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Refugees Welcome Here?

Posted on 26/10/2015
By Commonwealth Foundation
Ice cream Image & Design Ian Halsey MMXI
Image and Design by Ian Hasley MMXI (cc) licensed under CC by 2.0

What happened overnight that got Britons marching in tens of thousands in support of Syrian refugees from a humanitarian crisis not new in the making? ‘Refugees are welcome here’, one of the strongest protest slogans in London last month has temporarily shifted Britain’s entrenched anti-immigration stance, something inconceivable in the run-up to the General Election in May this year. Organisers for last month’s march – similar events took place in other European capitals – urged European leaders to provide safety nets so that thousands of refugees will not die while trying to reach countries in the European Union.

It was an extremely distressing and heartbreaking image of a young, dead Kurdish child on the shores of Bodrum in Turkey – undistinguishable from a white British child – that in some measure changed the immigration narrative overnight. Reaction from individuals, politicians, human rights advocates, charities and local councils revealed the mood in Britain was changing to acknowledge a humanitarian crisis and accepting that compassion and support meant exercising one’s moral responsibility. Ordinary people started initiatives collecting clothes, food and even opening their homes to those in need of shelter. Politicians talking about the largest mass migration since the Second World War noted that a Europe-wide consensus to deal with the crisis was necessary in the long-term. Local councils called on the government for more resources, anticipating a larger number of Syrian migrants requiring housing. Head teachers of schools said they were open to accepting students, even if they were unable to communicate in English, as they had taught other non-English speaking children in the past. The Scottish government was quick to respond, pledging £1 million as an initial fund for Syrian refugees. Despite reported efforts, the overall response in Britain has been divided and slower to form because of fixed anti-migration attitudes. The question is whether people in Britain are likely to stay through the long course.

How is Britain going to get it right this time, keeping its longer-term political interests and security intact? As ever, there are lessons to be learnt from past migrations that could be applied when dealing with the new wave of forced immigration that Europe faces for the next generation at least. Every new migration has its set of challenges, but the dynamics and difficulties of offering sanctuary and financial assistance to the most vulnerable, giving them space and the means to integrate are also constant and timeless. Britain is perhaps more able to understand newer immigrant communities today than five decades ago because lessons from the past have illustrated the value that ethnic communities lend. Successful past migrations are reminders that integrating multiethnic communities helps build diversity, economic success and global world views. On the other hand, the history of migration in Britain has also witnessed certain communities remaining fearfully insular and rejecting British values in a bid to retain their parent cultures. The immigrant story for Britain changed in certain ways at the same time that the contemporary Muslim world order also went through radical transformation during the 9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Anti-Americanism was at its height in the Muslim world and Pakistan and Afghanistan had become incubators of jihad where many young, disillusioned British, American and Europeans went to train and fight. Questions around cultural and religious identity had emerged even earlier among second generation Muslim youth in Britain travelling to assist during the Bosnian war of the 1990s. Rediscovering faith for many in Britain meant an introduction by radical preachers to Salafism, which is stricter (and more militant) Wahhabi Islam as a way to identify a larger cultural and ethnic identity with roots in the Middle-East.

I live in Pakistan, but I wasn’t the least bit surprised when friends, my journalist colleagues and family encouraged me to jump ship and take a year to study at Oxford this past year. Because Pakistan has changed drastically in the last decade, both politically and socially, with extremism and economic instability taking root, the space for intelligent and secular conversation has been shrinking. I have been in Britain before and observed how many Pakistanis have enjoyed economic and social opportunities here. However, I’ve also observed how cultural conservatism has taken root among some British Pakistani families – early migrants mostly – that later led to the alienation of younger migrant generations. Of course, this is not true for all families.

I must have been a three-year old when Sultan Khan first drove us around London, on our visit to Aunty Pervez, my maternal great-aunt who had migrated to Britain in the 1960s from Pakistan. I recall the cooler autumn months and a red and blue tartan winter coat with a furry hood I would wear when going outdoors to build snowmen in the garden with Sultan and my aunt’s maid, Lucy. I’ve always heard stories of how Sultan Khan and his family and other young Pakistani migrants known to Aunty Pervez had come to Britain. Hearing those stories in my time I was struck how easy it seemed to have been before to migrate for economic opportunities with no strict visa regulations and criteria.

