The Government’s hostile environment and its consequences on integration

The Government’s hostile environment and its consequences on integration

Jenny Phillimore and Nando Sigona

Can you have an integrated society in a hostile environment? The UK Government’s strategy doesn’t aim to promote a better integrated society for all, but more ‘integrated communities’, placing the onus of integration firmly on migrants and ethnic minorities.

The Department of Housing, Communities and Local Government’s (DHCLG) much awaited Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper was released on March 14. The Green Paper places much emphasis on the importance of social integration which is referred to as ‘meaningfully mixing’ with people from different backgrounds. Although the remit for the Green Paper was wide and intended to address the whole population, from the title it is clear that the emphasis is on the new migrant and minority communities and the alleged integration gap affecting them.

The paper is the official response to the ‘challenge’ posed in Dame Louise Casey’s Independent Review of 2016 whose focus, in turn, was on ‘our most isolated and deprived communities’ which were portrayed as isolated, both socially and spatially, from mainstream society.

A prominent quote by Dame Casey set the tone for the Green paper: ‘for generations we have welcomed immigrants to the UK but left them to find their own way’, we could be forgiven for thinking that the way that immigrants have chosen led them away from mixing.

Similarly to the Casey Review, in the Green paper, isolation, deprivation, lack of participation are invariably constructed as having little to do with the conditions of their lives in Britain and factors such as structural discrimination and wealth inequality. Instead, the causes of the integration deficit and the onus of integrating are placed on ‘them’, migrants and ethnic minorities.

Much emphasis is placed on finding ways to encourage immigrants to move away from segregated communities and for schools to become more mixed.  No consideration is given of the extensive evidence offered that they have not chosen to self-segregate.[1]  Indeed, research evidence shows quite clearly that the white middle classes are the most segregated of all ethnic groups and that areas seen as self-segregated were more fluid than predominantly white areas.  In fact, minority residents moved away from these areas if they were able to be upwardly mobile, a phenomenon observed throughout large cities such as Birmingham where minorities and migrants are now found in every ward of the city.[2]  Work undertaken in places such as Handsworth, Birmingham, has shown that rather than being segregated, inner city areas are becoming increasingly diverse as people are attracted to neighbourhoods by their population diversity and identify with their neighbours on the grounds that ‘we are all different here’ or they are all working class.[3]  Hardly self-segregation.

Further work we have undertaken with refugees has shown that the anti-migrant rhetoric evident in newspapers and from certain politicians made them fearful of attempting to mix.[4]  Those who had experienced racial harassment actively avoided contact with anyone, which left them vulnerable to isolation and depression.[5].  With racist harassment on the rise post-Brexit referendum, the UK Government’s ongoing efforts at creating a hostile environment for migrants and rising anti-migration discourses, it is, perhaps, a wonder that migrants seek to mix at all.

It is important to note that people do mix in their everyday lives in shops, work, neighbourhoods and shared spaces. The growing body of work on everyday multiculturalism and commonplace diversity is testament to this.  On the whole people get along.  Why do we need meaningful mixing?  Not sure we have an answer to this but we do we know that continued interaction makes a difference in terms of feelings of trust and belonging and that knowing that ‘other’ people are open to building positive relationships is a good starting point.  If the Government are to succeed in socially integrating communities they have much to address.  This would include adopting a more responsible and balanced discourse around migration, and acting against the inflammatory anti-migration, anti-Muslim, anti-refugee rhetoric in popular newspapers; and pro-actively encouraging ‘white’ British people to be open to ‘mixing’.

If the Government is serious about trying to engineer interaction it first needs to properly understand who is segregated, identify exactly why this is a problem, take account of extensive evidence about the impact of the current anti-migration discourse, and of racist harassment, on people’s willingness to mix and then needs to invest in places and initiatives to encourage interactions in the long-term.  The Green paper does not take account of the Government’s own responsibility for creating conditions where people can mix and appears once again to lay responsibility for mixing at the door of those who have been vilified thereby scapegoating migrants and risking further exacerbation of anti-migrant sentiment.  Moreover, while the Green Paper argues that integration is the responsibility of local communities it avoids accepting national responsibility for the current discourse and for the decline in community facilities leaving impoverished local authorities and communities to do all of the work with no resources.

