, beyond competition for these scarce opportunities, there is a concern about the degree of solidarity and trust that flows across traditional boundaries.

The evidence that has been gathered on this question is far from conclusive. Scarcely any of it shows direct friction stemming from a reluctance to reciprocate and share across unfamiliar, ethnic lines. Indeed, a lot of energy is taken up in answering this question, and rather less in answering what kinds of roles are best undertaken by government in promoting interaction and contact as precursors to greater cohesion.

In terms of how people experience growing ethnic diversity, it is worth remembering that both the white and the settled ethnic minority populations will not be able to distinguish between relatively newly arrived individuals as against older settled ones. This means that it is hard to assess how far the rate of inward migration itself drives anxieties about social cohesion.

– Ethnic group patterns of geographic dispersal and concentration are moving, heralding new realities and preferences. The past ten years have witnessed several important trends in the geographic spread of different ethnic, economic and age cohorts. One of these is that most parts of our main cities have seen a decline in white populations, alongside a rise in a range of minority ethnic groups. This has mostly resulted in a pluralization of ethnic groups in such places, and few trends towards ethnic dominance by any single group. Another is that white outward drift cannot be overtly linked to claims about white flight in any racialised sense. Many such white individuals and families have moved to nearby areas with proportionately larger white populations – but they have done so as part of a natural life-cycle pattern of people leaving cities in favour of suburbs and places with enhanced quality of life attractions. This is connected to a third element, namely the dispersal of second generation minority groups away from inner cities for much the same reasons as their white counterparts who have left. Finally, those same cities have also been undergoing social and economic renewal, and their revitalised housing and employment markets have attracted younger, better educated white households.

Settled disadvantage and the politics of progression sit side by side in describing economic integration. A number of indicators of long term economic integration among settled minority ethnic groups continue to point to poor outcomes for certain ethnic groups. Older boys and men of Pakistani, Bangladeshi and black Caribbean origin continue to experience low educational attainment, high unemployment risks and weak hourly and weekly earnings relative to others. Meanwhile, male and female Indians and Chinese experience much the opposite, and outperform their white counterparts from equivalent social class backgrounds as well as in absolute terms.

– Large-scale inward migration remains as unsustainable as ever and is implicated in basic trust issues in British politics. The rate of inward migration seen in the past decade has been associated with several direct challenges for political parties. One of these is the quantum of new arrivals divided by time, which gives us a historically unprecedented rate of migration and the absorptive demands on public institutions that this has created. Secondly, there are very immediate congestion effects in public services and infrastructure, severely accentuated by the absence of any regional incentive regime for migrants. Thirdly, the match between the composition of new migrants and the specific needs of the economy is far from clear in voters’ minds. Fourthly, there have been a series of political rows about the core competency of the immigration system including its points of assurance and its senior personnel. This creates a link between the ability to deliver on immigration political commitments and a larger set of concerns about delivery of a basket of commitments ranging from health service waiting lists through to management of the macro economy. And finally, the recent Brexit vote (and the Trump victory in the US) appear to implicate cultural fears about the social consequences of immigration in tacit support for nativist and nationalist messages.

It is too early to tell whether this kind of electoral behaviour represents a long term dealignment in party loyalties and preferences. And, more specifically, the outcomes may signal the start or culmination of a reordering of political preferences, or they may represent a mass protest against liberal values and social change that is unlikely to be sustained.

Prejudice, anger and hostility can be directed at unpopular groups as well as towards political arrangements that are associated with unpopular change. Perhaps the most important observation to make is that questions of integration remain sensitive in two different regards. On one hand there is unease about group identities that appear to be strengthening alongside group practices that are at odds with existing laws and social norms. This unease can spark an at-times shrill public debate which from time to time includes allegations of double-standards. The debate over FGM is one notable example, and is also seen in tensions between secular and religious identities and attitudes. But, on the other hand, some of the unease is directed towards elites, institutions and past policies that are thought to be responsible for significant ethnic diversity.

In the past this argument was advanced in a highly damaging way by Enoch Powell – first as a Tory and then as an Ulster Nationalist politician – who complained bitterly that parliament had had little say in mass Commonwealth immigration. In the mid 1990s, a Labour politician – Jack Straw – stood between the tribal instincts of his party and the managerial competence agenda of his colleagues. Both recognised that voters were formulating a sense of parties’ reputations for legitimacy and competence in the face of pressures that often cannot be controlled directly.

