Comment: Intermarriage is the acid test for migrant integration

By Dr Philip Wood

Figures released by the Office of National Statistics state that net migration is now in the region of 300,000 per year. David Cameron's promise to reduce this figure to the tens of thousands has clearly failed. In part this is simply a function of Britain's membership of the EU and its growing economy. Yet it is clear that the electorate has not been comfortable with the transformation in the scale of migration that occurred during Tony Blair's tenure as Prime Minister. We see this reflected in Ed Miliband's attempts to re-frame the Labour party's attitude to migration. A symbol of this shift was Miliband's brief promotion of ‘Blue Labour'. For Maurice Glasman, who advocated "drawing a line" on the process of migration, "the people who live here are the highest priority".

The arguments made for and against migration in British politics tend to be economic. They centre on whether migrants are net contributors to the economy or whether they cost more to the taxpayer in welfare than they take in benefits. Occasionally this discussion has also questioned whether specific migrant groups are more likely to be 'corrupt' and manage a grey economy of their own, outside the sight of HMRC.

But economic issues do not get to the heart of why people feel uncomfortable about the level of migration to Britain. The issue is as much one of identity as it is short-term economic self-interest. If Britain is to integrate migrants, an element of cultural exchange is a virtual necessity and this must be a two-way street. This means that Britain might reasonably expect accommodation from migrants, but migrants may also expect some element of accommodation on the part of other citizens.

However, the obligations that migration imposes on other residents, whatever their origins, has often been ignored in the debate on immigration. This is a crucial area where government needs to win the trust of the electorate to endorse its immigration policy. If migration requires cultural change on the part of any neighbourhood that receives migrants, then there needs to be consensus about the forms of change that are required. After all, economic migrants have chosen their destination, but the earlier residents must also agree to the two-way exchange of culture that will result from migration. To press ahead regardless, without any consideration of the desires of the 'host population', is to invite the kinds of 'parallel lives' that the Cantle report identified in Oldham in 2001.

EDL members demonstrate in Tower Hamlets

Currently, there is little consideration of the wider effects of migration. There must be a three-way contract between any given wave of migrants, the resident population and the state that sets out the obligations that are incumbent on each. A central problem here is that governments are elected for relatively short periods, and that the wider effects of migration may only emerge as migrants have children. The American sociologist Alejandro Portes observes that many migrant problems only emerge in the second generation, in their expectations on a host society and the society's expectations of them.

The success of a wave of migrants is to be judged by a sharing of expectations and a wish by both sides to share diverse cultural traditions. It is this process that merits the description 'multicultural': A process by which exposure to ideas and people from around the world enriches a country and broadens its perspective.

Rather than discussing migration in terms of short-term economic dividends, political discourse needs to recognise the issue that migration involves long-term cultural change and mutual accommodation. Of course, this is much harder to measure than employment rates, but our best proxy may simply be intermarriage. Intermarriage between members of different ethnic groups provides an acid test for acceptance of individuals who have been brought up within other communities.  Marriage always involves compromises and the setting of shared goals, but when this occurs across ethnic or religious boundaries it shows that both ethnicity and religion are seen as heritages to be drawn on, rather than incommensurable identities that can never be compromised.

By this criterion, much of post-war migration to Britain has been a success. West Indian, Chinese and Irish migrants have widely intermarried with their neighbours, their schoolmates and work colleagues. The growing number of people who identified themselves as ‘mixed' in the 2011 census as mixed is a firm testimony to the success of integration in these cases. Their very presence, as symbols of Britain's debt to the world, will mean that racial markers become less and less important and points ahead to a time when an ‘ethnic' question on the census becomes meaningless and archaic.

By the same token, cases where intermarriage is infrequent even some 50 years after primary migration should give us all cause for concern. The geographer Ceri Peach has described the Bangladeshi population of Tower Hamlets as 'encapsulated', with high levels of arranged close-kin marriages, bound by residential segregation and low female engagement with the world of work. In other words, the environments where women might meet people unknown to their parents and their community is highly circumscribed, and early marriage helps to ensure that these patterns continue. The boundaries that preserve a distinct Bangladeshi identity in Tower Hamlets through ensuring in-marriage are simultaneously a source of distrust between communities, since they ensure that those who live within the 'capsule' remain ignorant of those outside it.

If we are to build trust between Britain's citizens, or build support for future migration, then it seems to me best for politicians to acknowledge the potential benefits and pitfalls in cultural terms, as well as the merely economic. This may involve the criticism of the practices that underpin the encapsulation of certain groups. But it will pay dividends in making clear the contributions of migrants at all levels of society and building criteria for a migration policy that enjoys popular consensus.

Dr Philip Wood has a DPhil in Middle Eastern history and has taught at Cambridge University and SOAS. He currently teaches comparative religion in a university in London.

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