Sultan Khan is among those who say that in 1960s Britain you didn’t have to be wealthy or well-connected to earn a decent living, buy a comfortable house or eventually become proud entrepreneurs. You simply needed to work hard. At seventy-five, Sultan Khan walks with a stick and suffers the usual old-age ailments but they don’t stop him from travelling from his home in Blackburn to London. He has travelled on trains across the country for most of his life, working with British Rail. These days, his train journeys take him to visit old friends. This autumn when he came to visit my great-aunt in north London, Aunty Pervez was delighted to see him. They go back a long way. She knew him first when she lived in Karachi as a young woman.  In his 20s, Sultan arrived from Pakistan and was employed as a chauffeur by my great-aunt’s husband in the early years.  He joined British Rail years afterwards.  Sultan’s wife arrived with him and his children were born and raised in Britain.

Recalling his early years, Sultan Khan tells me he was grateful for earning well in this country, grateful for the opportunity to come to Britain and pleased his daughters went to university here and got married. But he also refers to ‘home’ as the Punjab where he visits twice a year since he retired. Next month he will travel to Islamabad for a family wedding. Life in Britain has been good to him, he says, and now it’s time to relax. In the 1950s and 60s, most Pakistani immigrant families had minimum education when they came mostly from the agricultural belt of Mirpur in Punjab. When the Pakistan government decided to build a hydroelectric earth dam in Mangla which would submerge 250 villages in Mirpur – displacing 100,000 people – many migrated to Britain. Many families, like Sultan’s came from as far as Kashmir. The early migrants from peasant families hoped to earn and send back money for sisters’ dowries, building new houses, buying more land and providing for elderly parents.

My great-aunt also immigrated to London in the 1960s; in my lifetime she has always been here. Hers was a more privileged migration; her elder sister (my grandmother) was a professional tennis player and her youngest sister had been to school in Hastings. Their father was an avid traveler who had been part of the first Indian cricket team to play at Lord’s in London in the 1920s. Aunty Pervez had lived in Pakistan before the martial law regime of the Islamist General Zia-ul-Haq (1978-88) and tells me she enjoyed going dancing through the fifties with her husband. There were no social restrictions then and Islamisation hadn’t hit the country. She recalls wearing patterned halter neck blouses and dancing the tango in Karachi’s night spots. This is difficult for me to imagine because the Karachi I live in today is sadly one where radical Islam has gained a strong foothold.

When I visit Aunty Pervez, she tells me stories of her past; of friends that she would visit, family ties preserved across continents and how she enjoyed going to the movies in London. There was a local cinema right around the corner from her house that has been turned into a Virgin gym. As a student I recall going with her to watch the latest James Bond and queuing for our tickets. Aunty Pervez told me she would wear her many beautiful saris in London until it became impossible with two small children and no domestic help. So, she started wearing trousers and shirts. She certainly enjoyed looking fashionable as the years went by. It also helped that she understood British culture, language, traditions and had a privileged life in a London suburb that has a majority Jewish population even today, although it is changing as immigration patterns change. Her son married a young British woman from Liverpool and had two children of his own. The nearest her children and grandchildren come to previous traditions is eating at Lahore Kebab House on Brent Street, buying mangoes and chikoos (as the fruit is known among Indians) in West Hendon and taking home cooked lamb cutlets and curries that she freezes and stores for them. At 92, she, on the other hand, has still preserved her own reminders of custom and culture but accepted Britain and all the friendships it brought her: Andrew, the Cypriot hairdresser, Mr Silas, her lovely Jewish neighbour, the Afro-Caribbean family across the road and the Indian-Parsi family next door who later migrated to Australia. Her family were grateful for the opportunity to come away to build better lives. They had little time and space to engage in anything other than working hard. Her husband did rather well when he bought and ran casinos in London’s West-End.

In certain ways, Aunty Pervez’s life and upbringing in an educated, middle-class family with aspirations, was not too different from some of the Syrian migrants fleeing war in Damascus and Aleppo. Except that her reasons to immigrate were different –and economic – unlike some families fleeing the horrors of war.

Most early Asian immigrant communities who experienced discrimination in jobs and even housing came from a less privileged backgrounds, worked hard, saved, provided for their families in Britain and back home, largely looking away from the racism that might have come their way. Through the late 1970s, many wore their faith lightly and were more secular in outlook, some drinking alcohol, others even marrying out pf their religions. Then, few Muslim women wore the hijab among. Sultan sent his daughters to university and later bought them their first homes; his friend Sadullah, another Pakistani man who came to Britain in those early years as a chauffeur, eventually ran his own grocery store in Blackburn with his son. Sadullah’s great-grandchildren are mixed race – a term coined in the 1980s. Sultan and Sadullah may have visited the mosque, worn traditional clothes and celebrated religious festivities, but religion was not the most important aspect of their lives; that was providing for their families.

