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Civil society and new migrants in superdiverse contexts

Final Report Summary - SUPERDIVERSITY (Civil society and new migrants in superdiverse contexts)

Research Report: Pathways of Settlement among Recent Migrants in Super-diverse Areas
Susanne Wessendorf

An important part of today’s diversity in many UK cities is the arrival of migrants who do not follow the ‘beaten track’, but who migrate individually and with very limited social networks upon arrival. They might come from relatively recent countries of origin, or they might be of different educational, religious or class backgrounds and have different motivations for their migration than their co-ethnics who are already settled in the UK. The research presented in this report looked at these new ‘cohorts’ of migrants, here described as ‘pioneer migrants’. It has looked at how such migrants, many of whom lack networks of support, settle in Birmingham and East London, UK.
Two factors most importantly shape their settlement: legal status and cultural capital (i.e. educational background, language skills, etc.). Those with an insecure legal status (asylum seekers and undocumented migrants) were by far the most disadvantaged. As they were prohibited to work, unable to build a future in the UK and often unable to support their families back home, they described their lives as highly precarious and ‘blocked’. Although it is difficult to compare the lives of these migrants to those with a secure legal status who, even if disadvantaged, at least had opportunities to work and possibly build new lives, the project included migrants of all legal statuses in order to draw out these differences.
The second main factor, cultural capital, made a difference for all migrants, also those with an insecure legal status, as those with higher cultural capital often managed to build social networks via volunteering and at least further their skills and be involved in the wider society through such activities.
One of the biggest issues for those migrants with a secure legal status was deskilling. Especially the more highly educated migrants often had to restart their careers or change them entirely because they were unable to find work within their fields of expertise. These processes of deskilling also affected migrants with, for example, trades’ skills. Their qualifications were rarely recognized in the UK, and despite considerable experiences and skills, they had to retrain in the UK. The frustration about this non-recognition of foreign credentials was expressed by most research participants.
In regards to their social networks and their sense of belonging, many research participants expressed the wish to build social relations with people of other than their own ethnic background. They primarily built social relations with other migrants who had had similar experiences of migration. They also encountered difficulties in making friends with British people, although they were unable to explain why this was the case, describing white British people as reserved.
The demographic make-up of the neighbourhoods in which migrants settled played an important role in regards to their sense of belonging. Those settling in areas dominated by one ethnic group, i.e. in the case of Birmingham white British people or South Asians, found it more difficult to feel a sense of belonging because they felt that they stuck out. Some also reported experiences of racism in predominantly white British areas. The research participants who settled in East London more easily felt a sense of belonging due to the absence of one dominant ‘group’ in the area and the perception that ‘everybody is different’. They thus felt that they did not stick out.
An important factor shaping a sense of belonging relates to previous experiences of either being excluded as part of an ethnic minority, or forming part of the majority. Such references to experiences of diversity in the country of origin also relate to transit migration and experiences of racism in previous countries of immigration. Many Latin American and African migrants who had come to the UK via Italy or Spain described a sense of relief when settling in the UK, which, in regards to social interactions in public space, they described as less racist than where they had lived before. This, of course, does not mean that there is no racism in the UK, but these migrants’ experiences are shaped by where they had lived before.
Those migrants who formed part of the majority population in less diverse places of origin went through a process of ‘multicultural adaptation’ when first arriving, having to get used to the ethnic, religious and cultural diversity encountered in the UK cities in which they settled.
While much research on immigration looks at migrants from specific countries of origin or of specific legal statuses, this project has highlighted the pathways of settlement of migrants defined by their characteristics as ‘pioneers’, i.e. migrants not following established migration routes who have settled in the UK within the last ten years. Their variegated stories of settlement and integration not only highlight the structural constraints which they are subjected to, for example in regards to legal status and the non-recognition of their qualifications. But it also shows the resourcefulness of these migrants, many of whom, by their nature as pioneers and thus innovators, are making a considerable contribution to the society in which they settle.

A more detailed version of this report will be published on the website of the Institute for Research into Superdiversity, University of Birmingham, in November 2017

More information on the research results can be found in the following publications:
Wessendorf, S. (2016). Settling in a super-diverse context: Recent migrants’ experiences of conviviality. Journal of Intercultural Studies, 37(5), 449-463.
Wessendorf, S. (2017). Pathways of Settlement among Pioneer Migrants in Super-Diverse London. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies.
Wessendorf, S. (2017 [forthcoming]). Migrant belonging, social location and the neighbourhood: recent migrants in East London and Birmingham. Urban Studies.
Wessendorf, S. (2017 [forthcoming]). Pioneer migrants and their social relations in super-diverse London. Ethnic and Racial Studies.
Wessendorf, S. (2018 [forthcoming]). 'All the people speak bad English.’ Communicating across differences in a super-diverse context. In A. Creese & A. Blackledge (Eds.), The Routledge Handbook on Language and Superdiversity.

Susanne Wessendorf can be contacted on: