From old to new migration: the emergence of a new era of superdiversity


Professor Jenny Phillimore

The past twenty years have seen enormous changes in the way we live, as societies and cultures across the world have become connected through communication, transportation, and trade.   Globalisation as this process has become known, has impacted on almost every area of life. Globalisation has accelerated the speed and scale of migration, brought changes to migration patterns, and led to the development of the phenomena of new migration. The “old” post-colonial migrations of the 1950s to 1980s brought large numbers of relatively homogenous groups of people to a small number of places with which they had some kind of connection, for example Indians and Pakistanis to the UK, Surinamese and Moluccans to Netherlands, and North Africans to France. This old migration was characterised by relatively static clusters of migrants who moved to manufacturing centres to take up jobs, and were later joined by their families.

New migrant populations are less fixed. They are spread across the developed world, and connected transnationally to friends and family in many other countries. They may settle permanently in one location, or move around the country of migration or super-national region. Thus we see global communities such as Somali migrants who move in and between Bolton, London and Birmingham or between Sweden, Netherlands and the UK, and Kurdish migrants between Germany, Sweden and the UK. New migration sees relatively small numbers of people from countries across the world arriving to very many places with which they have little or even no historical connection. Professor Stephen Vertovec introduced the term, superdiversity to describe the population consequences of new migration.   Increasingly industrialised societies are becoming superdiverse because new migrants are diverse across a wide range of variables including ethnicity, immigration status, rights and entitlements, labour market experiences, gender and age profiles, and patterns of spatial distribution. The scale, complexity, heterogeneity and pace of new migration far exceeds that of the early post-Commonwealth arrivals.

Over the last 20 years, in excess of 26 million people have migrated to the EU15 The poor quality of migration and ethnicity data does not enable an accurate estimate of the numbers, ethnicities and statuses of migrants, while the presence of large numbers of undocumented migrants means that it is difficult to build an accurate picture of the size and location of new migrant populations. In 2009 the percentage of overseas citizens living in the EU was 6.4% although across Europe populations varied enormously. Luxembourg topped the list at 43.5% of residents born overseas followed by Switzerland (21.7%) and Latvia (17.9%). The UK came in 13th out of 30 countries with 6.6% While it is acknowledged that rural and urban areas have become more diverse, the scale and scope of superdiversity varies by country and by settlement area with large urban centres most affected. Although London is generally thought of as the most diverse UK city, with 29% of residents from ethnic minority backgrounds (GLA 2005), regional cities such as Birmingham, likely to become one of Britain’s first minority majority cities in 2020, are becoming increasingly diverse. The extraordinary nature of Birmingham’s superdiversity is visible in GP registration data[1] which shows migrants moved there from 187 different countries between 2007 and 2010 Superdiversity is in evidence in other European cities from Milan where 19% of the population are born overseas and have arrived from 138 different countries (Comune di Milano 2008) and Amsterdam where 45% are born overseas and come from 170 countries .  Such diversity provides a range of challenges for humankind. The Institute for Research into Superdiversity (IRiS) has been established at the University of Birmingham to develop new knowledge around the emergence of superdiversity. This week we use some of the data collected as part of IRiS’s recent research projects to explore some of the key challenges associated with superdiversity in particular around poverty, maternity and integration and hope to finish the week by outlining some of the actions we might take to take advantage of a superdiversity premium and to adapt our societies and economies to a complex and rapidly changing new reality.


[1] GP registration data is not complete. Migrants generally choose to register with a GP only if they need medical attention. Undocumented migrants are reluctant to register at all. Furthermore the database only includes those migrants who have registered directly after arriving from overseas. Nonetheless GP registration data is the best source of data for identifying the nature of the new migrant population. It should be viewed as partial and a picture of the minimum levels of diversity.


Other Useful Links:

It is migration, stupid:

Population of foreign citizens in the EU27 in 2009 Foreign citizens made up 6.4% of the EU27 population:

Superdiversity: A new reality:

Comune de Milano:

London- The World in a City, 2001 Census results:

Superdiversity and its implications:

Towards a sociolinguistics of superdiversity:

Population superdiversity and new migrant enterprise: The case of London:

Reporting Superdiversity. The Mass Media and Immigration in New Zealand:

 Professor Jenny Phillimore is Professor of Migration and Superdiversity at the University of Birmingham.

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