Is there a role for compulsion?

In this day and age, we should be sceptical about governments in liberal societies loosely mandating minorities to change their lives in particular ways. If the practices that some of these groups follow are of concern, we should look for proxies (often champions for change within these groups) to lead change that will support women’s empowerment, educational attainment, wider friendship circles, and so forth. There is a concern that we may end up with a society in which there are different rules and arrangements for particular groups – paradoxically as a result of government’s own actions.

To take one current example: the Danish parliament ratified a proposal that refugees should surrender their assets as a requirement of joining Danish society; but this only makes sense if it is fully aligned with existing rules for Danes who need public assistance. A decade ago, an earlier Danish government (fearful of soaring home-country marriages rates) proposed a differential age of marriage for its Pakistani-origin citizens; the trouble with this requirement was that it sent out a message that certain groups of young Danes were different from their peers. In the 1970s and 1980s several local education authorities in Britain practiced bussing policies in an attempt to equalise the proportion of ethnic minority pupils across a wider number of schools. The rationale was based on a notional ‘educational danger point’ whereby larger numbers of minority schoolchildren might trigger a learning penalty for the school cohort as a whole. The obvious problem with this kind of policy was that it required a strict ethnic group membership code in order to be operationalised and that requirement can come to be seen as an end in itself. It is also likely that such a code affects educational experience in a crude way. In addition, serious anomalies are created between children from the same ethnic background just above and just below the quota line.

That said, there is clearly plenty of scope to use existing policy levers – including forms of compulsion – via mainstream public policy arrangements and to do so in a way that leads to disproportionate outcomes among minorities that are least integrated in educational and labour market terms. Integration in these fields is attractive since these arenas are at a distance from the personal and family circumstances that are targeted in many other areas of social policy.

A good example can be seen in the upward trajectory in education attainment that several minority groups – and Bangladeshi girls in particular – have experienced in the last decade. Given this ethnic group’s heavy concentration in eastern and central parts of London, policy interventions have taken advantage of group concentration. But the measures themselves have mostly involved support and innovation given by Local Education Authorities (LEAs) that encourage improved attainment for all schoolchildren. This has involved a range of interventions, a widening of school provision, enhanced teaching resources, and a focus of greater awareness and knowledge for pupils and parents in navigating school, curriculum and career pathway options. It has also involved something of a cohort effect whereby the composition of school age children in these places has its changed in favour of the foreign-born. This implies that individual, family and group motivations have not been constant either. The outcome has been a strong and sustained improvement in attainment – from which several minority groups and sub-groups have been disproportionate winners.

In this way the steer for integration policy is to concentrate on other points with the potential to deliver positive disproportionate outcomes. These exist aplenty in education and employment policy generally, and in various aspects of social mobility specifically such as Russell Group university participation and access to the traditional and newer professions.[2]

What should be done, should not be done, how, and to whom?

Before discussion of what should be done, it is worth pausing to say that the role of government is typically limited to three main types of policy lever: first, advice, information and transparency so that private individuals and organizations make decisions on a more informed basis (e.g. knowing how many black people enter a particular top university can lead either to greater black student demand for places or indeed to less demand as marginal applicants decide to shun this institution); secondly, incentives and inducements of various kinds to reward those (institutions in particular) that made most progress or record the best results for cross-ethnic participation (e.g. an annual award for an employer whose senior management team most reflects either society as a whole or the customer base served by that employer); and thirdly, a rules-based regime that sets clear targets and milestones accompanied by explicit accountabilities, data gathering allowing monitoring of performance and a set of proportional penalties for under performance (e.g. a heavier fine for an employer who has lost a number of repeat discrimination complaint cases over a lengthy period of time).

The point about rehearsing these types here is to demonstrate how almost all policy interventions amount to a combination of these three options, and also to highlight the fact that the role of effective government action often involves working through others (employers, universities, recruitment agencies, schools, etc.). Furthermore, the choice of intervention ideally ought to vary according to whether the change in behaviour that is sought is among a group or setting where leadership has already shown positive results, as compared with those who are implacably opposed to change, and those who will follow and endorse change that they can self-manage but who are unlikely to take action of their own accord. In other words, the design of policy interventions to promote integration, like public policy generally, is affected by leaders, laggards and fence-sitters. The role of prizes to recognise change and success in otherwise hostile climates is therefore not to be under-estimated. This can be very effective and timely in shaping new norms in institutions and in accelerating tipping points.

