05/05/2014 12:18 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Nigerian Immigrants Struggle With British Identity

Victor Obasaju, from Carmel, Indiana, is a senior at the Indiana University School of Global and International Studies majoring in political science and international studies, with a minor in history. He plans to attend law school next year following his graduation from IU.

During one late night on Facebook, I couldn't help but be taken aback by a New York Times opinion piece that had been posted; written by Justin Smith, it was titled "Does Immigration Mean 'France is Over.'"

The article discussed the impact of France's demographic changes on its conception of national identity, in light of its ongoing national debate on immigration policy and immigrant populations. Mirroring trends in Europe, growing numbers of French citizens believe that immigrants are a cause of social and economic problems in the country.

In the United States the idea of being "American" is more about shared civic values, such as belief in democracy, and freedom of speech/expression, while European nation-states place greater importance on the cultural norms they believe make their countries unique, such as common language. This fact, and the growing sentiment that certain immigrant groups aren't assimilating into these norms, has given a greater rise to the fear of displacement by immigrants and destruction of national identity across parts of Western Europe. Combined with economic woes, these factors have led to growing nativist attitudes, which have spilled into the political realm. This has taken shape in increased calls for strengthened immigration laws and growing popularity of far-right political parties such as the National Front in France and Golden Dawn in Greece.

With this in mind, I set out to discover whether these developments affected how second-generation immigrants (i.e., native-born children of foreign parents) viewed themselves among the ethnic majorities in the countries they call home. Many immigrant groups, such as Algerians in France or Turks in Germany, have called Europe home for multiple generations. This creates a unique dilemma for the second-generation immigrants: while they are often citizens of their home European nations, forces outside their control seek to differentiate them from the society due to their "foreign origins."

The ultimate aim of my thesis was to discover whether perceived hostility by the majority affected the second generation's concept of identity, and if so, whether second-generation immigrants are more likely to assimilate with ethnic majorities or reinforce their own traditional ethnic identities.

In choosing an immigrant population to study, I decided to use my own family history as a guide. I have lived in the United States for about 20 years but was born in the United Kingdom to first-generation Nigerian immigrants who called the UK home for six years, making me one of many second-generation Nigerian immigrants to have lived there.

To better understand the extent of the current situation in the UK, I thoroughly examined recent political and societal events in Britain, relevant scholarly research, current media coverage, and interviewed a member of the second-generation Nigerian community.

The Nigerian immigrant population in the UK presents an interesting prospect of study for an array of reasons. Nigeria is a member of the British Commonwealth; thus, the Nigerian population in the UK, with its concentrated communities in cities such as London and Birmingham, is an example of colonization's influence on modern-day migratory patterns.

In addition, while much has been made of growing Islamophobia in Europe, Nigerians represent an immigrant group from a country for the most part not associated with the Islamic world. While Nigeria recently has been the subject of negative publicity in regards to rising Islamic extremist violence in its northern regions, much of the criticism from outsiders has focused on alleged corruption, specifically in the areas of internet scamming, drug smuggling, and Nigerian nationals in foreign prisons.

These factors, I argue, have created an environment where Nigerian immigrants feel an increasingly negative stigma from the ethnic British majority. This feeling is not without reason, as rising anti-immigration sentiment has put foreign groups under increased scrutiny. Like many European nations, the UK is undergoing a debate on immigration policy and multiculturalism. Politically far-right groups, such as the British National Party and the English Defence League, have received greater publicity in recent years, though they've had more success mobilizing in the streets than at the ballot boxes. This has also resulted in the adoption of tougher immigration stances by the mainstream Conservative and Labour parties in an effort to court voters who see it as a concern.

According to the British Social Attitudes Survey in 2003, majorities felt there should be stronger measures to exclude undocumented immigrants, in addition to reducing immigration overall. Interestingly, respondents had more concern for the preservation of civic values, rather than ethnic elements deemed to be British. For example, 87 percent felt that speaking English was important, with 82 percent marking respect for British laws and institutions as important, dwarfing priorities such as having British ancestry or being Christian, which polled at less than 50 percent. This could very well be a case of respondents giving politically correct answers, with fear of demographic change being higher than reported. Additionally, the UK's historical composition of English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish ethnicities traditionally at odds with one another could have resulted in emphasis on shared civic values in light of their lack of common ethnicity.

For Nigerians in the UK, the murder of Lee Rigby proved to be especially concerning, amid broader questions of what constitutes "Britishness." On May 22, 2013, Rigby, of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, was brutally murdered by two men near the Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich, London. Though the convicted murderers, Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, were British-born citizens who converted to Islam from Christianity in the UK, their Nigerian ancestry was particularly emphasized in the media. The incident energized the far right in England, with former British National Party leader Nick Griffin "calling for a protest in Woolwich and claiming the crime as the result of 'mass immigration." For many in the Nigerian community, it represented yet another case of being British when something positive is involved, and Nigerian when the issue is negative.

