Do we really want migrants to be just like us?

Attitudes towards immigration in the UK are hardening as witnessed by the upsurge in support for UKIP at the recent European elections and the Clacton by-election. “Britishness” now appears to be at the heart of debate centered around limiting immigration in the future. But is it really simply a question of wanting immigrants to be more like us? Professor Shamit Saggar considers what might result from policies which select immigrants solely on that basis.

Photo credit: See Wah Cheng

In 1949, a Royal Commission on Population reported a conclusion that has underscored political debates over immigration and its consequences ever since. A policy encouraging migrants to settle here would be wise so long as they [the migrants] were…

…of good human stock and not prevented by their religion or race from intermarrying with the host population and becoming merged in it..

Of course the language appears dated today, but the conclusion translates to two basic questions. First, “Are they like us?” and second, “Insofar as they are not, how could they become more like us?” Then and now, the perceived cultural and religious gaps between migrants and natives were seen to be large and almost insurmountable.

 Difference and sameness

Being or becoming like us, or not, can be fleshed out in various ways. Once, it was a lightly coded way to describe skin colour. In Australia until 1973 it was not even coded in a national White Australia policy, and a code of sorts underpinned Britain’s own 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act.

In more recent times, the lens of selectivity referred to the skills, qualification and experience that migrants brought with them; their human capital in essence. And yet the important point is that particular chapters of migration usually work when this human capital complements that of native-born workers. This is another way of saying that, if migrants and natives have the same profile, this can lead to direct job competition.

The problem is that there is an inherent danger of looking at migrants solely through the lens of what they bring to economy. By looking at them as individual units of labour, we reduce them to their utilitarian value alone. If we want to do this, then, frankly, it is best to operate an explicit guest worker programme and thus rid ourselves of the cultural and social issues that migration involves. This is a description of many Gulf States who recruit vast numbers of worker ants from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Difference and sameness is also reflected in the ideas, values and perspectives that migrants carry with them. Indeed, it is these differences, and how they indirectly shape us, that are probably at the heart of successful migration.

In Britain alone, it has revolutionised diet, end-to-end, within a single generation. In addition, the longer term, knock-on effects in terms of food fusion and food identity are enormous, though hard to measure.

Attitudes to entrepreneurship are another example. The experience of large numbers of immigrants making a success of once declining convenience shops has been transformational on several fronts.

For them, it has provided a secure economic base and shelter from setbacks in the job market. For the country as a whole, shopping habits have been turned upside down; so much so that the big supermarkets have moved in to capture custom that has been created for them.

However, it is the social and cultural composition of immigrants that stands out for its potential to fuel anti-immigrant public opinion. This is because:

  • languages appear strange (witness the resonance to the point made recently by Nigel Farage about riding on train surrounded by words he knew not of)
  • religious practices jar (not so much because of what they are but mostly because they contrast so sharply against the sea of secularity)
  • attitudes towards morality and the sexes seem to challenge fundamentally the liberal, permissive society that we have silently become

Measuring success

Sitting behind the immediate immigration controversy is a much larger debate about evaluating the things that are associated with and stem from earlier immigration. These are altogether harder to judge, since they are about fluidity and ambiguity about what represents success. Take two following examples:

First, social cohesion and how strongly we feel about the need to be more cohesive; the worry is that disparate cultures and identities are causing us to drift apart and retain too little in common. Polling shows that this is a significant concern underscoring immigration anxieties. However, how should we respond?

It might be enough to say that ethnically diverse societies fret too much about conflict that rarely materialises. This can come across as complacent, for sure, but there is a bigger problem, namely that the lack of overt conflict can easily mask unfairness and inequality below the water line.

Very little open conflict was once measurable in the former Yugoslavia, leading to a flawed understanding of what lay ahead. So perhaps we should be more proactive about cohesion, in which case we are talking about shared social norms that span ethnic boundaries. However, no-one has thus far successfully measured whether it really is true that on rainy weekends we bake cakes at home, let alone rush next door to borrow cups of sugar from our neighbours.

Second, there are disproportional outcomes and behaviours for different ethnic groups in all sorts of areas. One that is quite well documented has to do with the professions and public services where prime facie evidence points to ethnic minority lawyers, doctors and police officers experiencing disproportionately more misconduct investigations.

The causes are complicated, but the concern is that they are being hampered by unconscious bias among investigators; that is, being stereotyped, just as young black men complain of falsehoods lying behind their disproportional higher street stop and searches.

Moreover, there are disproportionalities in less well-documented, yet highly sensitive, areas. Successive court cases point to Pakistani men being especially involved sexual abuse conspiracies. To many, it bluntly equates with this group being disproportionately perverse.

Home-grown extremism and radicalisation patterns adds another heated dimension. Polling regularly shows that whilst three-quarters of us sense that “most Muslims are not terrorists”, around two-thirds worry that “most terrorists are Muslims”.

In other words, we should be clear: there is evidence pointing to disproportional outcomes in good thing that we approve of (school attainment, social mobility) but also in bad things we cannot give licence to (domestic violence, drunkenness). The only rider is that the patterns of disproportional outcomes cut right across ethnic groups: thankfully (if that is the right word), there are pariah sub-groups everywhere.

A controversial interpretation would be to say if the prevailing (though hidden) rates of paedophilia or alcoholism in a society are, say, ten per cent of all households, then we should take comfort if migrants adjust to match this. They have, so to speak, become just like us.

Positive and negative outcomes

Immigration is just about the most pressing issue in politics today. Specifically, this autumn David Cameron has set out to solve his party’s Europe issue by taking up an almost impossible cause of curbing EU migration.

Boris Johnson has stepped in, describing a nirvana of being open to the skilled, dynamic EU migrants that our most successful industries whilst keeping out poorer, unskilled ones. The solution, as they see it, is to get the composition right.

However, there is a paradox. Being more selective in getting the right kind of migrants appears attractive on one hand; but on the other hand, becoming more like us will lead to positive and negative outcomes. It is a package, but not one that we can directly control beyond deciding who gets to come in. And we may not get to decide even that.

Further information

This article is based on a recent British Academy Debate on Immigration and the Politics of Britishness.



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