Kenyan Pentecostals in London: Reflections on religion and migration

By: Leslie Fesenmyer, ESRC Future Research Leaders Fellow

praying hands on bibleKenyan Pentecostals in London typically attend two to three hour church services on Sundays. Many also participate in weekly fellowships (e.g., devoted to youth, women, or men) and prayer groups and engage in regular bible study. Their lives reflect a rich religiosity. Interestingly, many of them converted to Pentecostalism or re-dedicated themselves to God after migrating to the UK in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Many social theorists have postulated that, as societies undergo processes of modernization and rationalization, the religiosity of people declines, as does the centrality of religion as a source of authority. In light of the presumed secular nature of Britain, how might we understand migrant Kenyans’ (re)new(ed) religiosity? What is the relationship between their experiences as migrants and their religious identification and affiliation?

Religiosity prior to migration

Inevitably, migrant Kenyans express varying degrees of identification and engagement with their respective faiths prior to migrating. My interlocutors were largely raised in the mainline denominations of their parents, such as Anglicanism, Presbyterianism, Methodism, and Catholicism, which established themselves in Kenya through missionary efforts as early as the mid-1800s. While still living in Kenya, some became born again, but I know only a few who converted to Pentecostalism before migrating.

Living in London

Many Kenyan migrants moved to London while in their late teens to mid-20s. Most migrated as single people on the cusp of social adulthood, seeking opportunities that would allow them to marry and start families. Their migration marked the entanglement of social and material aspirations, irreducible to solely economic motivations. However, fulfilling their ambitions while also meeting the expectations of kin who remain in Kenya has proved challenging, especially for those who toil in low-wage jobs.

Though their imaginings of the UK spurred their migration, migrant Kenyans often found themselves the objects of other people’s imaginations. In London they experienced being a racial minority for the first time.  Being African marks them as ‘other’ in ways that has a long and complex history. And, being a migrant only grows more contentious as calls for limiting immigration increase in the UK.

Social scientific explanations of the relationship between religion and migration
Two explanations of how religion and migration articulate together prevail; one highlights the salience of the local context and the other the transnational context. Religion often plays a supportive role in migration. It can facilitate integration and offer a means of securing recognition (Foner and Alba 2008). Religion is also understood as providing a way to stay connected with those who remain in migrants’ place of origin, important both for identity construction and meaning-making (Levitt 2003).

The case of Kenyan Pentecostals challenges these theories. According to Bruce and Glendinning, less than 11% of adults in England engage in any religious activity, and less than 7% attend church on Sundays (2013: 4). One might then expect migrant Kenyans to abandon religious life as a means of integrating into British society, or at least to stay within a mainline denomination. Instead, they have not only converted to Pentecostalism, but, as I argued elsewhere (Fesenmyer 2014), they have founded numerous Pentecostal churches in London. If being religious is a strategy of immigrant incorporation, then it does not follow an assimilationist model.

At the same time, in converting to Pentecostalism, migrant Kenyans have chosen a religion different from that of their parents, most of whom remain members of mainline denominations. Thus, their religiosity cannot readily be understood as a means of staying connected to their place of origin and those who remain there.

Being Pentecostal: Incorporation through distinction

Kenyan Pentecostals assert a distinct identity and way of being in the world. While my understanding of why many converted or re-dedicated themselves continues to evolve, what has emerged thus far is the importance of being Pentecostal for navigating and engaging in both local and transnational contexts simultaneously.

Identifying as Christians first and foremost affords migrant Kenyans a social identification that is culturally intelligible in their daily lives in London and in their relations with those in Kenya. At the same time, it allows them to distinguish themselves from those in both localities. Migrants’ conversion to Pentecostalism can be understood as an expression of choice and assertion of autonomy vis-à-vis their parents. Many have young families, and Pentecostal ideals help them manage transnational familial expectations of (financial) support. More specifically, Pentecostalism emphasizes the prioritization of the Christian nuclear family over the extended, multi-generational family (Fesenmyer, forthcoming).

street-sign-church-pub2By proclaiming themselves to be Christians in a largely secular country like the UK, they assert an alternative identity with a strong moral orientation, even a sense of moral superiority. For example, Kenyan Pentecostals decry what they see as the excessive drinking of British pub culture, along with the sexual promiscuity and infidelity to which it is thought to lead. In doing so, they champion their own commitment to and valuing of family, fidelity, and God.

