Migration and urban development: reflections from the UK

London Tube

by Claire Dwyer

Migration histories

Many conventional narratives of multicultural Britain begin with the arrival of Empire Windrush in 1948 carrying 417 Jamaican migrants arriving to fill labour shortages in the post-war British economy. However contemporary critiques draw upon a longer historical trajectory to relate the story of a multicultural Britain which might include soldier-settlers from the Roman Diaspora in 2nd-4th Century AD or African seamen settled in port cities such as Liverpool or Cardiff since the seventeenth century. Geographers such as Caroline Bressey (2008) have sought to make visible the ‘hidden geographies’ of Black people in Britain shaping an alternative account of Britishness. Britain’s imperial role ensured that flows of goods, ideas and people shaped the diversity of the metropolitan centre as well as providing links to countries which later became important sites for postcolonial migration.

Irish and Jewish migration to Britain in the nineteenth century provides the first significant examples of the intertwining of labour markets and immigration regulation. In the post-war period labour for the expanding post-war economy in Britain was sought, like other European countries, from former colonies. Migrants from the Caribbean and South Asia were recruited to work in both the public sector, such as the railways and National Health Service, as well as later to work in the industrial sector such as the textile industries of the North West. East African Asian migrants from Uganda and Kenya came to Britain as a result of their expulsion by Idi Amin in 1968. Migrants entered Britain with rights of settlement as citizens of the Commonwealth, however these rights were rapidly restricted, in the wake of social and political concerns about immigration.

Migration patterns since the post-war period

Since the post-war period migration patterns in Britain have changed considerably. Between 1971 and the late 1980s immigration was less significant because of the economic recession. However from the early 1990s, in the context of the growth of the economy and particularly new labour markets in the service sector, new migration flows have emerged, shaped also by neo-liberalism and globalisation. Labour migration is now shaped by an orientation towards Europe rather than the Commonwealth, since EU migrants are not subject to restrictions. In 2004 the expansion of the EU was accompanied by new flows of migrants from accession states including Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary, Czech Republic. Alongside the free movement of European migrants has come a more restrictive policy of ‘managed migration’ for other groups. Thus work permits are only granted to some highly skilled migrants or for recruitment within particular shortage sectors – such as the recruitment of 20,000 Filipino nurses between 2000 and 2004.

Alongside this restrictive system has come an increase in the numbers of people seeking asylum in Britain. These represent both the proliferation of significant conflicts and the extent to which restrictive immigration policies make asylum claims the only means of gaining legal entry to the UK. Nonetheless rates of refusal of asylum claims are high, currently 80 percent or more, and many asylum seekers find themselves facing detention and expulsion within a political system which has struggled to respond to changing flows. Deregulated labour markets also mean that possibilities for irregular migration and the exploitation of illegal migrant workers are rife – as the tragic case of the deaths of eighteen Chinese cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay in February 2004 attest.
Reflecting on the changes in migration flows within the UK since 1945 there are both continuities and changes. While post-war migration was predominantly from countries with connections with Britain through the Commonwealth, more recently migration flows have come from a much wider number of countries with particular increases in migrants from the Middle East and Africa. While the relationship between migration flows, labour markets and immigration legislation remains, the British migration regime has changed with a focus on any needs for unskilled labour being met through the free movement of migrants with the EU while other migration flows are more strictly controlled both through tougher asylum policies and by allowing entry to only highly skilled migrants from elsewhere.

Multicultural Urban Landscapes

In demographic terms the ethnic diversity of Britain is very variable. In the 2001 Census 12.5 percent of the population was recorded as ‘ethnic minority’ (1). There is considerable geographical variation in the distribution of the minority ethnic and migrant populations. London is the most diverse city in Britain with 40.3 percent of the population from ethnic minority groups. The diversity of places with which migrants to London have links has led to a description of ‘super diversity’ (Vertovec 2007 ). In general, minority ethnic groups are much more likely to be found in urban rather than rural areas and in England rather than in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