As I understand it, attitudes changed when cultural differences between migrant generations emerged after the 1980s. An educated younger generation was far more socially integrated and westernized than the first, but also, in some quarters, turned out to be more religious. Reasons for this may in part be found in the broader social, political, and economic changes of the past half century, and in the rise of identity politics. Partly they lie in geostrategic developments: the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the Palestine and Israeli wars, and the Bosnian war of 1990s, all played an important role in creating a heightened sense of Muslim identity. Britain suddenly became a simmering cauldron.

Sparkhill is on the south side of Birmingham and here, in 2015, I don’t feel like I’m in Britain anymore. It feels to me as if the mainly Pakistani migrant communities here have existed in a strange time warp for over two decades. With an Asian majority population, you must walk past densely positioned traditional clothing shops, grocery stores with price tags in Punjabi, Asian jewellery and methai (sweets) shops, Balti houses and Muslim bookshops, to understand the intertwined cultural and increasingly religious undertones. Between Walford Road and Sparkhill Park, it’s Asian businesses catering to their own communities that have become successful over decades. Urban ethnic ghettos saw the earlier wave of immigrants, such as Pakistani and Afro-Caribbean communities, starting out economically marginalized. But then some did well, when they started their own businesses. Yet, many remained less cosmopolitan and cut off from broader British society in clan-based traditions.

Census figures from 2011 reveal 45 percent of minority ethnic Britons live in areas where white Britons make up less than half of the population. This is not a deliberate effort on the part of all ethnic minorities to segregate themselves, but perhaps prompted by a need to feel safer among one’s own people, to be accepted and to have the space to practice one’s culture and customs without having to appear alien to majority white Britons.  It has also developed over years because of more explicit racism and discrimination in majority white British middle-class neighbourhoods.  Clan-based segregation develops naturally when minority ethnic communities stay together to preserve social traditions and insulate behaviour, language and food. This has naturally contributed to increased alienation between diverse communities.

Younger generations absorbed into British life have for long felt disconnected to traditional, often socially conservative cultures that they were born into, but also isolated from mainstream opportunities for work and social acceptance. A Muslim Council of Britain study revealed that although the number of Muslims in Britain doubled from 1.55 million in 2001 to 2.71 million in 2011, they still have a higher rate of unemployment than the average.

Success once seemed to be measured by a family’s collection of luxury cars, semi-detached homes, bank accounts, remittances and businesses, including donations to the local mosque. This has changed in more recent times. It appears that cities like Birmingham where the British Muslim population is concentrated are also incubating a disgruntled and dangerous third generation of migrants – and debate continues as to whether this is a minority exaggerated in the media or cause for growing alarm. These young people contribute to the small pool of radicalized Muslim Britons travelling to Syria, not to return home, taking part in the violence that is driving hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees into Europe each week.

What has Britain failed to provide young people from ethnically diverse communities?  Migrant communities have been blamed by nationalist politicians for creating societal divisions and violence and –in another vicious cycle – they have, over time, reacted adversely.  Some third generation British Muslims no longer see themselves as British, having disengaged from the identity and values provided by British society. In doing so, they are drawn to the idea of becoming powerful fighters and jihadi brides, but with, I feel, no understanding of Islam. IS has successfully lured them into its fold with promises of a purely Islamic lifestyle. Stopping this dangerous growing trend is more important now than even in previous decades when foreign wars attracted over-zealous types to become hero-fighters.  Britain has a problem renewing or rewriting a sense of belonging for its existing migrant communities, endlessly struggling to fit into society, even as it considers getting things right for the newcomers.  Now is the time.

Image by Nick Booth (cc) licensed under CC by 2.0
Razeshta Sethna

Razeshta Sethna is a print and broadcast journalist in Karachi. She has reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan on the Taliban and peace negotiations, gender rights, youth and culture. Her writing has appeared in publications including Dawn, The Guardian, and The Hindustan Times. She is currently a Reuters Journalist Fellow at Oxford University working on the Pakistani media’s relationship with the state and intelligence services.