Cultural diversity should go hand in hand with progressive social policies

#CriticalThinking

Picture of Sir Albert Bore
Sir Albert Bore

The success of extreme right-wing parties in last year’s European elections is a worrying symptom of the nationalism which has grown across the continent in response to austerity and the financial crisis.

Migrant communities are all too often the target of such movements, and indeed of ‘mainstream’ politicians and media who claim migrants have a detrimental impact on employment, housing and public services.

Birmingham hit world headlines in January when  Steve Emerson – a self-proclaimed ‘terrorism expert’ – told a Fox News debate on the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris that our city had become “totally Muslim” – a place that non-Muslims do not visit. The statement was completely erroneous. Birmingham is in fact one of Europe’s most diverse cities, one that has been welcoming people from different countries, backgrounds and faiths for decades.

It is too simplistic to view issues around diversity and identity through the lens of “immigration”

Typically, the people of Birmingham responded with humour, wit and intelligence to Emerson’s claims. If you missed it, the #FoxNewsFacts hashtag is well worth reading. Birmingham continues its long history of embracing new arrivals from around the world.  We welcomed a significant Irish community that arrived in the 19th Century to flee famine; post-war economic migration from the Commonwealth saw large communities from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Caribbean coming to take up important roles in our local economy; more recently those fleeing conflict in places like Somalia and Afghanistan found a home here alongside others from Central and Eastern Europe seeking employment using their rights as EU citizens.

It is too simplistic to view issues around diversity and identity through the lens of “immigration”. The social demographics of modern cities are much more complex than that. Birmingham is now the embodiment of a ‘superdiverse’ city. Around 42% of our residents are people from what we term BME (black and minority ethnic) communities, this includes 2nd or 3rdgenerations who are not considered, nor consider themselves, as immigrants. Coupled with the fact that half our population is under 35, this gives Birmingham an extraordinary energy and a strategic advantage in this globalised world. Over the past two decades, we have seen our societies change at an unprecedented pace. We live in a world increasingly interconnected through advanced communications, transport and trade. This has resulted in fundamental changes in migration patterns and the social makeup of urban areas.

Around 22% of Birmingham’s 1.1 million residents were born outside the UK, compared with an average of 14% across England as a whole. Those who arrived in the UK after 2001 make up 9.6% of the city’s residents. Research from Professor Jenny Phillimore at the University of Birmingham’s Institute for Research into Superdiversity indicates that people have moved to the city from nearly 190 countries in recent years. This superdiversity has had a clearly positive impact on the city – migrant communities contribute tremendously to Birmingham’s cultural life, to its day-to-day vibrancy and they bring their own trade and business links. However, it also raises significant challenges for cohesion.

Newly-arrived communities are often among the most excluded, because they do not know how to access services or where to seek advice. Superdiversity can lead to fragmentation. Many arrivals come in such small numbers that they are unable to fit in to established or emerging community clusters. Without social connections, they risk becoming isolated and disconnected.

Young people from all backgrounds must receive the high-quality education they are entitled to

We work hard to provide services that are flexible and responsive to the needs of our diverse population. Particular emphasis is given to newly-arrived communities, where we work with partners to develop practical solutions such as:

–       Birmingham Places of Welcome – a network of small community organisations, including faith communities, who offer an unconditional welcome to local people for at least a few hours a week.

–       Birmingham’s Near Neighbours programme which brings people together in religiously and ethnically diverse communities to build relationships of trust and is being used to create a minimum standard of service for those needing advice.

Birmingham City Council also works closely with local faith groups. We were the first in the UK to sign the Faith Covenant which was developed by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Faith and Society to facilitate partnerships between local authorities and faith groups. It sets down a joint commitment on principles for working together with an open, practical engagement on all levels.

Demographic changes also place pressure on planning and mainstream local services. For instance, a combination of net migration into the city and high birth rates has led to a population bulge among young people. Youngsters under 15 make up 22.9% of Birmingham’s population, something that would be welcomed by parts of Europe experiencing an ageing and declining population. The City Council works with schools and other education partners on innovative school place planning and providing additional primary and special school places.

In the past year, the city has had to manage a sensitive case in which individuals on school governing bodies were alleged to have made a systematic attempt to introduce an Islamic agenda into a small number of Birmingham schools. An independent government review into the so-called Trojan Horse case has since found there was no evidence of a conspiracy, but it recognised there were actions by a few people which fell far below acceptable standards. The City Council unequivocally condemns such actions.

While this case undoubtedly warranted a full and independent review, the way it was handled by the government and reported on in the media raised the spectre of Islamophobia, an on-going problem for our Muslim communities and wider society.

Important lessons have been learnt by schools, the City Council and our communities. The most crucial is that young people from all backgrounds must receive the high-quality education they are entitled to. Issues raised by the Trojan Horse case are being addressed swiftly, in partnership with the schools concerned.

Another important issue is civic engagement – making sure all parts of the community feel they have a stake in society. Low voter turnout in Britain and across Europe shows that this is clearly not just an issue that concerns migrant communities, but they are often disproportionately affected. We are tackling this by working with Operation Black Vote, a campaign group, which has developed a Civic Leadership Programme designed to nurture future leaders from Black and Minority Ethnic communities in the West Midlands with the aim of increasing their representation in all areas of civic and public life.

In another practical step, the city has hosted citizenship ceremonies over the past 10 years for Birmingham residents who have successfully applied to become British citizens. These ceremonies provide formal recognition and are an important ‘rite of passage’ for new citizens.

Shared values are central to building strong and cohesive societies

We are building a city where diversity is embraced, and where there are shared values and a real sense of belonging. We are currently developing a Birmingham Equalities and Social Inclusion Strategy to ensure that the Council positively promotes equal chances for all.

I firmly believe that the superdiversity of Birmingham’s community deeply enriches our city and contributes both to its social and economic prosperity and its vibrant cultural life. Promoting cohesion is at the very centre of what the city strives to do. The challenges of migration do not prevent Birmingham from developing progressive social policies. Shared values are central to building strong and cohesive societies.

I’m proud that Birmingham is a place where people from all faiths and backgrounds live and work together, peacefully side by side.

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