To be Christian is to be modern

In contrast to the view that religion and modernity are antithetical to one another, Kenyan Pentecostals believe that to be Christian is to be modern. If migrant incorporation entails ongoing, dynamic, and power-laden social processes, then migrants’ presence and participation inevitably contribute to changing the society of which they are a part. What kind of community are Kenyan Pentecostals creating in London? If they are modern, who is not modern in their view (cf. Knibbe 2011)?  What vision(s) do they hold for the wider society in which they are living, working, and raising their families?  These are some of the questions I am considering as part of a larger project, Kenyan Pentecostals between home, London, and the Kingdom of God.


  • Bruce, Steve and Tony Glendinning (2013) ‘The extent of religious activity in England’, Future First 29: 1,4.
  • Fesenmyer, Leslie (forthcoming) ‘”Assistance but not support”: Pentecostalism and the reconfiguring of the moral economies of relatednesss between Kenya and the United Kingdom’, in Jennifer Cole and Christian Groes-Green (eds.) African Journeys: Vernacular Meanings of Migration to Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Fesenmyer, Leslie. (2014) ‘Reverse missionizing: Migration, Christianity, and civic engagement in London’, COMPAS blog, 17 June.
  • Foner, Nancy and Richard Alba (2008) ‘Immigrant religion in the US and Western Europe: Bridge or barrier to inclusion?’, International Migration Review 42 (2): 360-392.
  • Knibbe, Kim (2011) ‘Nigerian Missionaries in Europe: History repeating itself or a meeting of modernities?’, Journal of Religion in Europe 4(3): 471-487.
  • Levitt, Peggy (2003) ‘”You know, Abraham was really the first immigrant”: Religion and transnational migration’, International Migration Review 37 (3): 847-873.
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Barriers to EU citizenship: insiders and outsiders in the context of the UK

By: Sarah Walker, Research Assistant

paper peopleCentral to the emergence of European citizenship has been the reconstruction of the boundaries of citizenship and its relationship to nation states, welfare states and labour markets. This has involved changing relations at the interstate level with regard to the legal construction of EU citizens and non-EU citizens, and the associated rights of citizenship. Indeed, the establishment of EU citizenship in 1992 entailed the establishment of the ‘Third Country National’ (TCN). As citizens of EU member states became EU insiders so citizens of non-EU states were turned into EU outsiders. The EU Commission set out a call for an exploration of barriers to EU citizenship to seek to further understand notions of citizenship within the ever-widening Eurozone. This research project forms Work Package 10 of the FP7 programme bEUcitizen which seeks to answer that call. By exploring the notions of insiders and outsiders in the context of barriers to EU citizenship and the limitations of citizenship in according social rights, we aim to highlight how ‘citizenship’ is both a legal and a normative status, that is, how formal in/exclusion is related to ideas of deservingness and ‘Good Citizenship’.

In the case of EU citizenship, citizenship is related to mobility and movement (essentially for the purposes of work) rather than stasis and belonging. Increasingly, national and European policies are converging around the marketisation of citizenship. How the dynamics of the market and the nation intersect to construct hierarchies of in/exclusion, deserving and underserving, belonging and non-belonging requires attention to the connections as much as divisions between groups of citizens and non-citizens. In the EU free movement rights are accorded only to those who are productive: the ‘citizen-worker’.

welfare-workIn the context of the UK, national immigration policies serve to intersect with welfare regimes to restrict access of EU nationals to welfare, on the premise of preventing so-called ‘benefit tourism’; this despite recent research revealing this to be a virtually non-existent problem. EU citizens who are not engaged in the labour market and who are a ‘burden’ on the host state, lose their right of residence and may be subject to removal orders. Thus restricting access to welfare functions also as a form of mobility control. As such, clear parallels can be seen from historical perspective if one looks at the case of the beggar. Beggars who moved to another city were often seen as a ‘burden’, workshy and idle and could be removed to their parish of birth. Indeed, the same laws and principles adopted nearly 200 years ago are still enforced today. Under the Vagrancy Act 1824 (sections 3 and 4), begging is illegal in England and is an arrestable – although not imprisonable – offence: the maximum penalty upon conviction is a fine. Begging has been a ‘recordable’ offence since 2003 in England.

