Should you have to be British to live in Britain?

How British are you?

Making sense of immigration: 6 quickfire questions

  1. Why do people want to live in Britain?
    1. After all, it’s a pretty rainy place, people grumble quite a bit and many Brits are slightly obsessed with queuing. But, on the positive side, the UK has free education (for children and teens up to 18) and free healthcare, which not many countries can claim. British citizens are allowed to vote and choose their own leaders, and they have freedom of speech- they’re not oppressed by dictators or punished for having a different opinion to the government. Most people living in the UK have easy access to a lot of advanced technology, and the country has a generally healthy economy and a good police force in action. There's no widespread civil unrest or violence, and the UK doesn't experience any natural disasters like tornados, earthquakes or tsunamis. Ultimately, it is a stable, strong and safe nation compared to many others around the globe. Plus, the UK has some fairly impressive castles, it gave the world Harry Potter and the Brits know how to make a nice cup of tea!
  2. Why do people leave their home countries in the first place?
    1. More than 200 million people in the world are living somewhere different to where they were born and each one of them has a different reason for moving. Some people have no choice - if there’s war or violence in their country they may have to leave to avoid being hurt or even killed. Some people aren’t forced to move, but their circumstances are pretty bad - they’re struggling to find work and feed their families, or they can’t afford to send their kids to school, so they want to make a better life for themselves. Other people want to study or train in a different country, or perhaps the work they’re qualified to do only exists in certain places. Often people from different countries get married and have to move in order to live together. And sometimes people just want a change - to live somewhere new, learn a different language, or experience a different culture.
  3. Migrant, refugee, immigrant - what do all these terms mean?
    1. The word 'migrant' is actually quite a general term - to ‘migrate’ simply means ‘to move from one place or habitat to another’. Just like geese migrate in winter to find better nesting areas and herds of wildebeests migrate across the Serengeti to find water and food, people also move from one place to another for different reasons. And those reasons then determine what kind of migrant they are. If they’ve moved somewhere because they aren’t safe in their own country, they’re usually considered a ‘refugee’ and will be allowed to live (and work) in the UK for up to five years. If they move for work, money, or family reasons and get permission to stay in the UK permanently, they’re considered to be an ‘immigrant’. And the term ‘asylum-seeker’ refers to someone who’s trying to come into a new country as a refugee, but hasn’t been granted that status yet - they’re still seeking ‘asylum’ (safety). None of these words are either positive or negative (although they can often be seen that way), they’re just neutral terms to help the law make sense of people’s situations.
  4. How easy is it to come and live in Britain?
    1. Not particularly easy but not really hard either - sort of middling. Anyone born in Britain is automatically a British citizen and has the ‘right of abode’ (the right to live) in the UK. This extends to family too - so even if you’re born somewhere else, if your parents are British then you’ll be allowed to live in the UK. All citizens of European Union countries also have the right to live in the UK (although this may change after Britain leaves the EU.) But anyone else who wasn’t born in Britain has to apply to the Government for the right to live and work in the UK. They’ll be asked questions about why they left their home country, if they have a criminal record, whether they’ve lived in the UK before, whether they have family here, etc. Then they can be granted one of several options: Limited Leave to Remain (which means you can only stay for an agreed amount of time), Permanent Leave to Remain (which means you can stay as long as you like, but don’t have quite as many rights as a citizen), or full citizenship. Or, if they’re seeking asylum from a dangerous and violent country, they could be given refugee status (which means you can live and work in the UK for up to five years). Or they might not be allowed into the UK at all.
  5. How do people get to the UK?
    1. If they’ve been granted the right to live in the UK, for however long, then they just travel freely - they get in a car or hop on a train or plane, get their documents checked by our border controls and then settle down to a life of tea-drinking and complaining about the weather. However, if they haven’t been able to get the right documents but are still desperate to come, it gets a lot more complicated. Some people try and make their way into the country illegally, either on their own or with the help of people smugglers - criminals who are paid to hide immigrants and refugees (sometimes on a boat, in a truck, or even in a packing crate or the boot of a car) and sneak them over the borders. It’s incredibly dangerous and many people die just trying to reach the country.
  6. Why does any of this matter?
    1. It might not - that’s for you to answer. There are clearly a whole bunch of reasons why people who aren’t born in Britain would want to come and live in the UK, and a lot of different ways they end up in the country. But do those things make any difference to their right to live in a place where they weren’t born? Or should the rules be the same for everyone? You decide.

