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Connecting cultures or putting up barriers? Migration and the Commonwealth

In the wake of Jubilee Commonwealth events, Migrants’ Rights Network is hosting a debate at London’s SOAS tonight about Commonwealth migration and its role in building ‘Britishness’.

Ruth Grove-White
14 June 2012

This piece is part of our debate 'The Great British Summer?'

In the wake of Jubilee Commonwealth events, Migrants’ Rights Network is hosting a debate at London’s SOAS tonight about Commonwealth migration and its role in building ‘Britishness’.

Love it or loathe it, the Jubilee weekend has been a key point in a procession of national events due to take place over the course of the summer. The jamboree of Diamond Jubilee celebrations has been met by an apparent resurgence of public affection for the monarchy, the Union Jack and even a seemingly resigned fondness of the inevitable bad weather that sat over it all.

Although there was some common celebration of Britain’s undeniable achievements in providing sanctuary to refugees – many of whom are extremely proud to be British – over the past 60 years, the thornier questions about how non-citizens fit into this picture of Britishness have been largely absent from discussion. This was reflected in Labour leader Ed Miliband’s speech on national identity last week: he carefully focused on identity politics among the citizens of the UK’s devolved countries rather than on issues related to newer arrivals, and deflected awkward questions about the impacts of current immigration policies.

There is, however, plenty to reflect on about the wider way that migration has shaped, and continues to shape, British society and ‘national identity’. A series of Commonwealth Jubilee events is also underway, with the Queen playing a key role as head of the Commonwealth in promoting this year’s theme of ‘Connecting Cultures’. Although the Commonwealth institutions themselves may face accusations of being outdated, international migration across the Commonwealth continues to play an important and immediate role in shaping cultural relationships, driving development, and feeding international trade.

Looking at the Commonwealth legacy in the UK in particular, our social and economic development over the past century or so is highly connected to migration from the ex-colonies of the British Empire and beyond. Although increasingly tough immigration rules have been in place since the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act, people of Commonwealth origin make up many of the established ethnic minority communities in the UK today. Not only has their presence and contribution driven development of many of the key sectors of the UK economy and public services since the second world war, but they have shaped cultural life in ways which have largely become absorbed into what is thought of as ‘Britishness’.

It may not have been explicitly debated lately but, fifty years on from the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962, we seem to be at another crossroads when it comes to the perception and position of Commonwealth migrants in the UK. The UK continues to be an important destination for Commonwealth nationals, who continue to make up a significant proportion of new arrivals to the UK. But new restrictions on non-EU migrants are already starting to bite for Commonwealth citizens who have viewed the ability to travel to the UK as a reasonable part of being part of an international network of connected nations.

Where to next?

The direction of UK policy indicates that efforts to slash net migration will have significant impacts on Commonwealth migrants - and potentially wider implications for inter-governmental relationships. The coalition government’s cap on non-EU migrant workers, for example, caused immediate and embarrassing ripples for relations with key Commonwealth governments when it was announced in 2010. New restrictions on international students including closure of the post-study work route from this April, given that two thirds of new Commonwealth citizens coming to the UK currently come for study, can be expected to affect these nationals in particular.

And upcoming rule changes on family migration, in particular a new income threshold for applicants which could prevent up to half of the UK’s working population from bringing a family member here, would particularly impact on nationals of Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Nepal who are the big users of the family migration route currently. These rule changes may satisfy the immediate government policy agenda, but they are viewed as unfair among many from diaspora communities based here.

As these developments take shape over the coming period, we can and should expect immigration to play a more central role in discussion about the Commonwealth and Britain today - what will the implications of today's policies be on future communities and their perceptions of national identity and British institutions? It would be worth considering whether, rather than connecting cultures, the UK is instead creating new barriers - and new challenges - into the future.

If you are interested in taking part in the conversation about the UK, immigration and the Commonwealth, please join us at the Khalili lecture theatre at SOAS for a public event on Thursday called ‘Commonwealth Migration ‘Learning from the Past, Anticipating the Future’. This will be a chance to hear from leading academic Nigel Harris about his views on Commonwealth migration restrictions since the Commonwealth Immigrants Act, followed by what promises to be a lively panel debate chaired by Danny Sriskandarajah from the Royal Commonwealth Society. There are a few places left, and you can sign up by clicking here.

This piece is republished, with thanks, from the Migrants’ Rights Network blog.

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