The Second Generation: ‘Migrants’ or ‘Natives’?

My Dad was born in London. My Mum was born in Surrey. I was born with a British passport to British-English parents who themselves were born of British parents (albeit my grandmother came from the exotic depths of Scotland). In a global context of inequality mine is a position of privilege but that didn’t stop me from growing up with a feeling that I was somehow a bit ‘boring’ compared to the array of interesting personal histories that surrounded me growing up in North East London. Throughout my life, whenever asked about my nationality I’ve always said “I’m just English”, “just”, as though that wasn’t interesting in itself.

According to the 2011 Census 36.9% of people living in the London Borough of Redbridge, where I grew up, were born somewhere other than the UK (compared to 36.7% in London as a whole and just 13.8% of the UK’s total population) with the largest numbers coming from India and Pakistan. 36.9%. That’s 103,073 people in my Local Authority area who have migrated to the UK. Obviously not all of these migrants will stay, but some will. Some will settle and have families here. Some will even choose to become British citizens[i]. So while 103,073 people in Redbridge have migrated to the UK from overseas, a much larger number will be descended from these and earlier immigrants.

The native born children of foreign born immigrants make up “the second generation” of migrants and their children subsequently become “the third generation”. The second and third generation Pakistani and Indian migrants that live in Redbridge are typically descended from those South Asian migrants who came to the UK when Commonwealth citizens had full rights to settle in the UK. This freedom of entry was restricted by the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962 and Commonwealth Immigration Act of 1968. In 2011, almost 22% of Redbridge’s population were of South Asian ethnic origin. Despite being of an ethnically South Asian background many are also British born and have actually never migrated; and yet they continue to be described as “second (even third) generation migrants[ii].

These faux-migrants were the kids I went to school with, the girls in my Brownie unit, in my swimming lessons. At school we had ‘Asian assemblies’ and an ‘Asian play’ in the summer where the girls from (mainly) Indian backgrounds would write a theatrical script based on a comedic British-Asian family. ‘Asian play’ always featured the stereotypical characters of the patriarchal father and non-English speaking grandmother and was littered with Bangra music, dancing, dhol drumming and over the top Indian accents. The storyline tended to centre on a young British-Asian couple struggling to be together against family pressures and rules. It was always the same story, always hilarious, and offered the perspectives of the second and third generation Asian girls I went to school with.

Growing up with these individuals whose parent(s) and grandparent(s) had migrated to the UK before they were born, I have always had trouble with the term “second (or third) generation migrant”. In fact I would go so far as to say that it is my least favourite migration term. It is shamelessly unspecific and has the potential to produce a range of negative side-effects.

“Second generation” is broadly used to describe anyone whose parents were born overseas but does not specify whether one or both parents are migrants. If an individual has one British-born parent and one from Germany, for example, are they a ‘second generation migrant’ or a ‘native’-Brit[iii]? Can they be both? Or, perhaps it depends on whether their migrant father came from Germany or Somalia, Australia or Iraq. What about someone whose father is a third generation migrant but whose mother is of the first generation? Are they ‘fourth generation’, ‘second generation’ or should we just divide the two and say that they are a third generation migrant?

When it comes to people we know it is often much harder to imagine them as ‘different’ and social proximity overcomes a multitude of differences. We may speak different languages and eat different food at home, you may pray in a Synagogue or a church – or not at all, but for all the differences between people there will always be more similarities. The majority of my friends from home have parents and grandparents who were born outside of the UK – but are they migrants? Did I, or have I ever, thought of them as migrants? No. They were my friends and more to the point they hadn’t migrated. That is the most frustrating thing about the “second generation”.

Okay, they may have migrated at some point: gone to study in another country or lived oversees on a gap year, but generally speaking the second generation have mot migrated. They are simply labelled as such by a phrase which connects them forever to an ancestral migration and risks limiting their ability to create their own identities. It has often been said that the second generation are trapped in some sort of limbo, not really here or there, in a ‘third space’ between their ancestral ‘homeland’ and their present society. There has been much speculation by academics about the identities of the second generation, particularly with regards to the identity crisis they are apparently doomed to endure. By labelling the ‘second generation’ as a migrant generation they are cast as eternally different, forever non-British and not really one of us.

Of course there is always another side to every story and being the descendant of past migrants is for many likely to be a source of great pride and esteem and may be crucial to their own understanding of ‘self’. Perhaps it is only? to the outside observer their cultural backgrounds may seem to merge perfectly with their everyday lives in Britain.

