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Super-diversity and the City

Published 21 March 2012 / By Sarah Spencer

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This conversation post originally appeared on Cities of Migration: Conversations in Integration (21/03/2012)

High immigration levels have greatly increased the diversity of our largest cities. The term ‘super-diversity’ has been coined to describe a condition in cities where diversity may mean over one hundred nationalities, but also a diversity of legal statuses, of socioeconomic conditions and a a greater diversity in how people choose to live and define themselves. As rural and smaller municipalities begin to experience this trend, leading academics like Dr. Sarah Spencer invite us think about how ‘super-diversity’ can shape new thinking on migration and better strategies for immigrant integration.

We spoke with Sarah Spencer, Senior Fellow at the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) and author of The Migration Debate, in a wide-ranging discussion about super-diversity, belonging and the role of local authorities. She was in Toronto attending the 14th National Metropolis Conference to speak about Diversity, Super-diversity and Belonging.

What is super-diversity?

The concept of “super-diversity” was introduced to help us re-conceptualize the nature of migration in European countries over the past decade. Essentially, our experience of migration has changed from when migrants largely came from a relatively narrow number of countries. In the UK, for example, migration had historically been from the Indian subcontinent and parts of Africa, a relatively narrow range of countries of origin, language and faith and led to longstanding minority ethnic communities. Over the past decade that has all changed due to the significant number of asylum seekers that Europe saw in the early part of the decade, but also due to the range of international students and the expansion of labour migration. In a short space of time we suddenly have people from a plethora of different places, with different faiths, languages and immigration status.

In London more than 300 first languages are spoken in our schools. This is also the experience in cities in many other parts of Europe, including new countries of immigration like Spain and Ireland, which simply hadn’t had that tradition of immigration. For them this super-diversity is new. One reason the concept of super diversity is important is because the old approaches to multiculturalism and its structures don’t necessarily fit anymore. It’s difficult, for instance, to identify community leaders when you’re not talking about a small number of long-standing communities but a more diverse and mobile migrant population.

So super diversity is an important concept that helps us recognize a new reality. But it is crucial that we don’t restrict our notion of diversity to issues of ethnicity, faith and immigration status – as though it were in a separate silo from other kinds of diversity – disability, gender, age and sexual orientation – which is what people in the equality field also mean when they talk about equality of opportunity and inclusion. Over in our migration field, when we talk about super-diversity, we tend to mean race, faith and country of origin and we talk about “integration” (vs. inclusion). It’s a different language.

The question is, shouldn’t we broaden the concept of super-diversity to be more inclusive and recognize that these other forms of diversity are also present within migrant communities? They also have disabled people, differences of gender, age and sexual orientation. In this as in other respects, migrant communities have a lot in common with the rest of the population. In fact, your sense of identity as a gay or disabled person may be stronger than your identity as a migrant. So if we want to build solidarity across communities, we need to challenge this rather exclusive concept of super-diversity that may reinforce the perception of migrants as set apart from the rest of the population. Recognizing that all these forms of diversity are interconnected would be a way forward.

I will mention two other things about super-diversity. One is that new migrants often settle in places which have had little prior experience of ethnic diversity or of recent migrants; rural areas, for instance, or small towns. These municipalities have neither the experience of managing diversity nor the integration programs that may exist where immigration has been around for decades. In the UK, for example, we’re talking about rural areas where people from Central and Eastern Europe came to work in agriculture and food processing. Partly because they were white and European, no one anticipated that any integration issues would arise. So another good thing about the super-diversity concept is that it recognizes that newcomers can be white and can face some of the same challenges as any other migrant. They can still face barriers to integration that other migrants face.

Whether it’s cities that had their first significant experience of migration over the past decade, like Dublin or Barcelona, or towns that are new to migration in countries with a long history of migration, municipalities really have had to run to catch up.

Peterborough is an interesting example because they have a long-standing Asian community of Pakistani origin that is also a significantly Muslim community. Over the last decade when new migrants arrived who were also Muslim but from completely different countries of origin, there were some tensions between the new and old communities. It wasn’t only among white residents that there was some hostility to newcomers but also among the long-standing communities of former migrant origin.

