Looking at family migration through the lens of ‘integration crisis’: a narrative reflection

Looking at family migration through the lens of ‘integration crisis’: a narrative reflection

Elena Vacchelli  

The Casey Review (2016) presents an underlying crisis narrative with regard to a perceived lack of integration of Muslim populations in the UK. It is sufficient to watch the short video released on the BBC news website to see how the failed integration narrative is played out in Casey’s argument: Britain is a liberal country, able to integrate different cultures, however Muslim people represent an exception to this state of affairs and the situation is now out of control. We need to go back to defining British identity because it is being spoilt by different values put forward by a younger, fast growing and religious populace culpable of actively discriminating against women and potentially becoming radicalised. This report was recently commissioned by the Home Office in order to assess the status of ‘integration’ in the UK.

Fifteen years earlier, the Cantle report (2001) had notoriously marked the shift away from multiculturalist discourses and policies towards more assimilationist ideas of integration in the UK. This happened in the aftermath of the riots in the Northern cities of Oldham, Burnley, Leeds and Bradford. Although Louise Casey’s starting point is a definition of integration provided by the Cantle Report, thus acknowledging its legacy, the report does not depict a very different or new scenario and implies that the government has failed in achieving social cohesion especially in certain areas of Britain where urban segregation is more visible. The data seems to scream the loud and clear message that integration is just not working: the overall UK population has increased 4.1m between 2001 and 2011 and 50% of this increase is due to immigration. Currently 2.8m people in Britain are of Muslim origins and they are the second biggest religious group after Christians, making up 70-85% of the population in some wards in cities such as Blackburn, Birmingham, Burnley and Bradford. Primary and secondary education is highly segregated as 511 schools in 43 areas have more than 50% pupils from Pakistani and Bangladeshi origins. In addition to this, 27% of current births in the whole country in year 2014 were to a mother born outside the UK.

Without explicitly mentioning the term ‘integration crisis’ the Casey Review argues that the UK is currently experiencing one and that the features of this crisis are entrenched in narratives that have been uncritically regurgitated in British politics and mainstream media alike for several years. These narratives suggest that potentially dangerous Asian Muslim populations in the North of England live parallel lives contributing to economic, social, cultural and spatial segregation in British society; that Muslim people are inherently anti-modern subjects whose exogenous and obscure cultural practices clash with British values; that Muslim women are ill equipped to oppose sexist, misogynist and patriarchal practices, in this way hindering their own ability to emancipate; crucially they also suggest that Muslim women are not fit for parenting future British-Muslim generations. Similar narratives to the ones thoroughly reproduced in the Casey Review were already evident in David Cameron’s 2011 speech on the demise of multiculturalism. In this speech notably he provided examples of clashing cultural values and mentioned the aberration of arranged and forced marriages, Muslim women’s inability to speak English, the barriers they experience in accessing paid employment and how these anti-modern cultural practices represent the ideal terrain for political and religious extremism to breed. Clearly these messages are reproduced over and over again by policy and the media.

Focusing specifically on transnational families and their role in hindering integration, the Casey Review (page 32) suggests that ‘the creation of a ‘first generation in every generation’ phenomenon resulting from the high number of transnational marriages – with second, third and subsequent generations being joined by a foreign born partner, and that children in each new generation growing up with a foreign born parent may be acting as a bar to integration in some communities’. In the UK, marriages between British South Asians (particularly Muslims) and partners from their parents’ or grandparents’ countries of origin mean that the constant flow of migrant wives from Pakistan and Bangladesh add a new generation to every generation of already settled migrants. This contributes to fuel the perception of an ‘integration crisis’ with no foreseeable solution. Dominant discourses around an alleged ‘crisis of integration’ are strictly intertwined with policy makers’ attempts to control family reunification through increasingly restrictive legislation. In the UK, as in France, the Netherlands and Germany, the dismantling of family migration rights is evident from the 2011 implementation of pre-entry integration tests and an increase in income and age requirements. In recent years family migration has stand out as one of the key battlegrounds for integration at a time when transnational marriages are seen as a migration strategy for supposedly uneducated spouses, importers of backwards and doubtful parenting practices for future generations to come (Kofman, Saharso and Vacchelli 2015. Family migration policies are depicted as the terrain for control of cultural difference and as a way to rectify the current ‘crisis of integration’, especially as the body of female Muslim migrants serves to demarcate the boundary between the civilised West and uncivilised and illiberal outsiders.