On the road to nowhereThe Vagrancy Acts were concerned with getting the idle to work and with preserving the social order of the time and controlling the mobility of the poor. Divisions emerged between true and false beggars and the ‘genuine’ poor (Geremek, 1997). Discourses around mobility, labour market status and deservingness of migrants, particularly EU migrants, today parallel those used in the past in relation to beggars. Indeed, we can consider the vagrant to be one of the ancestors of both contemporary ‘Failed Citizens’ and ‘Migrants’ (Anderson, 2013). Controlling the mobility of the poor, encouraging or enforcing work is still embodied in many of today’s welfare policies. Increasing sanctions, difficulties in accessing welfare, particularly following the introduction in the UK of the habitual residence test, mean that many migrants who may be eligible for benefits are faced with such barriers that they fail to access their entitlements. In what has been described as a shift from a welfare to a ‘workfare’ state (Peck 2001), access to social security has become increasingly conditional on undertaking employment-related activities. Increasingly, punitive measures are implemented towards citizens who do not comply with work-related conditions while claiming benefits. There is some emerging evidence (e.g. Trussell Trust Foodbank data) that in the UK, poverty is increasing as a result of such sanctions. Conversely, there is some evidence that residence requirements have led to the dis-entitlement of national citizens to welfare benefits in some cases. Although changes to the HRT were initiated to prevent so-called EU ‘benefit tourism’, advice agencies have so far reported these restrictions have been affecting more British than EU citizens.

What is work?

Additionally, in spite of, or perhaps because of the interactions of national and EU legislation and case law reinforcing the model of the worker citizen, what counts as work is somewhat vague. There is no autonomous definition of worker in EU law, rather its interpretation rests on EU case law and the definition has developed in a somewhat ad hoc and ill-defined manner. To attain worker status, work has to be deemed to be ‘genuine and effective’ and not on such a small scale as to be ‘marginal and ancillary’.

Given the importance of worker status for exercising treaty rights, some member states – most notably the UK – have tightened up considerably on the definition of ‘worker’ in an effort limit EU nationals’ access to welfare benefits. In the UK, EU nationals have been found not eligible for social assistance on the basis that they do not have a ‘right to reside’ but also because they were not previously ‘workers’. Among other grounds, a new Minimum Earnings Threshold of £150 a week (equivalent to working 24 hours a week at National Minimum Wage) has been introduced, as a measure of whether work is ‘genuine and effective’. Whilst it is too early to say what impact this will have, it could reasonably be anticipated that EU nationals in particularly precarious, low waged work are likely to find that, for the purposes of claiming welfare benefits, this does not count as ‘work’ at all.

As such, efficiency, individual self-reliance and market rationality have become the new touchstones of national identity and purpose and thus more individualistic and less republican or communitarian notions of citizenship are now evident throughout Europe, and particularly in the UK. Constructions of insiders and outsiders are constantly shifting, and the boundaries overlapping, but hierarchies of in/exclusion reveal the linkages between citizenship and the labour market that have been present across time and place. COMPAS is currently developing a comparative project on begging in the EU, so watch this space!

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The Light of Evidence 3: Continuing the policy debate

By: Ben Gidley, Associate Professor and Senior Researcher

COMPAS’s original brief was to conduct research that provided new evidence, challenged assumptions, developed theory, and informed policy and public debate in the migration field: this remains true today. Our work has explored changing migration processes and outcomes. But informing migration policy has been an equal crucial part of our mission.

