Political Science, NU-Q
Shakeeb Asrar

Immigrants in the United Kingdom

Integration through Group Rights

  • Faculty Advisor

    Jocelyn Sage Mitchell

Published On

May 2017

Originally Published

NURJ 2016-17


Immigration has become a global issue that countries around the world increasingly face. It is an issue that has impacted the turnout of some major political events of 2016, including Brexit and the U.S. Election. While the issue of immigration remains controversial, it is important to note that recognizing the group rights of immigrants is an essential component of a modern liberal democracy.


Though liberal democracies claim to be multicultural and to protect the individual rights of all citizens, it is equally important for a democracy to recognize the collective group rights of marginalized communities. In this globalized world, where societies are becoming increasingly diverse, legal and political recognition of minorities will make nation-states true liberal and multicultural democracies. As issues such as radical forms of religion and demands for self-government and independence become pronounced in developed democracies, failure to integrate minorities will only weaken the prospect of democracy. Immigrants are one type of minority found in all modern developed democracies. In this paper, I will use the situation of immigrants in the United Kingdom to argue why recognizing group rights is integral for democracies, and how the failure to do so can bring harm to a functional democracy.


Immigration is undoubtedly one of the most important issues in the United Kingdom today, if not the biggest one. Compared to other European and North American countries, net immigration in the UK has drastically increased over the past few decades, making Britain an outlier. While the emigration numbers have relatively remained stable over the past few years, the increase in immigration has added more than two million people to the total population in the past decade. Net immigration was 318,000 for the year 2014, a 52 percent increase from 2013. [15] A majority of immigrants to the UK are ethnic minorities, who presently account for 14 percent of the total population. The five largest distinct minority communities are (in order of size): Indian, Pakistani, Black African, Black Caribbean and Bangladeshi. This paper is not limited to these five minorities but refers to all minorities in the UK.

According to current laws, immigrants to the UK can become naturalized citizens after legal residence of at least five years. Moreover, spouses and children of naturalized citizens also automatically become British citizens. These immigrants mostly come to the UK to study, work, or become permanent residents. Recently, there has been much debate over immigration to the UK. As more and more people enter the UK to take advantage of its opportunities by finding jobs and buying residences, the British (predominantly white) citizens have become increasingly worried about the composition of their society and the opportunities available to them. As the European Union (EU) has expanded to include more countries, immigration of EU citizens to the UK has also increased in addition to the continuous arrival of non-EU citizens.

15. Office of National Statistics, Migration Statistics Quarterly Report, May 2015. Preston, Ian (2013), "The Fiscal Effects of Immigration to the UK", CReAM DP.

According to a recent survey conducted by the University of Oxford, 77 percent of the UK population wants immigration to be reduced in general, and 56 percent of those people want immigration to be “reduced a lot.” [17] This sample includes ethnic minorities in the people who want net immigration to decrease as well. Other recent surveys and reports have frequently found immigration to be among “the most important issues” facing the UK, quoting overpopulation, economic burden, job competition, and housing shortages as the negative impacts of immigrants. The UK’s thriving economy, higher than that of other EU nations, accounts for this spike in immigration to the UK.

17. Scott, Blinder. “UK Public Opinion toward Immigration: Overall Attitudes and Level of Concern.” Migration Observatory Briefing, COMPAS, University of Oxford, July 2014.

As immigration has increasingly become a national concern, political parties in the UK have pledged to deal with the issue - most of them proposing to control the number of immigrants coming into the UK. The question the new UK government is faced with is not whether or not to act on the issue of immigration, but how? As hostility towards immigrants in the UK becomes more prevalent, the government will not only have to deal with reducing the number of new immigrants but must also form policies on how to deal with the current immigrant population. This group faces immense discrimination and insecurity as seen in the national debate about immigration.

