The UK is among the top ten destinations for migrants worldwide, and fears of our society being overwhelmed by migrants frequently surface in the immigration debate. But research shows that our perception of immigrants are more nuanced than assumed, and merely focusing on immigration as a threat is counter-productive. The average immigrant has a stronger sense of British identity than most home-born Brits – and children’s experiences are crucial to migrant families staying or leaving.
Some 195,000 people became British citizens in 2010. The vast majority of these – almost 90 per cent – claimed to feel at least a little British. “And that,” says Dr Ben Gidley, “means this country’s newest citizens feel a whole lot more British than the rest of the UK-born population.”
As part of the Citizenship and Integration in the UK project, researchers from the ESRC Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) and Birkbeck, University of London, surveyed a sample of people who applied for British citizenship in 2010. “Our aim was to find out more about Britain’s new citizens: who they are, what attitudes they have to Britishness, and how well or otherwise they are integrating into British society,” explains Dr Gidley, Senior Researcher at COMPAS.
Findings paint a largely positive picture of the attitudes held by Britain’s newest recruits towards citizenship and integration. For example, 81 per cent of those surveyed took the Life in the UK test rather than the alternative ESOL test (English for Speakers of Other Languages), with citizenship course route open to those with less English language proficiency on the point of application. The majority of respondents (more than 80 per cent) claimed that applying for citizenship helped them feel they belong to the UK.
“Our findings show that new citizens have a very strong identification with Britain and Britishness,” Dr Gidley points out. “However, they are more likely to feel British than they are to feel English/Welsh/Scottish or Northern Irish. This is in contrast to the UK-born population, where the exact opposite applies.”
Findings also show that today’s new citizens are much more likely to take steps to become involved in their communities – for example through volunteering – than their UK-born neighbours. And, contrary to popular fears, new citizens are far more likely to integrate with people from other ethnic groups than the native population.
“What we did identify is that new citizens take different paths to becoming integrated, and a ‘one size fits all’ approach to integration misses the mark,” Dr Gidley explains. “Two particular paths to integration stand out from our research. First, a strong sense of local belonging (e.g. through having children in local schools) can go hand in hand with a strong sense of Britishness. For others, including those who live in areas with fewer migrants, the local connection may be weaker but social mixing and inter-ethnic friendships may be stronger, and again be associated with a strong sense of Britishness.”
In general, researchers conclude, the majority of those applying for UK citizenship show the sorts of attributes that can be viewed as positive indicators of integration.