While London is home to a great variety of different groups, other British cities are characterised by a history of particular immigrant flows. Reflecting their histories particular ports in Britain, including Liverpool and Cardiff, have long established Black and ‘mixed-race’ (2) communities. Leicester, popularly characterised as the first city to have a majority Asian population, has a significant population of those with Indian heritage, successors of earlier migrants from both Indian and ‘twice migrants’ from Indian communities in Africa. This heritage is reflected in a diverse urban landscape including shops selling Indian food and clothes and new religious buildings such as temples and mandirs. Further north in Bradford, sixteen percent of the population are of Pakistan Muslim background, reflecting the significance of migration from rural Mirpur for work in Bradford’s textile mills in the 1960s and 1970s. Here new identities as British Muslims are forged through youth groups and mosques as well as on the cricket pitches or watching ‘Lollywood’ movies.

Migration and urban geography

Multicultural landscapes are evident through the transformation of urban geographies by spectacular religious buildings, or the influence of ethnic minority economies and businesses. A key change in the urban landscape has been the proliferation of new places of worship for many different new religious communities. While the first generation often used make shift premises for mosques or temples, in recent years more established and more affluent communities have been able to erect spectacular new temples, mosques or gurdwaras including the Swaminarayan Temple in Neasden (London), the Jain Temple in Potters Bar (Greater London), the Sri Guru Singh Sabha Gurdwara in Southall (London) or the Jame Masjid (formerly the Saddam Hussain Mosque) in Handsworth (Birmingham). Elsewhere events such as the Notting Hill Carnival, which emerged to challenge racism in the 1950s is now a wide ranging annual celebration attended by many beyond the British Caribbean population. It is a show piece of British multiculturalism – widely marketed as a tourist experience.

Another example is the recent commodification of Brick Lane, at the heart of an area of Bangladeshi settlement in east London. The area around Brick Lane has long been emblematic of the significance of different flows of migrants to the making of London. Situated just east of the original wall around London which separated the city from its environs, the first group to make its mark on this landscape were refugees from France, the Huguenots, who arrived in the seventeenth century and made their living as silk weavers. In the mid-nineteenth century Jewish migrants from Eastern Europe arrived finding work in the textile industry. By the 1970s, as Jewish migrants moved further out to the more affluent suburbs the area became home to migrants from East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) who worked first in the clothing industry but also diversified into the restaurant industry.

One building, London Jamme Masjid mosque, standing on the corner for Fournier Street and Brick Lane, is a poignant testimony to the area’s migration history. Built in 1742 as a Huguenot Church, it was converted into a synagogue in 1898 before becoming a mosque in 1976. Recently the local government has been involved in an initiative to revitalise the Brick Lane area as a site of tourism and consumption, particularly for food, by branding the neighbourhood as ‘Banglatown’ through the use of a symbolic gateway, street names in Bengali and an annual Bangladeshi festival or mela. There are parallels with other sites of ethnic place making in Britain including Chinatown in Soho. While such initiatives are often seen as positive ways of celebrating multiculturalism they have also been criticised for being too essentialist and for failing to engage with real issues of inequality for minority ethnic groups such as poor housing or failing schools.

Contested politics of integration and segregation

The emergence of an established second generation migrant population in Britain has translated into many different diverse examples of multicultural geographies evident particularly in the built environment, but also in many other ways in everyday lives from the provision of halal meat in schools or hospitals to the accommodation of different styles of Asian dress in the police force. However in contemporary Britain, as in many other parts of Europe, the contested politics of integration are back on the agenda. It was urban unrest in the Northern cities of Bradford, Burnley and Oldham in the summer of 2001 when young white and Asian men were involved in street fighting with each other and the police which prompted key reports on ethnic relations in Britain. One of the findings of the Cantle Report (2001) was that different communities, in this case those with a white British heritage and those with a Pakistani Muslim heritage were living ‘parallel and polarised lives’. These findings were given greater resonance by the 7/7 London bombings of July 2005 in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. These events produced a climate of fear within which heightened concerns were raised about the integration of ethnic minority groups in Britain, with a particular focus on Muslims.

