Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
In the UK the term South Asian usually refers to people from the Indian subcontinent. In the UK, South Asian minority groups include Indians 1.45 million (2.3 per cent), Pakistanis 1.17 million (1.9 per cent), Bangladeshis 451,500 (0.7 per cent) and other Asians. who include Sri Lankans, as well as third-generation Asians, Asians of mixed parentage, people from Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldive Islands and some from the Middle East.
The main religions are Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism. The Indian community is Hindu, Sikh and Muslim. The Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities are each predominantly Muslim. There are also Jains and Buddhists.
Most of the community comes from three areas of the subcontinent: the Punjab (Pakistan and India), Gujarat (India) and north-east Bengal (Bangladesh). Some Gujaratis and Punjabis came to Britain from East Africa, especially Kenya and Uganda. The main languages are Punjabi, Gujarati, Bengali (or Bangla), Hindi, Urdu and English.
The majority of South Asians live in the major cities and large towns throughout the UK. There are significant differences between and within the various South Asian communities, including between first and subsequent generations.
South Asian servants, seamen employed by the East India Company, and theatrical performers lived in Great Britain from the seventeenth century onwards. The 1660 Navigation Act restricted the number of non-English sailors employed by the East India Company to one-quarter of their crews in order to limit the number of Asians left stranded in London. Some South Asian immigrants settled in Britain and set up businesses to cater to the seamen and other members of the community. From the mid-nineteenth century lawyers, doctors and businessmen established themselves in Britain.
Pakistani and Indian men were recruited mainly from the Punjab in the 1950s and 1960s to resolve manual labour shortages in the post-Second World War reconstruction of Britain. They worked on the railways, on Heathrow Airport, in the Midlands iron foundries, in Sheffield and Scunthorpe steelworks, in a rubber factory in Southall (London), and in textiles factories in Lancashire and Yorkshire. Asian doctors were also recruited for the new National Health Service.
Many of the immigrants were from rural areas and had lost their homes and jobs when India and Pakistan were partitioned in 1947. Most early South Asian migrants knew little or no English. Their social life centred around temples, mosques and cultural associations. Some married British women, but most sent money home to their extended families and, from the 1960s, the families began to join them in Britain. The public broadcasting company BBC launched English-language programmes in Hindi and Urdu on radio and TV in 1965 aimed at teaching English to the families. Family reunification increased in the 1970s and 1980s. Many South Asian businesses in retail, other services and manufacturing were set up with family members as the main workforce.
From 1968 and 1972 Punjabi and Gujarati business owners were thrown out of Kenya and Uganda respectively, and many came to Britain where they set up retail businesses.
The decline in British manufacturing in the 1970s and 1980s badly affected the South Asian community, but they adapted to the service sector, using their redundancy money and raising funds from family to set up businesses. The number of restaurants and Asian-owned corner shops increased rapidly. By 1991 about one-quarter of the community was self-employed.
The events of 11 September 2001 in the US have affected the South Asian community, who account for most of the Muslims in Britain. Racist incidents against South Asians and those who appeared to be Muslim increased, as did police surveillance of the community.
Distrust of the Muslim community by mainstream British society increased with the launching of the ‘War on Terror’, along with the 7 July 2005 public transport bombings in London. Racist incidents against the Muslim community, including violent attacks, rose. Muslim South Asian women who wore the veil were particularly targeted. General election votes for the anti-immigrant, far-right British National Party increased four-fold from 2001 to 2005. Police action against Muslims also increased, with disastrous consequences in some cases. For example, the wrong people were arrested for plotting terrorist acts, and a Brazilian was shot dead by mistake. High-profile police action, intended to reassure mainstream Britain, in some cases has alienated segments of the Muslim community, whose help the police need if violent incidents are to be prevented. Indeed, the police’s counter-terrorism and anti-extremism Prevent campaign, introduced in 2003, is particularly controversial. It is seen by many community leaders as stigmatizing and overly intrusive.
Workers of Bangladeshi heritage have the lowest median hourly earnings of any ethnic group, earning 20 per cent less than their white British counterparts in 2018. Those of Pakistani heritage fared just a little better. The negative pay differential for black, African, Caribbean and Black British workers was just under 10 per cent. At the same time, white British workers did not earn the most, with workers of Indian heritage earning over 10 per cent more in terms of hourly median pay (this was only true of people born in the UK).The challenges facing many workers of Bangladeshi and Pakistani heritage include the discrimination faced by Muslims in general. Muslims are the most disadvantaged religious minority in education, employment, housing and health. According to results published by the Social Mobility Commission in 2017, only one in five Muslims in the economically active population are in full-time employment, compared with one in three for the population as a whole in England and Wales. The reasons outlined by young Muslims, many belonging to South Asian communities, included a lack of Muslim teachers and other mentors in school, discriminatory recruitment practices, and the added discrimination faced by Muslim women wearing headscarves.
The South Asian communities make a major contribution to British life in business, medicine, science, the arts, academia, politics and sports. There are thriving British Asian film and music industries, and many British Asian writers and actors reach the highest levels.
Nevertheless, inequalities among different communities are evident: for example, while white unemployment levels were 5 per cent among Indians as of late 2017, compared to 4 per cent on average among the white population, unemployment levels are considerably higher among Bangladeshis (15 per cent) and Pakistanis (10 per cent). Similarly, while the proportion of Indian households owning their home (68 per cent) was the same as that among white households, the ratio was lower for Pakistani (64 per cent) and Bangladeshi households (39 per cent).
The South Asian communities have their own faith schools. Some state schools within South Asian areas have made provision for teaching minority religions and other topics relevant to their communities.
There is concern regarding the treatment of women within some parts of the South Asian communities, where women’s rights are not respected in relation to national laws regarding gender equality. A key issue is forced marriage. Despite being outlawed in 2014, there have been very few prosecutions. Two of the first successful cases were concluded in May 2018. A mother was found guilty of duping her 17-year daughter to travel to Pakistan to marry an older man; and a couple were found guilty of using violence and threats to take their 18-year old daughter to Bangladesh to marry a cousin. Indeed, a small number of LGBT+ persons of South Asian heritage are also seeking help from the police on account of being forced to undergo heterosexual marriages by their families.
As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, hate crimes have increased against Muslims, particularly those belonging to South Asian communities, They have borne the brunt of numerous conspiracy theories and been falsely accused of having contributed to the spread of the virus. TellMAMA, a monitoring group, recorded a 40 per cent increase in Islamophobic cyberhate during lockdown compared with the year before. According to a 2020 report published by the same organization, drawing on the experiences of Muslim South Asian communities in the northeast of England, 70 per cent of respondents experience daily or regular anti-Muslim racism, and 75 per cent feel that the situation is getting worse. Muslim women are particularly targeted.
Updated October 2020
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