When will they integrate?

When will they integrate?

Caroline Osella

The UK news is full of migrant panic, of which the ‘jihadi bride’ case is merely the latest. (As an aside, notice how often sex-gender appears as gathering-point of the panic – but that’s for another occasion).

A recent DS article shows – alarmingly – that analysis of social media such as Twitter suggests that public opinion is even more vehemently fearful of and hostile towards migration than opinion surveys tend to indicate. The ambivalence towards migration in surveys becomes out and out hostility once folk feel anonymous and unobserved. This is hardly surprising, given the way that the news media (which underwrites the opinions that get passed around Twitter, Facebook and up the pub) has portrayed migrants and the children of migrants.

There are, for sure, different approaches to the question of how to approach migration. But mostly, academics, policymakers and public alike start out their analyses from the classic one. This involves looking for ‘integration’ on the part of migrants and then measuring it against various indicators – which in the case of formal analyses will generally be grouped into political, cultural, social and economic factors.

But is this careful parsing a red herring? Integration is deemed to be economic, political and socio-cultural, but we know that it’s the last that most concerns the populists (witness the famous ‘Going Dutch’ example). One of the things that Brexiteers are afraid of is ‘losing control’ over both migrant numbers but also of setting policies around how to deal with incomers and their impact on ‘our’ culture.

Could we call for no borders, along with social and cultural pluralism, and co-existence? What would simple economic integration look like?

Martin Ruh’s ‘Price of Rights’ addressed some base questions by suggesting a direct correlation between state policies on rights and their policies on migration. The better the state looks after its people and the more social benefits it offers them, the more it will try to restrict numbers of migrants. States who offer less to their population can afford to allow more incomers.

This argument might help us understand why Denmark (for example) has such a punitive mode of handling migrants when compared to a state like UAE. The latter makes a strong and watertight demarcation between citizens and migrants, with differentiated rights, enabling it to work with far more open borders. Might this also underwrite a less panicked approach to diversity?

For the past 3 years, I’ve been part of a project out of New York University, Abu Dhabi, which has involved learning more and thinking carefully about the Gulf, where the ‘local’ citizen population ranges from around 60 % to around just 10%.  Think for a moment about this: nations where anything from a large percentage up to the overwhelming majority of the population are incomers and are linguistically and ethnically different from the citizen-minority.  My part of the REALM project has been to unpack in more detail the unexpected ‘paradox of freedom’ which my earlier ethnographic work had picked up on. Many Indian migrants have spoken to me down the years of the freedom and rights they enjoyed in UAE, as compared to back home in India. REALM funded me to check this trend more systematically and to gather more detail.

The ‘paradox of freedom’ begins to make sense when we consider the following. Firstly, work on the Gulf tends to aggregate very different states into one gross representation. Secondly, it also tends to focus on the figures of the female housemaid and the male construction site worker. These migrants then become – inaccurately – tropes for the whole, ignoring a vast world of professional, technical, entrepreneurial and other kinds of incomer. Thirdly, while migrants in the Gulf are for the most part (but not always) economically and politically disadvantaged as a group compared to citizens, many in the middle and higher class segments do often prosper compared to what they could have hoped for at home. Finally, as I have been finding out for the past ten years, the rights and freedoms that are meaningful for people may not include free speech or democratic representation. This is a challenge for liberals and leftists alike.

People have spoken to me instead about their appreciation of aspects of UAE life which include: women’s freedom of movement and public respect as compared to India; freedom of religion for Muslims and Christians which they compare very favourably to life in India’s Hindu nationalist climate; the weakening of caste and regional discrimination which mars the lives of Indians who are not high-caste Hindu; state officials, police and judiciary who are efficient, respectful and just. What I am pointing towards here, then, is not the new forms of indentured labour we observe in some Gulf sectors (.ie. absence of economic rights), but rather, the phenomenon of economic rights with limited social and little political rights.