I am not a second or even third generation ‘migrant’ so I cannot hope to understand the complexities of such a person’s identification – that is a task for another Migrationist. My concern is that society be open to second/third generation individuals (not migrants) who do not want or feel the need to be labelled as migrants and offers them the same opportunities to assert their own identities as other non-migrants. The second generation should be able to assert a migrant ancestry if they choose to, but must not have such labels put upon them. To label someone a migrant when they are not, simply because of who their parents/grandparents are, is exclusionary and too often based on perceptions of ethnic otherness. Who do you think is more likely to be labelled a migrant in Britain, a second generation (White) New Zealander or a second generation Bangladeshi?

The fact is that most of us, if we look back in time, are descended from someone who was not born in the British Isles even if we think of ourselves as ‘native’. So, while I may be “just English” in fact I’m not. The complexities of a world in movement means that even those of us who feel as though we are firmly rooted in a particular place, tediously connected to a city, a nation, a region are, most likely, also migrants. A few generations ago some of my ancestors were living in France. Does that make me feel more interesting? Less ‘native’? Not particularly.

As well as being “a bit French” I am also descended from a rather vicious Scottish clan, an East End pub land lady with a string of dead husbands, a class-climbing railway worker-cum-International Development Professor and probably a whole host of other ‘interesting’ characters. So do I wish my parents were migrants? Again not particularly, but I do wish that those people whose parents have migrated to the UK could be fully recognised as belonging here without the subtext of difference being imposed upon them by academics and researchers. I’m not suggesting we refuse to study the second generation but let’s at least do them the courtesy of dropping the word ‘migrant’.

Further reading

Levitt, P. and Waters, M. (2006) The Changing Face of Home: The Transnational Lives of the Second Generation. Russell Sage Foundation

Portes, A. and Rumbaut, R. (2001) Legacies: The story of the immigrant second generation. University of California Press

Portes, A. and Rumbaut, R. (2001) Legacies: The story of the immigrant second generation. University of California Press

Reynolds, T. (2006) Caribbean families, social capital and young people’s diasporic identities, in Ethnic and Racial Studies 29(6)

Rogaly, B. and Taylor, B. (March 2011) The ‘white working class’ and ‘migrants’: moving beyond myth busting via Migrants Rights Network.

Thomassen, B. (2010) ‘Second Generation Immigrants’ or ‘Italians with Immigrant Parents’? Italian and European Perspectives on Immigrants and their Children; in Bulletin of Italian Politics 2(1)

Vasagar, J. (23rd May 2001) Stuck in the middle in The Guardian

[i] Many will also be forced to leave by the UK’s border regulations and restrictions.

[ii] There any many recent examples of this in the media, for example in The Huffington Post (19/2/2013), The Financial Times (7/2/2013), Wall Street Journal (20/2/2013) and The Washington Times (30/1/2013). However, the second generation are also at times referred to as migrants in academic texts for example, Dustmann, Frattini and Theodoropoulos’ 2010 paper Ethnicity and Second Generation Immigrants in Britain, Dronkers and Fleischmann’s 2010 article and Algan, Dustmann, Glitz and Manning’s 2010 contribution in the London School of Economics’ Centrepiece. These are just a few examples as there are far too many to list.

[iii] Another problematic term


  1. […] As I’ve noted previously, even British-born ethnic minorities are frequently reduced to a migrant background, labelled […]


  2. […] in contrast to ‘the Good Citizen’. The figure of ‘the migrant’ incorporates migrants (and non-migrants) across a range of identities and positionings, often signifying deviance from the ‘norm’, […]


  3. […] cases, facilitated the inclusion of non-migrant Britons to be written into migration discourses as second, and even third generation ‘migrants’. Moreover, as I have argued elsewhere following Bridget Anderson’s work on the constructed figure […]


  4. […] that I couldn’t quite understand so many years ago. Basically there are many studies showing that most of Londoners are second-generation immigrants. Also this phenomenon occurs in other major cities in the U.K. because of colonization’s […]


  5. In this increasingly globalised world the second gen classification becomes less important . Second gen will become third gen it just a matter of time. We need to think less about where someone is from and instead what they can offer or we will be left behind. I read “What About George?” and it all became clear .


  6. Mike Hunt · · Reply

    I found your article riveting. Thank you, you have cleared up the difference between different generation immigrants. In this increasingly globalised world the second gen classification becomes less important. Second gen will become third gen it just a matter of time. We need to think less about where someone is from and instead what they can offer or we will be left behind. I read “What About George?” and it all became clear.


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