The evidence on migrant integration in the UK

My March COMPAS blogpost was on Jon Simmons (of Home Office Science) who presented a Breakfast Briefing on what we know about the reasons for migration and the social and economic characteristics of migrants in the UK. The whole post is here. This is an extract.

Convergence over time

The third report, conducted with the Office for National Statistics, Social and Economic Characteristics by Length of Residence of Migrant Populations in England and Wales (published in September and based on detailed analysis of the 2011 Census), reveals some key features of newer and longer term migrants, and degree to which people coming from abroad retain their difference, whether through cultural effects or long-term disadvantage, and the degree to which they become more like the population of which they have come to be a part.

Jon’s presentation looked at this question in a series of domains: economic activity, housing tenure, language proficiency, national identity and naturalisation. In terms of economic activity, migrant outcomes converge over time with those of the UK-born. Newly arrived EU migrants are much more likely to be employed than UK-born and non-EU migrants are much less likely, but these gaps rapidly start to close after five years and eventually disappear. Similarly, newly arrived migrants are concentrated in the private rented sector and locked out of owner occupation and social housing but eventually overtake the UK-born in the owner-occupied sector. Unsurprisingly, longer term migrants become proficient in English, identify as British and become citizens.

However, Jon also showed that there are big variations to the picture when you look by country of origin. For example, Bangladeshi- and Pakistani-born people are less likely to catch up the labour market and in English language, but more likely to catch up in the housing market and most likely to identify with Britishness. Irish-born migrants are very likely to become owner-occupiers, but very unlikely to identify with Britishness or to naturalise.

The immigration debate

You can look at Jon’s powerpoint slides here. In the rest of this blogpost, I want to reflect briefly on what this data tells us, and in particular on how it might affect some key debates in our field.

The perception debate

There is a growing body of evidence that the public think differently about the migration debate when they think about different groups of migrants. For example, Migration Observatory polling data shows that more people want to reduce permanent migration than temporary migration – but more people want to reduce low-skilled migration rather than high-skilled migration. If the public knew that temporary migrants are more likely to be in low- skilled jobs while long-term migrants are more likely to be in high-skilled jobs, would changed perceptions lead to changed views on reducing the numbers?

The family debate

As the Points-Based system, tightening of the asylum system and restrictions on student migration have kicked in, family migration has become a particularly heated area of the immigration debate. Family migrants have borne the brunt of many of the most dramatic recent changes to immigration law. We know that the public’s view of family migration is conflicted: a minority want to reduce the immigration of immediate family members, but a majority want to reduce the immigration of extended family members. Would a clearer picture of family migrants, as provided by Jon’s data, make a difference to this debate? In fact, is it politically toxic to highlight family migration at all?

The skills debate

Labour migration has been an even more heated topic than family migration. This week, UKIP announced new policies to keep low-skilled migrants out, pointing to the detrimental impact on “working class jobs”. The data which Jon presented shows how complex this issue is. Before EU8 Accession, a larger proportion of foreign nationals were in higher-skilled jobs than citizens; after 2005, that trend reversed. A growing proportion of foreign nationals have been in low-skilled jobs, and even before recession UK nationals were being lost in low-skilled occupations. This gives some weight to the UKIP argument about labour migrants competing for these jobs.

But, strikingly, UK nationals’ employment in high-skilled jobs increased in the post-accession period and has dramatically increased in the post-recession recovery. This suggests that migrant labour being directed into low-skilled occupations may have a less straightforward effect than the UKIP narrative suggests. The debate about skills needs to engage more closely with the debate on immigration – but both need to attend more closely to the evidence.




The integration debate

Finally, the data Jon presented contributes to our understanding of the integration debate, one of the most emotive parts of the migration debate. The census analysis shows clearly that integration is not a single process that unfolds in a linear way for everyone. This is true for at least two reasons.

First, the changing situation in the country of settlement makes a difference to the possibility of integration: housing market integration is different for the Windrush generation, who faced explicit racism but benefited from more abundant supply of housing, than for migrants in Generation Rent, who might not experience overt discrimination by are locked out of owner occupation for other reasons. Similarly, the rights and entitlements available legally – for instance to social housing allocation, to benefits, to naturalisation – change over time, changing the context in which migrants struggle to integrate.

Second, as Sarah Spencer and I have argued elsewhere, integration in one domain is related to integration in other domains but never straightforwardly. Integration in the labour market may or may not map on to a sense of national belonging, for example.

A more multi-dimensional picture of integration as it happens is vital for a more healthy integration debate, just as a more evidence-based picture of family migration and of competition in the labour market is vital for a more healthy debate on immigration restriction.

About bengidley

Senior Lecturer at the School of Social Science, History and Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London. View all posts by bengidley

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