There are municipalities across Europe which are, in various ways, taking steps to address negative attitudes towards newcomers and their underlying causes.. This is the subject of research we are conducting with partners across six countries in Europe, called AMICALL (Attitudes to Migrants, Communication and Local Leadership), funded by the European Union Integration Fund. We are looking at what local and regional authorities are doing to address negative attitudes in their communities and who in the authority is taking the lead. In Breckland [Norfolk, UK], for example, we found it was the environmental health officers who had taken the initiative because the integration issues had to do with rubbish and noise- so fell within their department. To reach out to the migrant communities and talk to them about how things worked in their area, the staff chose go to language courses so that they could communicate with the migrants and ran advice sessions in local cafes and so on. The Government was very interested in this work.

Are there differences in how cities approach the challenges arising from super-diversity?

Cities and smaller municipalities often take the lead on integration, sometimes counter to the rhetoric of national government. Cities face the challenge of integration on the ground. Taking the lead often means doing things in a more positive and inclusive way than messages from central government would suggest. In fact, cities say that a national political rhetoric that is negative, or political leaders who espouse negative messages, make it much more difficult for them.

Early findings at AMICALL suggest there is a plethora of different kinds of activity being undertaken by cities ranging from communication activities such as leaflets to Facebook messages and video games; to contact activities where you bring people together so that they can have direct experience of each other, through mediation or buddy schemes and the like; to broader intercultural activities like international festivals.

Another emerging finding is the inconsistency of approach and attitude across the administration that city managers and officials can face in communicating on these issues. You may have a very enthusiastic individual or team leading on the issue while other parts of the local administration are doing nothing or taking a more negative view; and sometimes momentum is lost when attempts are made to mainstream integration across the authority. One of the particularly interesting initiatives we’ve seen is that authorities are recognizing that it’s a problem if they are officially putting out a positive message that “we all belong”– but their staff are not all reflecting that approach. After all, the public is more inclined to follow the lead of officials than posters about how nice migrants are. So for instance in Spain and in Scotland we have seen authorities that are training frontline staff to get the message across that migrants are welcome while sharing messages with the public that counter myths and rumours about migrants. Others are training community volunteers to do this. These authorities are taking a very interesting and innovative way forward, something that could only happen at the municipal level.

However, there is clearly a role for national government. I have some concerns about the new integration strategy recently published in the UK. The thrust of the strategy is that integration is a local issue, so national government must stop ‘interfering’. It argues that there must be a re-balancing, from the national to the local and from the public sector to the voluntary non-for-profit sector. However, no one is proposing to put a lot of money behind that. The national strategy is right about what has to happen at the local level, but I would argue that we also need leadership from central government in terms of positive messaging and identifying barriers to integration that can only be addressed at the national level.

A national strategy that recognizes integration is best done at the local level sounds like good news…

I think it is good news to recognize that integration needs to be a shared responsibility – it’s not only on the migrant, it is not only on central government nor is it only on cities and municipalities, it’s also employers and trade unions, it’s migrant community organisations and migrants’ families – and it’s mainstream civil society, the sports organizations, the drama groups and so on that really have the capacity to be welcoming and inclusive. But it’s also important that central government does not renege on its responsibilities in this area.

There are some things that only central governments can do: for example, ensuring the effectiveness of anti-discrimination laws. Only central government can deal with the recognition of qualifications of internationally educated and trained immigrants. Only central government can ensure that all the evidence and data we need is available on a national scale to see where the barriers are and monitor what works and what doesn’t work. And perhaps most important, it is central government that can set the tone of the debate, an inclusive tone, one which isn’t blaming migrants, doesn’t see immigration as a deficit but can actually talk up the successes of multiculturalism, without overlooking the issues that need to be addressed, and by setting a very positive tone build confidence that multiculturalism can work. Everything we hear from cities is that it would be very helpful if governments contributed more in that direction.

Tell us more about the role of local authorities?

Let me mention the work I am just about to start with the support of an Open Society Institute Fellowship for the next year. I’m going to look at how cities relate to irregular migrants. How do they cope with the reality of a significant number of residents in their area whose immigration status is irregular? Whether they are over-stayers or weren’t supposed to be there in the first place, their needs can be a source of tension between central and local government. Central government puts a higher priority on immigration control whereas cities tend to put higher priority on making sure residents have access to education, to health and other social services. However, providing services to irregular migrants can also present great difficulties for them. They can be restricted by laws governing what they are allowed to do and they certainly have financial constraints to consider.