We have argued that academics play a key role in public life in addressing the gaps in the evidence base, interrogating underlying assumptions, and investigating the development of migration policy itself. In particular, we have worked to bring our own research, and that of the wider community of migration scholars, to bear on political and policy debate in the UK, with the hope of shaping a more fact-based – and less emotionally and ideologically driven – conversation about the phenomenon that is so central to our changing world.

In this spirit, for the last four years, COMPAS has organised monthly Breakfast Briefings in Westminster, to bring the latest research evidence on a range of migration-related issues to a policy-making audience.

These Briefings were funded from COMPAS’s core grant from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Now that our ESRC core funding period has ended, we remain committed to productively contributing to policy debates in the UK and beyond, and we are very pleased to have won funding from Oxford University for a range of Knowledge Exchange activities which we will launch after the summer, including a continuation of our Breakfast Briefing series. We are grateful too to the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), an independent thinktank in Westminster which hosts the Briefings, making them accessible to policy-makers.

I summarised the 2011/12 series here and the 2012/13 here. In this post, I will describe some of the highlights of the 2013/14 series.

Local impacts of migration

The series began with a briefing by Jon Simmons, the head of the Migration and Border Analysis for Home Office Science, focusing on the local-level social and public service impacts of international migration, based on an important recent report from Home Office Science (which I blogged about here).

Earth “Global Village”Using a large suite of variables, the report allocated the local authorities of England and Wales to twelve clusters, ranging from “superdiverse London” through “Rural and Coastal Retirement Areas” to “Low Migration Small Towns and Rural Areas”, each with different types of migrant populations. Then the experiences of local authorities were analysed to start the processes of unpacking the huge variations in the social and service delivery implications of different types of migrant populations.

Jon’s briefing zoomed in on “Diverse conurbation centres”, such as Birmingham and Bradford, where long-settled BME populations have been augmented by on-going migration from the global South; “Migrant worker towns and countryside”, places such as Boston, Breckland and Thanet, with very few African and Asian migrants but large numbers of EU accession migrant workers arriving among an ageing, stable and relatively ethnically homogenous population; “Prosperous small towns”, such as St Alban’s or the towns of the Cotswolds, economically vibrant areas to which long-settled migrants are moving; and “Industrial and manufacturing towns”, such as Hartlepool or Merthyr Tydfil, deprived areas with among the fewest international migrants and most stable populations in the country.

The variation between such places – the very different ways in which migration patterns are re-shaping each of them – shows why our migration debate needs to go beyond the simplistic and frequently alarmist facts and pseudo-facts so often thrown around. But it also points to key gaps in the evidence base on migration at the local level. Understanding how place matters in migration and its impacts – capturing Britain’s new cartography of diversity – has become a research priority for COMPAS.

The price of rights

Our second briefing moved from the local to the global. COMPAS’s Martin Ruhs presented material related to his new book, The Price of Rights. He asked how we might balance openness and rights in labour immigration policy. Drawing on evidence from 43 countries, he showed that the openness of labour migration correlates with the skills of the migrants targeted and that more skilled migrants are granted more skills.

The empirical trade-off between open borders and migrant rights raises normative policy questions, and is a challenge to a pro-migration lobby which has assumed that both openness and rights are a good thing. Martin’s contribution to this debate exemplifies one of the key elements of the COMPAS approach. As we wrote in the report of that name, published for our tenth anniversary earlier this year, COMPAS’ work has revealed the trade-offs that characterise migration decision-making at every level. Trade-offs shape policy and yet their hidden nature means they are often not debated. Without transparency on the costs and benefits of such decisions, we cannot have an evidence-based migration debate.

Work and irregularity

The next briefing, by Alice Bloch, Professor of Sociology at Manchester, stayed with the topic of the labour market and migrant rights, but zooming in to the micro level, presenting the findings of qualitative research with irregular migrants in the UK. Rather than presenting irregular migrants as either outlaws undermining British workers or exploited victims of the immigration system, Alice showed that irregular migrants use mobility and a range of other strategies to exercise some agency in the face of both constraints and opportunities. The experience of irregular migrants is extremely heterogeneous, defying generalisation.