Migrants in the Gulf are not expected to ‘integrate’ but are positively discouraged – even sanctioned – from adopting many aspects of local culture. This means that their own dress, food, religious preferences are publicly visible and accepted (with variable levels of freedom) in different parts of the Gulf. And migrants are undeniably present in and part of public discourse and representation.

In January 2019, I visited Oman’s national museum in Muscat and watched their movie about the history of Oman. The faces of migrant workers – non-citizens, working on temporary contracts with short-term visas – were mingled in with the faces of Omani citizens throughout this film. You may yell, ‘Propaganda!’ or ‘Why aren’t they given citizenship?’ but the fairly simple point I’m making here is that Gulf Arabs know themselves to be living in complex and diverse societies and no longer (as sometimes in the early nation-building days) try to paint migrants out of the story or from public representation of ‘Who We Are’.

Turning back to Europe, in academia, we debate ‘zombie multiculturalism’ as a failed project and wonder how best we might think about people’s self-chosen identities and practices. Is a plural space of mutually respecting but clearly bounded and different groups the way forward? Should we push forward ethnographic concepts which belie anybody’s notion of ‘culture’ and insist that all that we all inhabit, ever, is ‘interculturality’ and hybridity? Does the concept of superdiversity – which calls on us to remember income, legal status, origin locality, and a thousand more aspects of life – help us complexify our thinking about migrants? Will intersectionality rescue us from the foolishness of ‘ethnicity first’ or ‘class first’ analytics?

As a sociologically-minded ethnographer, I turn to empirical material as grounding for analysis.

Melike Peterson confirms the Gulf experience that even the ‘thin encounters’ of public space foster, via habituation, a sense of familiarity and acceptance of pluralism. Les Back and Shamser Sinha discover ‘conviviality’ even in the most unpromising situations. At the level of the everyday, it seems, people are doing their best in many places to adjust and share space. But states, populist politics and mainstream media are neither publicising nor sincerely supporting these saplings of change and are, at the same time, mitigating what good can be done on the ground by their policies.

Some media reports do try to point out the vicious circle and causal links between state policies of ‘integration’ or ‘assimilation’ and overheated climates of xenophobia. But such analyses are hardly on the radar of most folk.

Let’s return to integration and to worries about lack of it. Maybe we need to make the voices and counter-arguments stronger, more outspoken, in order to be heard against the waves of fearful ‘stranger-danger’.  Let’s flip the discourse.

Naika Fouroutan at Humboldt argues that – like the Gulf states – we in Europe live in post-migration societies. And we need to just get over it. (Her material also confirms Back & Sinha’s findings that many folk already have, and are no longer holding to conservative notions about assimilation).

The integration question for UK then becomes not an outdated one about when will an assumed ‘they’ become like white English, but when will all those white English who imagine themselves as an ‘us’ against an ‘other’ get on and integrate – into the post-migration plural society that we live in? The evidence suggests that this work is already quietly going on, but that there’s still some work to do. Policies and reports focussing on migrant ‘integration’ are looking in the wrong direction.


Back, Les, and Shamser Sinha. “Multicultural conviviality in the midst of racism’s ruins.” Journal of Intercultural Studies 37, no. 5 (2016): 517-532.

Peterson, Melike. “Living with difference in hyper-diverse areas: how important are encounters in semi-public spaces?.” Social & Cultural Geography 18, no. 8 (2017): 1067-1085.

Sealy, Thomas. “Multiculturalism, interculturalism,‘multiculture’and super-diversity: Of zombies, shadows and other ways of being.” Ethnicities 18, no. 5 (2018): 692-716.


Caroline Osella is Research Associate at University of Sussex UK, Global Studies, Asia Centre. She is currently part of a multi-scale project on Gulf migration, REALM, based at New York University Abu Dhabi. Caroline blogs at  https://blogs.soas.ac.uk/osella-realm/en/ and at https://worthingethnographic.com/. Her article on lived pluralism in Abu Dhabi is forthcoming in the journal New Diversities.