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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 September 2005, 05:41 GMT 06:41 UK
Opinion: Beyond black and white
Born Abroad
By Sarah Kyambi and Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah
Institute for Public Policy Research

A entry stamp in a passport
Britain is one of the most diverse societies in the world but, according to research by the IPPR now published on the BBC News website, Britain is also more diverse than ever. But what does the research tell us about how we achieve a cohesive society?

Old assumptions about immigration to the UK no longer hold. In recent years, and for the first time since records began in the 1970s, immigrants from outside the Commonwealth and Europe have made up the largest group of new arrivals.

While immigration to Britain in the past has been overwhelmingly the story of just a small number of nations, recent immigrants have also come from a much wider range of countries.

So, the numbers of people born in places such as the former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone and South America have increased sharply, while the numbers of people born in the Caribbean or Ireland (traditionally, key immigrant groups) have actually fallen.

Such diverse patterns are hard to capture through frequently-used categories for describing ethnic groups such as 'White', 'Black' and 'Asian' - and almost certainly this largely unrecorded and growing diversity has played a part in public concerns.

Economic performance

For instance, our research shows considerable variation in the socio-economic characteristics of immigrants by country of birth.

Growing diversity strikes at the heart of the debate about how to balance two apparently opposing demands, between recognising difference and establishing a common identity
This variation means that policymakers cannot afford to treat all 'Black' groups as homogenous. Somali and Nigerian immigrants to the UK have radically different socio-economic profiles, with the former generally doing worse than the latter.

But even within the same country of origin group, newer arrivals may be performing very differently from settled members. While recently-arrived Filipinos and Australians are more likely to be in employment than settled immigrants from these countries, the opposite is true for Iranians and Iraqis.

Similarly, while it was once assumed that 'White' immigrants would have no trouble settling into British society, growing numbers of immigrants from Central Europe and South America, though they may often be classified as 'White', may require assistance to integrate.

What our research suggests is that integration policies need to be more nuanced and go beyond old assumptions and categories. Policymakers need to pay attention to how particular communities (or particular segments within communities) are doing.

Greater diversity also raises important questions about representation; about who gets to speak for whom? Discussions following the July London bombings highlight the difficulty in identifying leaders who can legitimately speak for a community as diverse as British Muslims.

The integration challenge

How British policymakers respond to this growing diversity will be critical to the pursuit of racial equality and social cohesion. It may also hold important lessons for other diverse societies around the world which are experiencing the same global forces of migration.

Maps immigration to Britain
Where people come from
Where they live
How well they do

The British approach to diversity has come under attack in recent years. Events such as the London bombings suggest that the threat of extremism looms large. Some commentators suggest that years of celebrating difference have come at the cost of fostering unity.

On other hand, some ethnic minority groups still lag behind in many socio-economic indicators. Many live 'parallel lives' in segregated areas with little integration with wider British societies. This has led some commentators to suggest that multiculturalism's approach to diversity is tokenistic.

Growing diversity strikes at the heart of the debate about how to balance two apparently opposing demands, between recognising difference and establishing a common identity.

By highlighting the heterogeneity of new immigrants to the UK, our research suggests that it is time that integration policies go beyond the broad categories that they have traditionally relied on. Achieving greater racial equality will require policies that are attuned to fine-grained differences between and within communities.

There may also be lessons for building a healthier multicultural society. By encouraging a plethora of immigrant and minority voices, it may be possible to build wider communities of interest that cut across traditional ethnic divides.

Many in Britain will be perturbed by this growing diversity. But we hope this research generates a political debate in which general claims about immigrants (for example, that they are a drain on society, or that they all belong to ethnic minorities) give way to a more nuanced discussion.

We believe that the challenges brought by new immigration are neither unique nor insurmountable.

Rising and more complex patterns of international mobility mean other countries are also experiencing growing diversity. Given its long and relatively good history of dealing with diversity, Britain may actually be well-placed to deal to lead the way.

Sarah Kyambi is the author of the IPPR's New Immigrant Communities study, the basis for the BBC's Born Abroad project which maps migration change in Britain. Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah is head of the IPPR's Migration, Equalities & Citizenship team.

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