So while central government often recognizes the need for irregular migrants to have a certain level of access to services, local municipalities often go further, but the reasons for this and the implications are generally quite unexplored. There would be value in looking at practice across Europe and North America to understand more about what the pressures are on cities and other local service providers to provide access to services. What are the implications? The costs? Good practice projects like Cities of Migration and other good practice websites haven’t had a lot to say as yet on that particular issue.

However difficult it is for cities to talk about, it is one of today’s realities about migration which won’t go away.

Last year you published The Migration Debate. How can cities contribute to the “us versus them” debate about immigrant integration?

I think cities can certainly help by sending an inclusive message. It is hugely important that they enable people to feel they belong in the city even if they don’t yet feel like they belong in the country. What I argue in the book is that governments can help to build public confidence that migration is being well managed by engaging the public in the policy choices and trade-offs to be made.

One of the reasons for the resistance to migration is that European publics don’t trust governments to manage migration well. That’s what opinion polling like Transatlantic Trends: Immigration shows: a lack of confidence in government. The public doesn’t understand why migration continues when governments keep promising to cut it. For example, in the UK, our government promised to bring net migration down below 100,000 and yet this year, two years after they were elected, it is still running at 250,000 a year. So the public can feel betrayed, that the government didn’t mean it, wasn’t being honest, or that the government is incompetent because it has failed to do it. Either way they have no confidence in governments to deliver.

But of course there are reasons why government can’t stop migration. There would be a huge price to pay if they did – for individuals and families, but also for business, for universities, for our international reputation, for the tourist industry if it there were further barriers to entry. Every time the government looks at an area to cut back migration, somebody jumps up and says, “Hold on a minute, don’t do that.” Universities jump up and say, “We need these students.” Or big business jumps up and says, “We need skilled immigrants.” Or the hospitals say “We need the skilled doctors.” So there are real, good reasons why it’s difficult to cut back immigration, not to mention issues like international human rights standards, protecting the rights of refugees for instance, and our reputation if we do not comply.

The governments have never shared these realities with the public. They have never engaged them in that debate. The public don’t know why immigration remains high, what the reasons are. Our governments haven’t trusted the public to say, ‘look, we’ve got these difficult choices to make, we’ve got trade-offs, competing priorities. We want to know what you think – what is more important?”

If governments were to lead that debate in an evidence-based way, they’d enable the public to see the implications of different options while informing the public about who and what we are talking about. We know, for instance, that the public think that there are vastly more asylum seekers than there are. An evidence-based, calm debate would give the public more confidence that immigration was being managed well. But the governments would have to stop over-promising and under-delivering. To build confidence, the public needs to understand why government does what it does, as well as the limits on what it can do. If the public doesn’t have confidence in immigration control, they feel a sense of threat. And that’s not conducive to feeling confidence in multiculturalism.

So public confidence is the game-changer in the migration debate?

Right now, the public doesn’t trust government to deal with it. If migrants are coming without government wanting them to come, then they could start looking like a threat, couldn’t they? Whereas if we understand immigrants are coming because they are international students, because they are skilled workers or because they are the loved one of a family member – and if we’ve been consulted about those choices, I think it would help to build confidence even if the public don’t agree with all the decisions that are made. It makes it easier to believe there’s a system in place and that we’re not -in the case of the UK- just a small island that is about to sink. Which is the impression you often get when you talk to people.

Understanding why immigrants come to our cities, to our countries is important. Then people don’t feel so threatened. They are coming for good reasons.

How can we have a more honest debate about immigration?

We have to change the narrative. Sometimes our political leaders in Europe don’t play it in a way that builds reassurance. I’m not suggesting that we should ignore real challenges. It has to be an honest debate.

How to do this? Demetrios Papademetriou has just published a statement [on behalf of the Transatlantic Council on Migration] in which he argues that some of the concerns and tensions over immigration are based on real issues and if we pretend that they are not, they won’t go away, they will just fester. So we do need to address the causes of negative attitudes and that is what many municipalities are trying to do.