The project looked at Bangladeshi, Turkish and Chinese migrants working beneath the radar in the UK, mainly in the food sector, living in a state of precarity in which insubordination at work or the choice of walking to work and catching the bus might be a step to deportation. But Alice also explored the choices such migrants can make, such as choosing to stay in a job or leave, or to move within a city or to another city.

Alice concluded that more punitive policy will stop neither the flow of migration nor the employment of workers without the correct documentation, but will further entrench marginalized workers in the most precarious and unregulated parts of the economy.

Migration in Scotland

Allan Findlay and David McCollum, of the University of St. Andrews, and Jakub Bijak, of the University of Southampton, provided a very different take on migration and policy. Like Alice’s project, their work is funded by the ESRC, this time as part of its The Future of the UK and Scotland programme, which has also supported some of the work of the Migration Observatory.

Scotland-welcome signIn September, of course, Scotland will hold an historic referendum on its constitutional future. Migration is an important aspect of the debates surrounding this ballot: the current UK government has emphasised its desire to restrict immigration to Britain, whilst the Scottish Government has viewed net immigration as a valuable contributor to the economic and demographic growth of Scotland. Allan and colleagues explored these contrasting positions using secondary datasets and interviews with employers, students and local authorities, addressing the challenges and opportunities that Scotland faces in devising an immigration policy attuned to its particular needs, whatever the outcome of the referendum.

Scotland became a net migration nation only in the current century, its population growth rate only catching up with the rest of Europe’s as a result of that shift. But while the proportion of foreign-born nationals in England is among the highest in EU (just behind Spain), the proportion in Scotland remains one of the lowest (just ahead of Lithuania). Students constitute a massive part of that proportion, even more than in England, and very new migrants are very heavily represented.

However, looked at from a different scale, in comparison with the regions of the UK, Scotland appears less exceptional: the migrant percentage is lower than most English regions (although higher than in the North East, but only slightly, with London’s extremely high migrant population skewing England’s demographic profile considerably: at this scale it is London that stands out rather than Scotland. Forecasting the future of migration in Scotland is hard. Using Bayesian analysis, the research project predicts that independence will most dramatically change the picture, but with experts divided on whether the impact will be positive or negative.

The final part of the briefing focused on the exceptional nature of migration attitudes in Scotland. Employers in Scotland value immigration and are critical of the UK’s restrictive and London-centric policies. The general public is much less hostile than in England (apart from in inner London), with strong support for Scotland controlling its own borders and referendum Yes voters being far more pro-migration than No voters.

Challenging far right extremism

The next briefing shifted scale to look at local policy, but in a larger comparative perspective. Vidhya Ramalingam, a Research and Policy Manager at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, presented the findings of a two-year research project, funded by the European Commission, to assess policy and practitioner approaches to far-right extremism across 10 EU countries (UK, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Poland, Hungary, Slovak Republic), and enhance European cooperation and sharing of good practice.

The briefing focused on a series of policy recommendations, based on the evidence of what works across Europe. Among these were the following. Interventions should be underpinned by clear and consistent legal frameworks. Public agencies need to work with communities to deliver effective responses. There must be serious long-term investments in preventive measures, also focusing on deterrence, offering alternatives. There is a key role for improved and streamlined data gathering, both within countries and across the EU. Governments and NGOs should work together to enhance public understanding of the threat, underpinned by clear political messages. And finally there’s a need for major capacity building initiatives to enhance the ability of frontline workers to spot and respond to the signs of radicalisation.

This briefing was followed by a roundtable involving local practitioners from Luton, who powerfully described their steep journey in response to the emergence of both jihadist and far right mobilisation in the city.


Our April briefing was also focused on effective intervention. It explored both the scale of and potential response to migrant destitution and was provided by MigrationWork’s Sue Lukes, and the Chartered Institute of Housing’s John Perry, both former members of the Housing and Migration Network, who have built the housing rights website

Pauper sleeping on a cardboardThe briefing provided evidence on the growing scale of migrant destitution in the UK, and especially in the capital, the weaknesses in the methodologies we have for counting, and the changes in welfare provision and immigration that law that shape these trends. Sue described both rough sleeping and marginal forms of accommodation (including “beds in sheds”). The second part of the briefing shifted to policy responses, the huge challenges posed to the advice sector, and some potential good practice. A case study of the Hope project in Birmingham gave a sense of what can be done at a local level, despite constraints.