One area the UK authorities can turn to before developing immigration policies is the existing scholarship on the rights of immigrants in a democracy. A large amount of scholarship on the rights of immigrants in a democracy, particularly in a modern liberal democracy like the United Kingdom, contrasts the notion of individual rights versus group rights. Writers such as Janusz Bugajski and Lise Howard argue that group rights, defined as collective rights demanded by members of a group, are negative for a liberal democracy as it impedes the democratic value of individual rights. Bugajski argues that recognizing group rights can also threaten democracy as it can provide different groups power and self-governance, resulting in increased cleavages between groups. While most of the writings on liberal democracy lean towards individual rights over group rights, other political science scholars present counterarguments to it. Political philosopher Will Kymlicka has written extensively on multiculturalism and argues that there are different types of group rights, and those that apply to immigrants are productive for a democracy and can complement individual rights. [13]

I will argue that to deal with the immigration issue in the UK, the authorities need to take steps to integrate minorities within the larger society. This integration needs to be more than the mere coexistence between ethnic groups and white British; it must include the recognition of group rights of minorities. While arguing for the recognition of group rights in a democracy, I will explain how group rights of immigrants are different from the rights that other minorities in societies have. A major part of the paper will assess the need to address the alienation of immigrants, discussing the harms to democracy that the alienation or marginalization of immigrants can bring.

13. Kymlicka, Will. Multicultural Citizenship. A Liberal Theory of Minority. 1995.

The Stakes of Immigrants in a Democracy

Immigrants or descendants of immigrants constitute about 14 percent of the total population in UK. According to many political scientists, a large segment of ethnic minorities can have a great influence on how a society operates. However, there can be negative consequences, especially if ethnic minorities are not smoothly transitioned into British society. Donald Horowitz, while considering democracy in divided societies, wrote that different groups in Britain are at “relatively low levels of conflict,” yet immigrants in UK have not assimilated into the general population as clearly as in the United States. [10] Horowitz argues that if ethnic minorities are not included in the government or in the community, their exclusion can become an “impediment to the attainment of stable democracy.” [10]

10. Horowitz, Donald L.. "Democracy in Divided Societies." Journal of Democracy. No. 4. 1993.

Since a majority of new immigrants to the UK are from ethnic minorities, tensions between minorities as a whole and the white British majority may increase. Riots in England in 2011 indicate that violence may occur if the minorities are dissatisfied. After a 29-year old black resident was shot and killed by the police, demonstrations erupted across England and turned violent, resulting in several deaths and hundreds of arrests. Social exclusion, unemployment, and poor relations with the police were identified as several contributing factors to the riots. [2] The incident reflects that minor issues with the authorities can lead minorities to react negatively, which can hamper the stability of a society. Moreover, when disturbances like the 2011 England riots occur, it can create “ethnic entrepreneurs.” Ethnic entrepreneurs are people among the ethnic minorities who manipulate divisions in the society and worsen the cleavages for their advantage. These entrepreneurs can make the disagreements between groups worse, which may leave their mark after the dispute has been resolved.

2. “Creating the conditions for integration”. Department for Communities and Local Government. London: Crown. February 2012.

Identity politics are another phenomenon present among ethnic minorities. It is not uncommon for minorities in modern liberal societies to form their own political aspirations apart from traditional broad-based party politics. Radical Islamism is believed to be “a manifestation of modern identity politics, a byproduct of the modernization process itself.” [7] Political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote that the presence of religious extremists in Europe is a result of flaws in the main political theory of British democracy, arguing that “Europe’s failure to better integrate its Muslims is a ticking time bomb that has already resulted in terrorism and violence. It is bound to provoke an even sharper backlash from nativist or populist groups and may in time threaten European democracy itself.” [6] Perhaps this phenomenon explains the scores of Britons who are leaving Europe to fight in Syria and Iraq.

The presence of a significant ethnic minority in a liberal democracy, therefore, has the potential to undermine the stability of a nation. This is not to say that the immigrants in the UK are rebellious and wish harm to the society, but they have the power to stand for themselves if instigated. However, recognizing their rights and keeping them integrated in the society can guarantee continued understanding between minorities and the general population.

6. Freeman, M. “Are there Collective Human Rights?” Political Studies. 1995.

7. Fukuyama, Francis. "Identity, immigration, and liberal democracy." Journal of Democracy 17, no. 2. 2006.


To improve inclusiveness and tolerance for minority ethnic immigrants, it is important for a democracy to recognize their group rights, in addition to guaranteeing their individual rights. Many scholars have argued against the idea of the securing collective rights for groups in a society because they claim that it stands in contradiction with the promise of a democracy to protect individual rights. Recognizing group rights can lead to self-governing groups that become separate from mainstream politics. Lise Howard argues that the recognition of group rights can result in an ethnocracy trap, in which “social and political organizations are founded on ethnic belonging rather than individual choice.”[11] Ethnocratic political systems are not liberal democracies as individuals do not have freedom of choice in deciding their political alliances; rather, their ethnicity automatically categorizes them. In Howard’s ethnocratic explanation lies the answer to why group rights can be recognized in UK since the situation of immigrants in Britain is not the same as a minority groups demanding political autonomy for self-government. The ethnic groups in UK are migrant communities and not national minorities who seek rulership.

To prevent the overgeneralization of minority groups, Will Kymlicka differentiates between national minorities and ethnic minorities. According to Kymlicka, national minorities are “territorially concentrated cultures, which were previously self-governing, but have been involuntarily incorporated into a larger state through colonialism, conquest or `voluntary' federation." Ethnic minorities such as immigrants do not demand separate governance but want to become a part of the society they inhabit. National minorities want independence, whereas ethnic minorities want integration. Recognizing legal and political rights of migrant groups, as long as they do not harm the harmony of a liberal society orthe rights of others, will help integrate ethnic groups into the society and prevent conflicts.
Therefore, it is the recognition of group rights of ethnic minorities that this paper supports instead of group rights of national minorities. In the context of ethnic minorities, group rights do not mean that governments need to recognize that the immigrant communities are different but that they need to respect minorities’ cultural differences in order to integrate them. For instance, if these minorities want the protection of religious rights, such as open practice of religion or construction of mosques in public places, the government needs not restrict these rights.

11. Howard, Lise Morjé. "The Ethnocracy Trap." Journal of Democracy 23, no. 4. 2012.

In the aftermath of the 2005 London bombings, the UK experienced increasingly negative feelings toward Muslims. A 2007 survey by “Financial Times” found that Britons were more suspicious of Muslims and their actions than any other European state and have less approval for building mosques.[4] While this may have changed, the UK government must ensure that these feelings are not transferred to laws protecting group rights, and the demand of groups to publicly practice their culture or religion should not be constrained as long as it does not negatively affect the religious rights of other groups. Moreover, group rights can also include the right to attain education in a foreign language – perhaps by using a native language in ethnically-dominated schools. With the introduction of English language test requirement to acquire citizenship in the UK, the idea of speaking English to be “British” has been emphasized. However, if these ethnic groups also demand the right to practice their native language in schools, courts, or other public areas, it should be granted to make ethnic minorities feel integrated in the larger society.

4. Daniel, Dombey. “Britons ‘more suspicious’ of Muslims. Financial Times.

Another important reason for recognizing group rights is that it can prevent the aforementioned issue of identity politics. In today’s world, recognition of individual human rights based on ideas of universal humanity does not suffice, and individuals seek to further identify themselves with groups or organizations. As Fukuyama states, “modern identity politics revolves around demands for recognition of group identities—that is, public affirmations of the equal dignity of formerly marginalized groups.”[7] The idea of increasing demand for group rights also indicates that the conflict between individual rights and group rights is a misunderstood one. The complexities of current liberal democracies allow individuals to have individual rights, while boasting of their links to groups. Immigrants in the UK want to have individual rights, such as the freedom to vote for a party that is not approved by their family or social ties. At the same time, they want to maintain their cultural or religious affiliations by being a member of a group. Individual rights and group rights can complement each other, and a liberal democracy should be able to allow both rights. Kymlicka said, “individual interests can be converted into collective ones, and political philosophy is replete with attempts to show how collective interests are synonymous with individual ones. There is no reason in principle why a concern for individual rights is not compatible with recognition of certain group rights.”[13]

7. Fukuyama, Francis. "Identity, immigration, and liberal democracy." Journal of Democracy 17, no. 2. 2006.

13. Kymlicka, Will. Multicultural Citizenship. A Liberal Theory of Minority. 1995.

Moreover, the multicultural nature of liberal democracies does not solely mean tolerance of different cultures and understanding of the differences among them. Multiculturalism is also “the demand for legal recognition of the rights of ethnic, racial, religious, or cultural groups.”[6] The idea is not to make UK a liberal group-based democracy that allows all types of group rights for any collective claiming to be a group but to integrate individuals from different backgrounds into existing democratic systems by accepting their individual as well as group rights where they promote harmony and cohesion. Reinforcing the national identity of the UK is another way of integrating immigrants into society. Since immigrants want to learn and to become a part of British socio-cultural lifestyle, Britain’s national identity can be promoted among migrant communities to make the society inclusive. As Fukuyama wrote:

6. Freeman, M. “Are there Collective Human Rights?” Political Studies. 1995.

7. Fukuyama, Francis. "Identity, immigration, and liberal democracy." Journal of Democracy 17, no. 2. 2006.

European nation-state needs to create a more inclusive sense of national identity that can better promote a common sense of citizenship. National identity has always been socially constructed; it revolves around history, symbols, heroes, and the stories that a community tells about itself. The history of twentieth century nationalism has put discussions of national identity off-limits for many Europeans, but this is a dialogue that needs to be reopened in light of the de facto diversity of contemporary European societies. [7]

According to Economic and Social Research Council’s 2013 study on Britishness, they found that minorities express strong British identities; these identities are stronger than the white British majority in most cases and increase across second generation of immigrants. Additionally, the study concluded that those who have political affiliations with main political parties ranked higher on the Britishness scale, indicating that political activity leads to increased national identification. Therefore, the survey data shows that ethnic groups are willing to be “British,” and if their group rights are recognized, they will not slip toward a desire for independence or self-governance but will become better integrated into society. By promoting national British identity among minorities and majorities alike, social cohesion in society can be achieved.

In addition to opening dialogue on national identity, UK political parties also need to increase their political activity among the immigrant communities to give them a sense of inclusiveness. The Ethnic Minority British Election Study (EMBES) found that political parties campaign far less in ethnic communities than in white neighborhoods.[9] The prevalence of informal kinship networks – cultural, ethnic or familial ties that influence votes - among ethnic communities is often believed to be the reason for difficulty in changing their voting patterns and thus the lack of political activity among immigrant communities.

9. Heath, Anthony. “Ethnic Minority British Election Study – Key Findings.” University of Oxford and Runnymede Trust. February 2012.

However, research by the University of Manchester and the University of Liverpool gathered for the Electoral Commission 2015 found that lack of political activity among migrant communities is one of the reasons kinship networks exists.[18] According to their research, most of the constituencies studied did not have campaigning. In several of these cases, it was found that the MPs had met with ethnic leaders to convince them to get the community’s vote for his or her party. This so called “electoral fraud” indicates the existence of bloc voting, in which individuals feel pressure from the group to vote a certain way. In cases where there are no pressures to vote for a party, individuals may still end up voting for the party supported by their kinship networks because they lack knowledge about the workings of the other parties.

18. Sobolewska, Maria, Stuart Wilks Heeg, et al. Electoral Commission. “Understanding electoral fraud vulnerability in Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin communities in England”. London: 2015.

Adnan Khan, a 21-year-old British-Pakistani has lived in the UK his whole life, said he has always supported the Labour Party: “They are nice. I think they are not against immigrants, and my family supports Labour.”[12] Adnan’s family consists of six members, and except for one person who is not registered to vote, all of them have supported Labour. Farha Amjad Khan, Adnan’s mother, also voted for Labour but said “I am really happy for the Tories [victory], because David Cameron had previously said that in his second term, he would allow residents in Plaistow to buy the property they have been living in (and currently pay rent for). Now I can hope to buy this house we live in and we will not have to worry about paying rents.”[1] When asked why she did not vote for the Tories in the first place, Farha said she agrees with other policies of the Labour, but she did not identify any specific policies.

The Khan family mirrors the voting patterns of most of the Pakistani-British families in the UK and South Asian families in general. Most of the immigrants have supported Labour for years because Labour is historically known for promoting equality for immigrants. However, many immigrants do not investigate why they support Labour now. Since mainstream political parties do not campaign in immigrant communities, these traditional voting patterns will continue, and kinship networks will prevail.

Perhaps campaigning in general is an act that the political factions in the UK need to practice more actively and widely. As witnessed in the UK General Elections 2015, there was very little campaigning around cities prior to the elections. There were few posters, banners, or rallies in these areas. The only form of common campaigning was canvassing, which was in small groups. Whether UK has traditionally followed this procedure for campaigning or not, the country can benefit from attempting to increase its political activity prior to the elections. This will not only make immigrants more politically aware but can also lead to higher voter turnout.

12. Khan, Adnan. Interview by Shakeeb Asrar. Personal Interview. London, 8 May 2015.

1. Amjad Khan, Farha. Interview by Shakeeb Asrar. Personal Interview. London, 8 May 2015. “Creating the conditions for integration”. Department for Communities and Local Government. London: Crown. February 2012.

