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.

Reason, myth and migration

Phillip Cole

One of the dominant features of public debate about immigration in the United Kingdom is the absence of reason. Many political commentators have begun to notice the reluctance of people to abandon basic myths about immigration, despite the prevalence of evidence that shows those myths to be false. For example, net immigration has fallen over the past three years, but only one fifth of people believe that. The rest are convinced that net immigration is on the rise.

I think there is something deep seated at play here in the public sphere. I don’t mean to draw attention away from the importance of racism in anti-immigration stances, or the important role of the media in creating a great deal of hostility. But I do want to suggest the idea of ‘Heimat’ can supplement these explanations and help shed light on the persistence of myth within the immigration debate.

‘Heimat’ is an extraordinarily complex idea that plays an important role in German thought and culture, and I can’t hope to do it justice here. It captures the feeling of being at home, or, more accurately, is a reaction to the experience of not feeling at home.

In other words, ‘Heimat’ is a reactive idea, a reaction against the fluidity and change experienced under conditions of modernity, which result in alienation and a feeling of lost-ness. Heimat is an idea of a place where one really belongs, and so is an imaginary home set up against our experience of alienation. It is essentially backward looking and nostalgic, and so it does not exist in the present.

But equally it does not exist in the past. Although it is a place, and exists in the past in one sense, it is not a place that has ever existed. It is an imaginary place when things were, we are told, more innocent and simple and stable: it is motion-less and change-less.

This place is not open to rational criticism. When people say things were better in the past, pointing out to them that this past has never actually existed – it is an imaginary reaction to the present — brings about no change in their nostalgia. And although as an idea ‘Heimat’ has played a role in both right and left politics in Germany, one key element of it is mistrust of the outsider, whose presence is at least one cause of the loss of ‘Heimat’.

So the immigrant brings change, but change of something that lies in an imaginary past. The reality is that the world was never like that and has already changed. In fact the immigrant may symbolize change, but they don’t bring it. The world just has changed and is changing – it always has. And the immigrant is one who lives in the borderlands of change.

Although the idea of Heimat is explicit in the German-speaking world and has no simple equivalent in the English-speaking world, I have no doubt that it is present in the way we think. Patrick Wright’s description of ‘Englishness’ in his article, “Last orders for the English aborigine”, certainly fits the model, and perfectly captures the stance of UKIP and its supporters.

This Englishness “…finds its essence in that sense of being opposed to the prevailing trends of the present. It’s a perspective that allows even the most well-placed man of the world to imagine himself a member of an endangered aboriginal minority: a freedom fighter striking out against ‘alien’ values and the infernal workings of a usurping state”. At its heart is an idea of England “…in which the very thought of difference or change is instantly identified with degeneration, corruption and death” (pp.68-69).

And so ‘Heimat’ is a reactive idea, a reaction against the fluidity and change experienced under conditions of modernity, which result in alienation and a feeling of lost-ness. And it is the migrant – part of the process of motion and change – who is identified as the culprit for this lost-ness. But the key point here is that it is not open to rational criticism. It is an idea that lies beyond reason.

My suggestion is that if we study the public debate about immigration, and the anti-immigration stance that many take, we will find the theme of Heimat running through them – phrases keep re-occurring in those debates, most strikingly, I have found, the theme of not people to being at home in their own country. And the most important aspect of this theme is, of course, that it is not open to reason – the resistance to argument and evidence is an essential dimension of Heimat.

Myths, of course, can be combated through persisting with reason and evidence, and it may be that we can see this in the fact that Nigel Farage, UKIP leader, recently stated that he would rather be poorer with fewer migrants, an acceptance that immigration brings economic growth to the UK, and that it was the social/cultural impact of immigration that was important rather than economic impact.

This seems to show that the barrage of evidence and argument about the economic benefits of immigration have had some effect even within the minds of UKIP, where in the past the economic myths have been pretty much hard-wired. So the fact that we find our attempts to reason rebuffed by myth again and again should not discourage us from continuing with our efforts. The one thing we must never do is abandon hope in the power of reason.


Phillip Cole is a Visiting Professor in Applied Philosophy with the Social Ethics Research Group at the University of South Wales, and Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of West of England. He is co-author of Debating the Ethics of Immigration: Is There a Right to Exclude? with Christopher Heath Wellman (Oxford University Press 2011), and Philosophies of Exclusion: Liberal Political Theory and Immigration (Edinburgh University Press 2000).

Phillip presented these ideas as a paper for the Migration and Citizenship Seminar Series at the University of Birmingham. See the programme for details of forthcoming events.