Migration, citizenship and diversity: questioning the boundaries

Katherine Tonkiss and Nando Sigona

In recent decades, a significant transformation in the meanings, practices and experiences of membership in contemporary Western democracies has taken place. These transformations have challenged traditional conceptions of state membership which have typically assumed the existence of a nation-state, with a burgeoning line of scholarship challenging the significance of the nation-state in determining membership and endowing rights. This literature argues that recent trends in globalisation, human rights and multiculturalism have made state borders less important.

In this context, several questions emerge about the interplay between forms of contemporary membership, migration governance, and the politics of belonging:

  • What is the position of the non-citizen in contemporary immigration and emigration states?
  • How can the nexus between human mobility, immigration control and citizenship be best conceived?
  •  How can we resolve the tension in policy and practice between coexisting traditions and regimes of rights; and the intersection of ‘race’ and other social cleavages and legal status?

We invited four speakers to participate in a seminar series at the University of Birmingham earlier this year, to explore these issues through a focus on the boundaries between migration, citizenship and diversity. Each speaker brought a distinctly different perspective, yet some common themes emerged.

Our first speaker was Phillip Cole (University of the West of England). Phillip’s talk was on ‘unreason’ in the UK immigration debate – that is, the reluctance of people to abandon myths about immigration despite the prevalence of evidence that shows these myths to be false. He described how much of the immigration debate is imbued with ‘Heimat’ – a nostalgic idea of belonging to the nation based on an imaginary ideal of the past. Immigration is problematized because it is seen to bring change which pulls us further from this imaginary past.

Phillip’s seminar contributed insights into the politics of belonging and how emotional belonging intersects with the processes of immigration to shape migration governance. Here, such emotional belonging is seen to affect the emergence of different regimes of migration governance as a result of its effects on the political debate.

In her talk, Madeleine Reeves (University of Manchester) explored the boundaries between immigrant ‘legality’ and ‘illegality’ in the context of the territory of the former Soviet Union. Her presentation provided a rich account of migration and immigration governance in what is to date an under researched region in migration studies. By focusing on passports and papers, she drew attention to the hyper-documentation of so called ‘undocumented’ migrants. Her contribution to the debate on ‘illegality’ is especially valuable because it questions assumptions around the significance of legal documents and the role of the state. By shifting the focus, Madeleine reveals the legal and historical production of ‘illegality’ and its significance in the everyday lives of migrants in contemporary Russia.

In her talk, Agnieszka Kubal (University of Oxford) examined the criminalization of migration and migrants and how the incorporation of criminal law into the immigration domain serves to demonstrate government’s firm grip over immigration. But how do migrants respond to this increasing conflation between criminal and immigration domains in the wider social context?  Drawing on in-depth interviews with 270 return migrants, Agnieszka demonstrated how migrants’ responses to the stigmatizing force of criminalisation do not always mean resistance, but quite often are placed on a continuum between the contestation and the reproduction of the stigma.

Sarah Neal (University of Surrey) was the final speaker of the series. Her talk focused on the everyday experience of superdiverstity; specifically, how do people live and negotiate cultural difference? Sarah drew particular attention to the apparent absence of ‘race’ in contemporary discussions of superdiversity, and demonstrated through her own research how race has a continued presence as a construct that shapes social relations.

Drawing on her research on ‘living multicultures’ in different urban contexts, Sarah’s talk explored some of the complexities surrounding the relationship between migration and other social cleavages such as race, and during the discussion we also focused on class as another often absent dynamic in debates about diversity. Challenges may arise when we talk about ‘cohesion’ because this fails to capture the enduring complexities of superdiverse communities.

The talks in this series, jointly organised by the Institute for Research into Superdiversity (IRiS) and the School of Government & Society, raised important and timely questions of the changing relationship between migration and citizenship, and between the alien and the citizen. They revealed the power and limitations of the law, the impact of migration myths and the roots of widespread anti-immigration sentiments. They also highlighted the importance of paying attention to national, regional and neighbourhood contexts in order to understand how immigration regimes operate and intersect other spheres of public life at different scales and in different locales.


Katherine Tonkiss is a Research Fellow in INLOGOV. She has research interests in normative and empirical questions surrounding migration, citizenship and identity, particularly in the UK. Her first book, Migration and Identity in a Post-National World, was published in 2013. Follow Katherine on Twitter @ktonkiss.




Nando Sigona is Birmingham Fellow and Lecturer in the Institute for Research into Superdiversity (IRiS) and the School of Social Policy at the University of Birmingham. He is Research Associate at the Refugee Studies Centre and Centre on Migration, Policy and Society, both at the University of Oxford. Nando is co-author of Sans Papiers. The social and economic lives of undocumented migrants, Pluto Press 2014 (forthcoming) and co-editor of the Oxford Handbook on Refugee and Forced Migration Studies, Oxford University Press 2014 (forthcoming) and of the special issue of Identities: Global Studies in Power and Culture on ‘Ethnography, diversity and urban space’, 2013. Follow Nando on Twitter @nandosigona and on http://nandosigona.wordpress.com.