In contemporary Britain moral panics continue to be  focused most explicitly on Muslims through a form of ‘cultural racism’ which suggests that Islam is incompatible with ‘mainstream’ British life. Attention has focused particularly on claims of Muslim separatism in relation to institutions like Muslim schools as well as through contested signifiers such as the wearing of the hijab (Dwyer 2008, Meer et al. 2010, Dwyer & Parutis 2012).

Recommendations from the Cantle Report formed the basis of a Labour government policy of ‘Community Cohesion’ which placed emphasis on the integration of both older ethnic minority groups, and new migrants, through policies targeting English language learning and citizenship education. While the coalition government dropped the framing of ‘community cohesion’ its focus on ‘integration’ remains. The policy was informed by concerns about residential segregation (leading to ‘parallel lives’) which were drawn from the work of geographers who argued that measures of ethnic segregation are increasing in English cities (Poulsen and Johnson 2008). In contrast, other studies have suggested that measures of increased segregation fail to take into account temporary demographic changes (Simpson 2007) or to recognise the ways in which racialised housing markets and fears of discrimination prevent Asian families from moving out of the inner city into the more diverse suburbs (Phillips 2008).


In a recent edited volume (Dwyer & Bressey 2008) we drew attention to the ways in which geographical imaginaries are often central to contemporary debates whether through racialised imaginative geographies of place, contested understandings of geographies of ethnic segregation or the evocation of locality and the ‘everyday geographies of multiculture’ This volume suggests that urban spaces remain central to the contested politics of race and racism in the UK.


(1) Given the possibilities of census categories this includes all respondents who did not identify themselves as ‘White British’

(2) There remains considerable debate about the ways in which ethnicity and ‘race’ is defined. In Britain ‘mixed race’ is the category used on the census for those who have a dual heritage.


  • Bressey, C. 2008 ‘It’s only political correctness – race and racism in British History’ in Dwyer, C. & Bressey, C. 2008 New Geographies of Race and Racism (Aldershot: Ashgate), 29-39
  • Dwyer, C. & Parutis, V. 2012 ‘Faith in the system?’: State-funded faith schools in England and the contested parameters of community cohesion Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers (published first online)
  • Dwyer, C. 2008 ‘Geographies of Veiling’, Geography 93(3), 140-147
  • Dwyer, C. & Bressey, C. 2008 New Geographies of Race and Racism (Aldershot: Ashgate)
  • Meer, N., Dwyer, C. and Modood, T. (2010) ‘Embodying Nationhood? Conceptions of British national identity, citizenship and gender in the 'veil affair'’, The Sociological Review, 58 (1), 84-111
  • Phillips, D. 2008 ‘The problem with segregation: exploring the racialisation of space in Northern Pennine Towns’ in Dwyer, C. & Bressey, C. 2008 New Geographies of Race and Racism (Aldershot: Ashgate), 179-192
  • Poulsen, M. and Johnston, R. 2008 ‘The ‘new geography’ of ethnicity in England and Wales?’ in Dwyer, C. & Bressey, C. 2008 New Geographies of Race and Racism (Aldershot: Ashgate), 157-178
  • Simpson, L. 2007 'Ghettos of the mind: the empirical behaviour of indices of segregation and diversity', Journal of the Royal Statistical Society A, 170 (2), 405-424
  • Vertovec, S. 2007 ‘Superdiversity and its implications’, Ethnic and Racial Studies 30(6), 1024-1054




Dr Claire Dwyer is Co-Director of the Migration Research Unit at University College London. Her research interests are in geographies of ethnicity, gender and religion; transnationalism and diasporas; feminist and multicultural theory. She has undertaken research on Muslim identities in Britain, British South Asian diaspora commodity cultures and new suburban religious landscapes in Britain and Canada. Her publications include Transnational Spaces (co-edited with Peter Jackson and Phillip Crang, Routledge, 2004) and New Geographies of Race and Racism (co-edited with Caroline Bressey, Ashgate, 2008).

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Dr Claire Dwyer is Co-Director of the Migration Research Unit at University College London. Her research interests are in geographies of ethnicity, gender and religion; transnationalism and diasporas; feminist and multicultural theory.