The work of Janet Roitman (2013) ‘Anti-crisis’ is key for thinking about the effects of the use of the concept of ‘crisis’ as a heuristic framework for understanding social processes. Once we define a problem as a ‘crisis’ we begin to engage in a series of logically interconnected steps unleashing a predictable pattern of reasoning. The narrative of a so-called ‘crisis of integration’ is articulated through several sub-narratives highlighted above and can be looked at according to the kind of effects it is deemed to have in terms of policy responses. The crisis itself is the signifier of a critical decisive moment, which however is being construed as a protracted experiential condition (Roitman 2014:2) such as the inability of Muslim minorities to integrate. Crisis narratives contribute to structure ways of thinking about family migration and shape political responses. Crisis of integration qualifies the very nature of events and is implicitly inscribed in a teleology foreseeing a solution of this crisis in order to overcome this epistemological impasse. Possible solutions proposed by the Casey Review as a way to solve the crisis of integration are also not dissimilar from the ones suggested by Ted Cantle fifteen years before: immigrants and their children must learn English and make an oath of loyalty to British values; encouraging social mixing and securing women’s emancipation in communities. Family migration legislation moves along similar lines as integration tests are a request to comply with British values and language while the restrictions in age and income requirements represent an attempt to manage cultural and economic aspects of family migration. Roitman’s idea that ‘crisis is posited as a diagnostic of the present implying a certain telos because is inevitably (though often implicitly) directed toward a norm’ (Roitman 2014: 4) could not be more accurate.

Face value acceptance of crisis narratives means viewing family migration in binary terms, i.e. employment vs unemployment; integration vs segregation; participation vs domestic sphere; modernity vs cultural backwardness. The study Marriage migration and integration in the UK, by Charsley et. al. (2016) is situated in ideological opposition to the Casey Review and contributes to destabilise these problematic dichotomies. Charsley et al. (2016) have indicated that migrant wives tend to be under-employed because of the kind of the life-course they are in when they arrive to the UK given the fact that parenthood follows very quickly. This is in itself a time of life when new mothers tend to be more homebound and this is likely to apply even more to women who are new to a country and have few English language skills. Aspirations moreover are generational and change over time within one person’s life course. The report by Charsley et.al. (2016) also contributes to challenging some of the dichotomies highlighted in crisis narratives and points to the fact that some British Pakistani women are the ones who marry migrating men from Pakistan; also, migrant wives are not always uneducated. Migrant wives, contrarily to what is assumed in dominant narratives on the integration crisis, do indeed engage in community groups and often perceptions of injustice impact on their political engagement. Political disillusionment itself is a product of integration: those brought up in Britain do expect equality however have greater awareness of discrimination and inequality. Migrant spouses retain identification with their country of origin but this in itself does not function as a barrier for other identifications. The report also shows that there is no relationship between transnational marriages and religious identity. As demonstrated in this report, adding a more nuanced understanding of the situation on the ground aided by rigorous methodological research helps to disrupt the gross generalisations that dominant narratives of the crisis of integration seem to suggest. In this sense Janet Roitman’s conceptualisation of ‘crisis’ can be used as a heuristic framework for understanding social processes and envisioning solutions that do not fall within dichotomous and predictable pattern of reasoning.

Current ‘crisis of integration’ policy discourses and responses do not point towards alternative future historical trajectories despite Louise Casey’s statement that ‘we need a new strategy to help bridge this divide’ in the BBC News video. On the contrary, they are likely to reinforce current segregation by suggesting to further restrict people’s citizenship rights and actively working towards erasing their cultural difference. Currently, ways of thinking about family migration and other integration problems are shaped by the ‘norm’, i.e. defining what British identity is in the face of increasing difference, which is supposed to be re-instated after a solution for the crisis is found. This is identified with a re-affirmation of mono-culturalism, where national identity and diversity can co-exist but only under certain conditions. What kind of family migration rights could be imagined and potentially built if we did not immediately assume ‘crisis of integration’ as a starting point? The call for a definition of a quintessential British identity is not the solution to the crisis of integration. On the contrary British identity could be re-thought according to its acquired and ever changing heterogeneity. With regards to the alleged ‘backwards practices’ Muslim people are supposedly introducing, opening a discussion in terms of gender violence with those who are directly involved instead of ascribing these problems to other cultures which are exogenous from British values could be an encouraging start. Gaining a better understanding of people as people and not as migrants or Muslims could also be helpful.

Perhaps this also requires learning to be more reflexive about the ways in which the British establishment still discriminates against women, and still has a long way to go to overcome racist bias, would be an important step towards interrogating integration from a less ideological standpoint.

Charsley, K., Bolognani, M., Spencer, S., Ersanilli, E., Jayaweera, H. (2016) Marriage Migration and Integration Report, Bristol, UK: University of Bristol.
Kofman, E, S.Saharso, E.Vacchelli (2015) ‘Gendered perspectives on integration discourses and measures’ International Migration 53 (4): 77-89.
Roitman, J. (2013) Anti-crisis. Duke, US: Duke University Press


Elena Vacchelli is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of History, Politics and Social Sciences at the University of Greenwich. Her research interests include migration, diversity and social inequality; gender and space; embodiment; art-based and digital research methodologies. The outputs from Elena’s research have been published in journals such as Gender, Place and Culture; Research in Urban Sociology and International Migration. Her track record also includes several reports from research activities with European institutions, third sector organisations and local authorities.