Potential of Immigrants in UK

While I discussed the importance of integrating immigrants in a liberal democracy, it is also important to mention the prospects they offer for the future in terms of influencing the politics of the UK and contributing to its economy and society. Since Britain allows citizens of Commonwealth countries living in the UK to cast votes in elections, there are a large immigrant population, including the permanent immigrants, who are eligible to vote. According to the Migrants’ Rights Network, around four million foreign-born voters across England and Wales were eligible to vote in 2015 elections.[5] Many constituencies, especially the ones in London, have electorates consisting of majority migrant voters. This means that for many of the MP seats, the decision can be entirely in the hands of immigrants because they are citizens or have a residency permit. In the 2015 elections, 42 ethnic minority MPs were elected, a jump from 27 in 2010. This number has been increasing over the years and reflects the important role that immigrants play in UK politics. Moreover, there is also a study on how the immigrants are politically capable of having a key role in UK politics. Romain Garbaye writes, “Both West Indians and Asians in Britain originate from democracies with important working-class political movements. This undoubtedly contributes to making the ethnic-minority populations in Britain more competent at political participation and more likely to take interest in the debates of the host-country.”[8]

5. Ford, Robert. “Migrant Voters in the 2015 General Election”. Migrants’ Rights Network. January 2015

8. Garbaye, R. “Ethnic minority participation in British and French cities: a historical–institutionalist perspective”. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 2002.

Immigrants also contribute to the economy of Britain, and perceptions that they are a financial burden on the country are mistaken. There are various reports that prove that common perception exaggerates the negative impact of immigration in the UK, especially its influence on the economy. A recent study by University College London found that immigrants as a group invest more into the economy of Britain through paying taxes compared to the welfare benefits they extract.[16] The research concludes:

16. Preston, Ian (2013), "The Fiscal Effects of Immigration to the UK", CReAM DP.

Research has also shown consistently that immigrants do not take jobs away or forces down the earnings wages of native-born workers. So why the negative attitude? Understanding the role played by immigrants in a modern economy such as the UK requires a considerable understanding of economics and finance, particularly the relationship immigrants have to the labor market. If true, you would expect more financially literate individuals to have a more positive attitude towards immigration.[16]

Denis MacShane, a former MP in the House of Commons for the Labour Party, also said that one of the reasons major political parties do not form an explicit stance about immigrants is because they know they have a major role in aiding the economy.[14] However, in lieu of the widespread criticism of immigration, they do not form a clear opposing view. According to McShane, immigrants also take low-paying jobs that the white British are unwilling to take; therefore, immigrants are an essential part of the society.

14. McShane, Denis. Group Conversation. 9 May 2015.

The above discussion is not to say that immigrants have no negative impacts on the British society and that they only benefit the system. Some consequences of mass immigration, such as its linguistic and cultural influences, competition in labor market, and notions of radical Islamism have certainly influenced the British society. However, how accurately these consequences are portrayed in the media and perceived among the general public is another issue, as they are often exaggerated. The idea of Britishness is based on plurality and ambiguity as an “inclusive, civic, non-racial identity,” and to be “modern and British is to have and be relaxed about compound identities, to share sovereignties in supranational institutions.”[3] The influx of immigrants is certainly a national issue that needs to be dealt with, but it will be in the best interest of the British people to integrate immigrants while the government tries to manage their impact on society.

3. Cowley, Jason. “The Dissolution of the U.K. Would Be a Bad Omen for the Rest of the World.” New Republic. 15 Sept 2014.


As mentioned above, the idea that individual rights and group rights contradict one another in a liberal democracy may not be true. Group rights of immigrants are different from the group rights that other minorities might demand, thus all group rights cannot be generalized to be harmful to the individual freedoms in a liberal democracy. As scholar Michael Freeman argued, “Liberal democratic theory, in its almost exclusive emphasis on individual rights and its neglect of communal interests, has created a context in which no balance has been possible between the claims of individuals and multidimensional communities.”[6] In cases such as those of immigrants in UK, recognizing group rights can help reach a balance of peace and justice.

The key here is not to recognize group rights of immigrants but to integrate them into society, and if this integration can be achieved through recognition of collective rights, democracies should not be afraid to do so. The numbers of immigrants are only going to grow in future. Even if the immigration numbers are brought down, birth rates among immigrants will keep their numbers high. As European democracies face issues of radical Islam and people joining groups like Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), integrating immigrants into the society is the best way to keep liberal democratic functions working.

6. Freeman, M. “Are there Collective Human Rights?” Political Studies. 1995.


Shakeeb Asrar