At the college he had to re-learn everything that he knew. He had to learn how to eat in public. He had to learn how to greet people… Yet something strange was happening … Willie began to see in a new way the rules he had left behind at home. He began to see – and it was upsetting, at first – that the old rules were themselves a kind of make-believe, self-imposed. And one day, towards the end of his second term, he saw with great clarity that the old rules no longer bound him.
Half a Life – V. S. Naipaul
Migration and settlement are emotive subjects. The migration journey brings hopes, fears, excitement and anxieties, the balance of emotions depending on the circumstances of migration, country of origin and pathway to settlement in the receiving country. Whilst professional new arrivals may find that occupational networks help to smooth the passage of adjustment, those moving as poorer economic migrants, asylum seekers, refugees, marriage partners or young single migrants such as Willie can often find that the process of settlement, and attendant feelings of security and belonging, are not always easily or quickly achieved. The early stages of settling for the most vulnerable migrants may mean multiple moves, perhaps through transit camps, reception centres, hostels or the streets before arriving at a place with some security. Others, making use of family and other connections, may join earlier migrants in established areas of immigration that offer elements of familiarity, comfort and support, and, for some, a microcosm of the life-world left behind.
To the receiving population, distinctive areas of minority ethnic settlement evoke mixed emotions. They can hold exotic allure, become places of curiosity, entertainment and excursion for curious outsiders; a small world that can be entered, sampled and left at the end of the novel experience. Many western cities have actively sought to commodify their Chinatowns or equivalent of the ‘Curry Mile’ in Manchester, and capitalise on their multi-cultural diversity through investment in newly emerging cultural landscapes. The persistent clustering of minority ethnic groups in areas of deprivation can, however, also generate fears in the receiving population. Such spaces can become symbols of difference and a reminder that migration brings new identities, lifestyles, inequalities and social divisions that can give rise to (often exaggerated) national anxieties around integration, citizenship and nation building.
The pattern, process and outcome of immigrant settlement have all too often become politicised. National concerns about the supposed risks of minority group concentration in particular areas, variously articulated through anxieties around civil unrest, ghettoization, uneven use of services, and the ‘swamping’ of the indigenous population, have promoted diverse state interventions in the settlement process. The regional dispersal of refugees is not uncommon in western European countries and is often linked to welfare benefits entitlements. At the local scale, quotas have at times been used to shape the pattern of allocation of new migrants to social housing, and migrant children have been bussed from their home areas to dispersed schools in an attempt to ‘spread the burden’ of immigration. Fear of the negative effects of residential concentration, for both migrants and the receiving population, is often accompanied by a politicised discourse on the dangers of persistent segregation and the development of disconnected, parallel lives between host and migrant groups that have seemingly failed to learn ‘the rules’. In the post-9/11 era of global insecurity, the clustering of new as well as settled. Muslim minorities in western European countries, for example, has widely been seen as an indicator of poor assimilation and weak citizenship. Popular explanations for segregated lives often rest on immigrants’ apparent unwillingness to adjust and engage in the host society rather than the racism and structural constraints that migrant communities often face. Although scholars agree that the relationship between social and spatial assimilation is contested (and likely to take different forms for different populations in different places), government policies promoting integration and social cohesion have often seen migrant deconcentration and dispersal, as well as acculturation, as integral to their programmes.
Migrants’ lived experiences and geographies of settlement are contextualised and differentiated. They reflect the way that their personal characteristics and individual biographies cross-cut with wider structural opportunities and constraints, and how they are shaped by the dynamics and micro-politics of particular places. In addition, migrants’ own senses of citizenship and belonging are complex and multi-scalar. Transnational connections now enable immigrants and settled minorities to maintain strong ties with remote places they have left behind, to selectively blend socially constructed rules, and create identities rooted in both their old and new homes. However, people’s everyday lives are still greatly influenced by experiences, associations and life-chances at the local scale. Immigration status, the social and political rights accorded to migrants, positive or negative encounters with social difference, an understanding of the migrant’s place in the receiving nation, and individual constructions and imaginings of home will all help to shape the complex pathways to immigrant settlement and belonging.