NGOs and voluntary returns

In the May briefing, Derek McGhee and Claire Bennett, based at our partner research institute the Centre for Population Change at the University of Southampton, presented on the findings of the ESRC project Tried and Trusted?, which asks What is the role of NGOs in AVR, the assisted voluntary returns of asylum seekers and irregular migrants?

Under the government’s AVR programme, returnees are not subjected to outward mechanisms of enforcement (handcuffs, guards, etc.) but rather ‘choose’ to return and are granted a support package to reintegrate. NGOs are becoming heavily involved in these programmes, and in the UK the entire programme is implemented by a refugee charity. This generates ethical dilemmas for the sector, which the project explored through qualitative interviews.

Mainstreaming migrant integration

The final briefing of the year focused on integration, and provided a comparative picture drawn from research across Europe. Elizabeth Collett and Milica Petrovic, of Migration Policy Institute Europe,

The research was done as part of an MPI Europe project for the Dutch government to explore different models of mainstreaming migrant integration in Western European countries, in the context of sharp cuts to integration budgets Europe-wide.

Block ShapesIntegration policy, Liz and Milica argued, is at a crossroads. Changing demographics (superdiversity), austerity and budget cuts, a sense of failed failed integration measures, and the rejection of stigmatisation and prioritisation by some minorities have all driven a turn from targeted integration policies towards “generic” mainstream measures, whether in discourse, in governance or in actual concrete policies. This offers opportunities – the leverage of whole-of-government approaches, addressing needs, not background, using funds effectively – but also challenges – confusion about ownership, vulnerable groups falling through the cracks. Since the briefing, the UK report of the project has been published, written by Sundas Ali and me.

As Liz and Milica noted, questions remain: When are mainstream policies insufficient to address specific needs? When is a targeted approach needed? How to ensure really shared responsibility? How to identify and address needs effectively? How to evaluate what works? Partly building on this work, Erasmus University Rotterdam developed the UpStream project, in which COMPAS is a partner, exploring the politics and practice of mainstreaming in more depth, attempting to address these gaps in evidence.

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Hard Evidence: are migrants good for the economy?

By: Carlos Vargas Silva, Senior Researcher, Migration Observatory
(This blog was first published by The Conversation on 19 August 2014)

Two studies about the impact of migration on the UK economy have been published which – if media reports are to believed – appear to contradict one another. A closer reading of these reports, however, shows that in fact they come to very similar economic conclusions. Even so, from reading them it is possible to suggest very different approaches to migration policy.

One study by Professor Robert Rowthorn led to headlines such as: “Further proof of damage created by immigration” and: “How mass migration hurts us all”.

The second study is a paper published by Lisenkova and others in the latest issue of the National Institute Economic Review which led to headlines such as: “Reducing immigration would slow UK economy and lead to tax rises” and: “Cameron’s migration cap would leave Brits poorer and taxes higher

So clearly the two reports have created space for some news outlets to pick their own truth. But what should we make of these different studies – and what do they contribute to our understanding of the impacts of migration on the economy?

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Sticking plaster solutions? City-level responses to destitute migrant families

By: Jonathan Price, Research Officer

Laws and policies framing the entitlements of migrants to welfare benefits lie at the intersection of two of Europe’s most contentious contemporary public debates: immigration and welfare. These often tense and emotive debates are the subject of a forthcoming study soon to be published by COMPAS, and funded by the Open Society Foundations. Focusing on two European cities – Berlin and Madrid – we examine how laws and policies in these two cities frame entitlements and exclusions to welfare benefits for migrant children and their families; how these families access or are unable to access services to which by law they are entitled; the implications when they are not entitled or able to access those services, and the ways in which the state and NGOs have responded to any problems these exclusions create.

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