British Home Office actions have also concerned Nigerians in Britain and abroad. Last year, lawmakers proposed and ultimately scrapped a £3,000 (about $5,000 USD) visa bond, for visa applicants from Nigeria and 'four other nations; applicants from these countries were deemed "high risk visitors." Nigeria's designation as a "high risk" nation has been attributed to the sizable number of undocumented Nigerians believed to be in the United Kingdom, and the negative stigma associated with instances such as the Rigby murder.

Additionally in 2013, the Home Office piloted mobile vans and leaflets in six London Boroughs that displayed the message "In the UK illegally? Go Home or Face Arrest." Members of the Nigerian community, such as Mr. Bimbo Folavan, President of the Central Association of Nigerians in the UK, publicly shared his fear that "racist elements could highjack the campaign by targeting a certain group of people" and undermining community efforts to encourage fellow Nigerians to regularize their papers. While these actions would not directly affect the second generation of Nigerians in Britain, it can be seen as inflammatory, as it affects their ethnic community.

In the face of this perceived hostility, there is plenty of research that helped predict possible reactions of second-generation Nigerian immigrants to the UK situation. One particularly insightful study by researcher Jean Phinney proposes that the formation of ethnic and national identities can be understood in terms of "interaction between attitudes and characteristics of immigrants and the responses of the receiving society."

Phinney argues that if a society is accepting of pluralism, where national and ethnic identities can coexist, immigrants will likely retain their ethnic identities, but not at the expense of assimilating with the majority. If a society isn't supportive of a pluralistic society, an environment many would argue defines the UK at the moment, according to Phinney, immigrant groups such as Nigerians will either be more likely to align with the values and identity of their adopted nation -- at the expense of their ethnic identity -- or conversely, shun national identity in solidarity of the oppressed ethnicity.

To gain a sense of how perceived hostility is affecting second-generation Nigerian immigrants, I interviewed a London-based member of this demographic. The 29-year-old male, born in Manchester to Nigerian parents, particularly emphasized the dual nature of influence many Nigerian children in Britain face. While influenced by British culture daily outside the home, Nigerian, particularly Yoruba (a major ethnic group in Nigeria) dominated the household. In his family, children were instilled with the idea that they were Nigerian and would forever be Nigerian, even if born elsewhere. This sentiment is not uncommon among Nigerian families, with blood being the defining factor of identity, not country of birth.

In response to the Woolwich murder, the scrutiny of the perpetrators' Nigerian origins was particularly insulting. "They're trying to show the practices of Nigeria when [the suspects] were raised here [England]," he said.

He was quick to point out that hostility in England, from his perspective, has gotten worse, and expressed the fear that Nigerians would be scrutinized even further. Just as with immigrants of any country, the subject highlighted the balancing act in regard to British and Nigerian identity. For him, the context of social group was an important determinant of actions.

An example of this was tailoring his accent to fit in with various social groups. Growing up, his accent would be very English when he was with white friends; with non-Nigerian blacks, he took on a more neutral accent; and with Nigerian contemporaries he used a distinctly Nigerian accent. At work, with predominantly white employees he at first sought to emphasize his "British-ness," but as he got older, and more disillusioned with the UK, chose to identify with Nigeria.

Growing up, he explained, he was taught to fear the white British population; as he got older and higher up in society, he made the conscious choice to maintain his Nigerian culture. The Nigerian Diaspora has also played an important role in his life. Nigerian organizations served as a way of helping him find others who understood his culture, background and what he was going through. In addition, it helped him relate to different cultures -- something he feels the British cannot do very well.

One case study certainly does not tell the story of a community, as factors such as education, socio-economic status, religion, and individual experiences play huge roles in how second-generation immigrants see themselves among the ethnic majority. With this particular subject, however, it is apparent there is the perception of a discriminatory and non-understanding British ethnic majority.

I was particularly struck by his view that the majority of people in the UK would never accept him as British, so he might as well aim to be successful so he could better the country's Nigerian community. What is clear, though, is the UK, along with Europe, has a battle ahead of how to better integrate immigrant communities, especially in light of their higher birth rates amid an aging population.

Developments such as people embracing their ethnic origins as they grow older shouldn't be seen as rejection of national identity, but discovery of an aspect of their identities they may have shied away from when younger in order to fit in. With citizens of foreign origin a new reality, specific policies and general cultural understanding are needed to bridge the gap between immigrant and native populations. For the second generation, respect and display of ethnic and national values aren't mutually exclusive, with both being able to flourish in the proper environment. How to create this environment, is a matter that Europe will have to solve sooner rather than later.

--Victor Obasaju

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