Elected Mayors: The Wrong Solution to the Wrong Problem

Catherine Durose

Only one eligible voter in every three participated in the local elections in May 2012, the lowest turnout since 2000 and despite a context of austerity and swingeing public spending cuts. The recent elections for Police and Crime Commissioners saw turnout slump to a record low for a national poll, averaging at 15%. To quote a Guardian editorial, ‘lack of engagement is the most eloquent of all the political messages…. and one that the parties need to take most seriously. Voters are fed up, not fired up’. Collapsing turnout is perceived as part of a wider decline in traditional forms of political participation, this trend has been labelled as a ‘democratic deficit’ and it is this ‘problem’ that elected mayors are seen as offering a fix to by as simplifying local democratic accountability and offering greater visibility for citizens.

In the referenda held in May 2012, the rejection of elected mayors was near unanimous. The average turnout was low at 32% with over 60% of those who participated, voting for the status quo. The turnout can be, in part, explained by the uncertainty and confusion amongst the electorate about what they were being asked to vote on (the powers which elected mayors would have was, and remains, unclear). But, the size of the ‘no’ vote suggests, at the least, a lack of enthusiasm about electing more politicians. Indeed, voters in Hartlepool have now decided to scrap the position of a directly elected mayor after three terms of office.

Bristol is an exception, by a narrow margin of 7%, it was the only one of the ten cities to vote in favour of an elected mayor. Yet, the Bristol mayoral election, held on 15 November 2012, only received a turnout of 27.92%. Of the fifteen candidates who contested the elections, only one was female and one was non-white. The newly elected mayor of Bristol, George Ferguson, whilst depicting himself as an independent, has previously sat as a Liberal councillor and contested a seat at two General Elections for the Liberal Democrats.

In thinking about why citizens are ‘fed up’ with local democracy and why the idea of elected mayors was a turn-off, perhaps we should take a look at those contesting and winning these elections. As in Bristol, mayors do not represent a radical departure from the professionalised political class or indeed the mainstream political parties which citizens are increasingly dis-engaged from: Boris Johnson in London, Ian Stewart in Salford and Peter Soulsby in Leicester, are all former MPs; Joe Anderson in Liverpool is a former Leader of the council.

I would argue that elected mayors are the wrong solution to the wrong problem. The currently proposed fixes in the constitutional reform agenda, including elected mayors, to deal with the ‘democratic deficit’, are clearly not producing changes which citizens are interested in engaging with. Perhaps this is because the assumption that underpins such fixes – that citizens are apathetic about politics – is incorrect. If we challenge this thinking, then many of the proposed fixes seem like the wrong solution to the wrong problem. If we instead recognise that many people feel that representative politics doesn’t represent them or indeed engage with the important issues that affect their everyday lives, then a different problem with a potentially different solution emerges.

One means of responding to a decline in traditional forms of political participation is to offer different opportunities to engage democratically. Broadening the range of democratic engagement fits with re-thinking what citizenship means: it’s less a ‘status’ which people possess and more a ‘practice’ that people participate in. Looking at data on levels of different forms of civic activity in the UK suggests there is a healthy base of existing participation and an appetite for more. The Hansard Audit of Political Engagement suggested that 14% of people are already active, but 51% felt that getting involved could make a difference; 14% of these were considered as ‘willing localists’, people who were not actively involved but were willing and likely to do so locally.

But how can we tap into this latent demand? First, local authorities and other public bodies need to stop ‘second-guessing’ citizens.  Recent research highlighted that whilst two thirds of local councils felt that the community would be unmotivated to participate more locally, less than 20% of them had formally assessed communities’ interest.  Second, we need to acknowledge that a lot of current opportunities for ‘participation’ replicate some of the problems of local representative democracy by acting as ‘mini town halls’ offering only tokenistic consultation of citizens, failing to recognise Sherry Arnstein’s seminal observation that “there is a critical difference between going through the empty ritual of participation and having the real power needed to affect the outcome of the process”. Third, to look for alternative ways to mobilise citizens and communities. I recently attended Locality’s annual convention – the organisation now recruiting and training 500 senior community organisers, along with a further 4,500 part-time voluntary organisers, over four years spent working with community host organisations. For Locality, this initiative is about ‘building a movement’. Speaking to organisers, they see their challenge as mobilising social action and generating a sense that change is possible. I have seen the impact of organising first-hand in Chicago, and it was inspiring to hear the impact the programme is already making there. If an elected mayor is to make a difference to local democracy, it won’t be as a visible manifestation of Politics, it will be about embracing and supporting these new social movements.

Catherine Durose is Senior Lecturer and Director of Research in the Institute of Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham.  Catherine’s research focuses on the changing relationships between the state, communities and citizens.