Saturday, December 15, 2012

South London's Migrant Majority

I sometimes feel London is a different country to the rest of the UK, certainly different from the imagined country addressed by politicians and much of the mainstream media. This is particularly the case in relation to immigration, which in this imagined country is continually framed as a problem and a source of anxiety for the 'majority'. But in London, migrants and their descendants are the majority.

Data released this week shows that just over one third (34%) of people living in the borough of Lewisham at the time of the 2011 Census were not born in the UK (in Lambeth and in Southwark the figure was 39%, and 31% in Greenwich).

Many others were the children or grandchildren of migrants. In terms of ethnicity, people defining themselves as White British (or English/Welsh/Scottish/NI) are the largest group in Lewisham (42%). But the majority (58%) are from other ethnic groups,  the most significant groups being Black African, Black Caribbean and White Other (which includes Western and Eastern European, as well as Americans, Australians etc.): 
Ethnicity in Lewisham, 2011 Census
Ethnic groups other than White UK also constitute a majority in Southwark (60%) and Lambeth (61%), as well as making up almost half (48%) of the population of Greenwich. In London as a whole, the figure is 55%. Of course many of the 'White UK' population in London are also migrants to the city from other parts of Britain, and many too are descended from previous waves of migrants from abroad, such as Jewish refugees in the 19th century - London has always been a migrant city.

How can debates around immigration continue to treat the largest part of the capital's population as if they are some kind of social problem? Far from being a problem, migrants and their descendants are at the heart of London and make it a truly World City. This week I have had a Bulgarian colleague fix my computer, listened to an African parent sing the praises of the Polish support worker for her autistic son, and heard how a Brazilian teacher has helped transform a local nursery. In other words, a typical week in London - no problem.

'Integration' doesn't happen because governments command it, but because people mostly get on with each other and mix with each other as they go about their lives in the city. Work is one place where this happens, but some migrants are banned from working, and many others are unemployed. In addition the very social spaces where people from different backgrounds encounter each other - Children's Centres, libraries, youth clubs etc. - are continually threatened by cuts, as are English classes for adult learners. In this sense, the actions of the government are more of a barrier to integration than the behaviours of migrants and their neighbours.

[Incidentally the Census estimates that the population of greater London is 8.2 million - an increase since 2001 but still less than the estimated peak population of 8.6 million in 1939]


Alan Burkitt-Gray said...

I don't see the multi-racial, multi-cultural nature of London as a problem. In fact I am much more uncomfortable in all-white areas of rural Kent and Surrey, and further afield in Cornwall or Northumberland.

And the evidence of my eyes suggests other Londoners, black and white and Asian, are comfortable with London as it is now. There are far, far more multi-racial couples, for example than there were 20-25 years ago. Compare this with, for example, New York or Washington. Races mix here in London far more.

Andrew Simpson said...

Yes there is a lot of overblown hype about that census and cultural diversity. My adopted city has a similar exciting diversity and as with London the roots go deep. Little Italy, Little Ireland the Jewish areas of Redbank & Cheetham Hill, are testaments to that development.
And nor is it confined to the cities. Had you walked the lanes of where I live when it was still a rural community in the 1840s and you would have heard the accents of people from Scotland, Ireland Wales and even London, here in Chorlton 4 miles from Manchester.