Navigating the numbers: just how many non-British people actually live in the UK?

There's a lot of disagreement in the UK about non-British people coming to live in the country and people on all sides of the argument like to throw a lot of numbers around to prove their point. But what are the facts? The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford was set up to take a closer look at people moving in and out of the UK, so let's hear what they have to say about properly understanding the numbers and finding the difference between fact and opinion...

What does it actually mean to be British?

Is it to do with where you’re born? Is it about your religion? The colour of your skin or the language you speak? The values you have and how you behave? Whether you like marmite or not? Is ‘British’ something you are or something you can become? 


Union Jack bunting

Being 'British' certainly doesn't mean that you're a member of a particular ethnic group - after all, there's no such thing as an ethnically British person.

Just look at our history - from the Celts who were (probably) the first people to settle in the British islands, and the Romans, Angles, Saxons, Normans, Vikings and Hugenots, through to the Irish, European Jews, people from Africa, South Asia, the Caribbean and Central and Eastern Europe, Britain has always been a place where different ethnic groups and cultures live together.

And there are lots of reasons for Britain’s diversity. Some of them are positive - like the way global trade and international partnerships in things like science and technology have meant that people want to move to the UK to find good business opportunities or to learn new skills.

But some of them are negative - like people who are forced to move because their countries are at war or there just aren’t enough jobs and they can’t feed their families.

It’s also a slightly different picture depending on where you are in the country. The 2011 census (the latest one) tells us that only 45% of people living in London that year were white and had a British passport. But that’s because it’s the capital city - it’s a huge hub of culture, politics and money.

The more rural areas of the UK tend to attract fewer non-British people. In fact, if we look at the population of England and Wales overall, we find that 80% of the population are white and have a British passport.

But wherever you live, there are still lots of different perspectives on what it means to ‘be British’ - British identity is and has always been up for debate.

Perhaps 'Britishness' isn’t a fixed thing, but a constantly-evolving tradition that gets added to by every person who settles in this country. 

And lots of the things many people may think of as quintessentially 'British' have actually come to the UK from other countries.

The British Royal family is mostly German; did you know that they changed their name from Saxe-Coburg Gotha to Windsor during the First World War?

Tea, something that many people think of as a defining element of British culture, only became available to the wider public in Britain from the 17th century onwards, when it was brought to the UK from the British Empire’s colonies in India and China. Cornflakes are American; fish and chips was brought to the UK by Portuguese and Spanish refugees, and St George (whose flag the Union Jack proudly bears) was born in what is now Syria.

So what is it that holds British people together? What is it that forms this diverse collection of people, cultures, religions and practices into an identifiable country? 

Perhaps it’s that very fact that British people are unusually cosmopolitan. Britain is and always has been a country that absorbs new ideas and new cultures, and adds them to its own.

Or maybe it’s particular qualities or personality traits, e.g. that many British people are self-deprecating and/or polite? Or it could be that British people are unusually eccentric - they like and welcome difference, and don't expect everyone to be the same as themselves? 

Or maybe the thing that makes people 'British' is a shared history.

To be 'British' is to be part of a shared understanding of the world regardless of where you, or your great great great grandparents, came from. This isn't to say that everything in UK history is good (ask anyone whose home country was colonised by the British during imperial times what they think, and the answer you'll get is unlikely to be entirely positive) but, arguably, the past - good and bad - contributes to an understanding of what it means to be 'British'.

The UK is one of the oldest countries in the world and its long and complex history has given a perspective on the world that very few others can share.

Or perhaps it’s smaller and simpler than all that. Perhaps the only constant is change. Perhaps 'Britishness' isn’t a fixed thing, but a constantly-evolving tradition that gets added to by every person who settles in this country. 

But is that a good thing? Should 'Britishness' be more concrete? Is diversity diluting our national culture rather than enriching it? That’s for you to decide.

Let’s listen to some arguments about the effects of non-British people living in the UK...

Let’s listen to some arguments about the effects of non-British people living in the UK...

Non-British people are good for the UK

This video basically says 'What's not to love about immigrants? They create new jobs, help our economy and have a positive impact on our schools.' Watch it to see if you agree...

British people can be immigrants too - around 1.2 million UK-born people are currently living in other EU countries.

British people can be immigrants too - around 1.2 million UK-born people are currently living in other EU countries.