The primary concern today is that of segregation. But patterns of ethnic group segregation mask many different things. For instance, much is made of minority groups often living in wards made up of a majority of members of their own ethnic group (or from all minority groups). Given that the white majority also mostly live alongside members of their own group, it is hard to know how to interpret this. A key finding[3] refutes claims that all ethnic minorities are happy if they live in segregated pockets of people with similar cultural background. Ethnic minority segregation, where it does occur, does not map onto common patterns of life satisfaction among the groups affected. Some groups are much less happy than others given similar levels of segregation. For example, first generation Pakistanis report lower life satisfaction if living in areas of high south Asian concentration, but the opposite is the case for the Pakistani and Indian second generation. It may be that group segregation increases satisfaction and happiness for some groups because living among one’s group can be a response to external threats such as discrimination and hostility.

Therefore, ethnic group concentrations should not be the focus of our concern. Instead, we should be worried about where such concentrations overlap with patterns of poverty and settled disadvantage.

On-going patterns of Islamist extremism, radicalization and violence in our society are the greatest priority for government. This problem is fed by a combination of socio-economic exclusion, poor political leadership within particular groups, inward-facing communities and the dynamics of global Islam. But only some of these causes can be directly or indirectly influenced by government. For instance, tackling disadvantage is obviously a sensible area to focus on, not least because governments have legitimacy in doing so, whereas addressing global Islam is much harder and laced with unforeseen problems. So we should concentrate on those aspects where we can influence outcomes. On leadership in particular, governments have for too long turned a blind eye to the damage caused by leaders who equivocate on the issue of violence to further political goals. This is self-defeating and allows men of violence to receive – by default – the tacit support of others. The most promising thing to do is to incentivise middle opinion in these groups to speak out. One reason is their own concern about the reputational damage suffered by British Muslims. Another is that they are seen by others to be responsible for protecting and promoting their own group’s reputation, something that governments are naïvely dragged into doing.

There are two further areas to mention in relation to promoting integration. The first is to give more weight to institutions to ensure fair chances for all groups. The logic of this has been embedded in various pieces of equality legislation and this has rather given equality and diversity a reputation for becoming bureaucratic end points, with little purchase among those directly and indirectly affected. There is also evidence to suggest that workplace diversity policies are least likely to resonate with all employees where these policies are positioned as representing the interests of specific ethnic groups. The most successful efforts to equalise opportunity structures are arguably those that recognise the political and personal stakes involved. This carries a message about how measures to advance and accelerate ethnic diversity outcomes are best served when they address unequal chances in the round.

Finally, there is significant appetite to develop policies and measures that advance integration goals through stealth. The reasons for this approach have been rehearsed in part earlier in this paper, noting that general government interventions into individual and family lives that target single ethnic groups carry many unintended consequences and dangers. Therefore, altering the decision-making environment to enable people to make choices – or perhaps not face them to begin with – that resonate with other habits and preferences makes sense. But, again, there is a premium in avoiding seeing integration in separate terms. There is a wealth of data and insight about how people within and across ethnic groups think and behave that seems to them to be instinctively right and protective of their own interests. Much of this stems from how they navigate modern markets and public services, and this can be better used to inform what are likely to be the most and least promising ways to promote integration.

For instance, while it is tempting to believe that a greater amount of information being placed in the public domain in itself aids better informed choice, the reality is often that individuals become overloaded and quickly search for proxy sources of information. Unsurprisingly, many of these contain in-built biases that reflect existing identities and preferences, and fail to provide objectivity. Equally, and for this reason, fresh information about ethnic group patterns of schooling, residency and socialising can themselves quickly become tools to resist interaction and increase segregation.



[1] ‘The Report of the Royal Commission on Population: A Review’, Frank W. Notestein, Population Studies 3.3 (1949), pp. 232-240

[2] Bittersweet Success? Glass Ceilings for Britain’s Ethnic Minorities at the Top of Business and the ProfessionsShamit SaggarRichard NorrieMichelle Bannister and David Goodhart, Policy Exchange, November 2016

[3] Unpublished submission to the Casey Review, Alita Nandi, Rene Luthra and Shamit Saggar Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex, February 2016

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