Criminalising first, integrating second
While there is evidence of growing hostility towards immigrants and especially asylum seekers under Labour,[6] the criminalisation of foreign-born residents become state policy when Theresa May championed the creation of a ‘hostile environment’ for ‘illegal’ migrants in Britain as a key policy goal. Under the rubric of the ‘hostile environment’ falls a set of wide-ranging policy initiatives, executive interventions and political messaging that have reshaped not only the immigration and asylum regimes for new comers but also redrawn the rules affecting those already in the country.[7] Far from a targeted intervention aimed to reduce undocumented migration, hostile environment initiatives have been affecting regular and irregular migrants alike and often also BME citizens. Foreign born residents and visible minorities have been increasingly asked to prove their right to stay in Britain in the context of a continuous shifting of goal posts for lawful migration.  If you are not white and British you must now prove that you have a right to be here.  The same rules do not seem to apply to the white British who emigrated to Britain having been born in the former colonies.

The Windrush generation scandal demonstrates the lengths to which the British Government is willing to go in pursuit of its agenda. What the ‘hostile environment’ does is to make everyone born overseas feel precarious, including individuals and families who have resided in Britain for decades. And it is not surprising that the treatment of the Commonwealth subjects is cause of great concern among the EU nationals in the UK, they too came as EU citizens to Britain in the exercise of freedom of movement and are now asked to produce proof of their right to stay in the emerging post-Brexit scenario.[8]  Research shows that EU citizens and their family members living in the UK under EU law are at risk of ‘falling through the cracks’ of the UK-EU negotiations, with their rights of future residence and citizenship in question after Brexit.

The current Government’s approach to immigration control constructs all migrants, including EU citizens, as potentially ‘illegal’. To all these people, it is obvious that the proposals included in the DHCLG Integrated Communities Strategy herald another round of the British government asking yet more from them, yet another test to prove their commitment to Britain, rather than a genuine concern for making their lives in Britain better and ensuring they have the same life chances as the rest of the population, those who do not have to prove when seeking work, housing, health or bank accounts, that they their presence in Britain is legitimate.

[1] Finney, N. and Simpson, L., (2009) ‘Sleepwalking to segregation’?: challenging myths about race and migration. Policy Press. Flint, J. and Robinson, D., (2008) Community cohesion in crisis. New Dimensions of Diversity and Difference. Bristol, UK: Policy Press..
[2] Goodson, L., Beider, H., Phillimore, J. et al. (2005) Black and Minority Ethnic Communities in the Eastern Corridor: Aspirations, Neighbourhood ‘Choice’ and Tenure. Birmingham City Council.
[3] Pemberton, S. & Phillimore, J. (2016) Migrant place-making in superdiverse neighbourhoods: Moving beyond ethno-national approachesUrban Studies. 8
[4] Phillimore, J., 2011. Refugees, acculturation strategies, stress and integration. Journal of Social Policy, 40(3), pp.575-593.
[5] Allsopp, J., Sigona, N. and Phillimore, J. (2014) ‘Poverty among refugees and asylum seekers in the UK: An evidence and policy review’, IRiS Working Paper Series, No. 1/2014. Birmingham: Institute for Research into Superdiversity;  Phillimore, J. (2011) Refugees, acculturation and integration.  Journal of Social Policy 40 (3) pp.575-593.
[6] The ‘blunt-speaking’ of then Home Secretary David Blunkett on asylum and migration caused numerous controversies.
[7] Bloch, A, Sigona, N, Zetter, R (2014) Sans Papiers: The social and economic lives of undocumented migrants. Pluto; Sigona, N. and Hughes, V. (2012) No way out, no way in: undocumented children and families in Britain. Oxford: Compas.
[8] Sigona, N (2018) ‘The Windrush generation is not alone’, The Conversation; Yeo, C. (2018) The impact of the UK-EU agreement on residence rights for EU families, Eurochildren Research Brief, no. 1.


Jenny Phillimore is Director of the Institute for Research into Superdiversity and Professor of Migration and Superdiversity in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Birmingham. Nando Sigona is Senior Birmingham fellow, Senior Lecturer and deputy Director of the Institute for Research into Superdiversity at the University of Birmingham.