We're too full - the UK can't cope with any more people

Some people are concerned that too many immigrants can put pressure on vital services like the healthcare system, while others are worried that there won't be enough jobs to go around. The most interesting thing is that exactly where people live in the UK can have a huge impact on how they feel about non-British people coming to the country. What's your opinion?

6 celebrity immigrants and how they’ve changed the way we live

  1. Rita Ora
    1. Born in Kosovo, to a Muslim father and a Catholic mother, Rita Sahatçiu Ora was only one year old when her family fled to the UK to escape persecution, arriving as refugees. Rita and her sister were sent to a children’s home at first, and when the family were finally reunited it took some time to find and afford a stable home. From these tough beginnings, Rita went on to graduate from stage school and had recorded her first studio session with Craig David by the age of 18. Now her accomplishments include acting in Hollywood movies, being a judge on reality talent shows X-Factor and The Voice, having her own range of clothing and, of course, being an award-winning singer.
  2. Mo Farah
    1. Farah began life in Mogadishu, Somalia, although he soon moved to live with his grandparents in Djibouti to avoid the violence and civil unrest. It’s likely this danger was what eventually forced him to come to the UK in 1991 at the age of eight, although he’s very reluctant to talk about it and has never given an official reason for his move. He went to school in Feltham, and although he struggled hugely with English he showed talent in both football and athletics - so at age 14 was selected to go to the British Olympics Futures camp in Florida. He’s now the most decorated athlete in British athletics history, with nine global titles, and was the first British athlete to win two gold medals at the same world championships. He’s also won both the ‘European Athlete of the Year’ award and the British Athletics Writers Association ‘British Athlete of the Year’ award more than once.
  3. Michael Marks
    1. Marks was born into a Polish-Jewish and Belarusian-Jewish family in Słonim, part of the Russian Empire, and he moved to England in 1882. He began his working life in Leeds as a door-to-door salesman and then a market stall trader, but it didn’t take long for him to expand his business and open several more stalls in covered markets all over Yorkshire and Lancashire. In 1894 Marks found a business partner, Thomas Spencer, and over the next nine years, the stalls turned into whole warehouses which then grew into stores and in 1903 Marks & Spencer became a limited company. Although Marks died relatively young, at the age of 48, his legacy lives on - M&S now have more than 850 stores across the UK, as well as around 200 stores in countries like India, Turkey, Greece, Poland and Spain.
  4. Sir Alec Issigonis
    1. Issigonis was born in 1906 in the Greek port of Smyrna (now known as Izmir, Turkey) to Greek and German parents. He inherited British citizenship via his grandfather (through work he did on the British-built Smyrna-Aydın Railway) and following his father’s death in 1922, Alec and his mother moved to the UK. Alec studied engineering at Battersea Polytechnic in London, then began his career in the motor industry as an engineer and designer with car manufacturer Humber. However, it was his time with the British Motor Corporation that shot him to fame. He was the chief designer of a car launched in August 1959 as the ‘Morris Mini Minor’ - today known simply as the Mini. It went on to become the best-selling British car in history, with a production run of 5.3 million cars. No surprise Issigonis was nicknamed ‘the Greek god’ by his colleagues!
  5. Dame Zaha Hadid
    1. Hadid was born in Baghdad, Iraq, to an upper-class Iraqi family. She attended boarding schools in England and Switzerland and studied maths at university in Lebanon before moving to London in 1972 to study at the Architectural Association School of Architecture. She was known for her unusual and expressive architectural designs, her style earning her the nickname 'Queen of the curve'. She was the first woman to be awarded the Royal Gold Medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects and she also won the UK's most prestigious architectural award, the Stirling Prize, twice! Examples of her work include the aquatic centre for the London 2012 Olympics, the Broad Art Museum in the US and the Guangzhou Opera House in China.
  6. Caroline Herschel 
    1. Caroline Lucretia Herschel was born in the town of Hanover, Germany, in 1750. When she was 10 she came down with a serious illness that stunted her growth and blinded her in one eye. Worried that she’d never marry or find work, Caroline’s mother sent her to England to live with her brother and help with his work as an organist and music teacher. However, he changed careers and became interested in astronomy and Caroline continued to work alongside him. Defying all her mum’s expectations, she ended up discovering several comets, even getting one named after her - the periodic comet 35P/Herschel-Rigollet. She was the first woman to be paid for her contribution to science and to be awarded a Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, and she even got given a Gold Medal for Science from the King of Prussia on her 96th birthday.