How South Asian Migration Built Britain

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Migration has changed Britain irreversibly. UK streets do not look the same now as they did for previous generations, an observation which has been hijacked by those resistant to cultural change to enable the blaming of foreigners for ills besetting our Western liberal civilisation. Whilst there are pertinent questions to be raised around the fairness of unlimited European migration into the UK, some facts cannot be disputed. As highlighted by a Financial Times article in 2018, migrants from Eastern Europe are more likely to be in work and not claiming benefits than UK citizens, meaning that they make a net positive contribution. Immigrants are less likely to commit drug-related or violent offences. But today, factual arguments have less weight than emotional, so it is well worth an in-depth appreciation of the cultural and emotional contribution which global immigrants bring to the United Kingdom every day, especially when we consider recent scholarly indications that immigrants are more likely to suffer from poor mental health than those born in their country of residence.  

One example of how immigration has built Britain is our South Asian community. Britain has a booming South Asian population which makes up 5% of our wider society. Despite facing persistent discrimination since the first Punjabi Indians served in the British Army in 1857, South Asian immigrants have been building a better Britain for decades. One Great British tradition is the right to protest – a part of our DNA which was established in part by Gujarati women (a group who had migrated from India to East Africa and then to the UK) in August 1976, when they walked out of their place of employment, Grunwick Film Processing Laboratories, as part of an industrial dispute around pay and conditions which lasted the best part of two years. These strikes gradually developed into anti-racist and feminist marches and spread like wildfire. In the words of Chandrikaben Patel, a Grunwick striker, today’s better working conditions are, in part, ‘because of us, because of our struggle’. The first UK dispute in which the majority of strikers were ethnic minorities and female (dubbed ‘strikers in saris‘), the Grunwick Dispute was headed by a Great South Asian Briton, Jayaben Desai, who was suspended from her trade union after undertaking a controversial hunger strike outside the headquarters of the TUC in late 1977.

South Asian immigrants have also changed the face of British food. In 2018, chicken tikka masala was voted the UK’s most popular home-cooked dish, also topping the list of favourite takeaway grub and contributing more than £5 billion to the British economy. British curry has a very imperial history, as it was first served in 1733 in London after East India Company workers returning from India wanted to recreate the flavours of their colony. In 1747, Hannah Glasse published a book on South Asian cuisine with chapters including ‘To Make a Curry the Indian Way’. In 1810, the Hindoostanee Coffee House opened at 34 George Street near Portman Square, Mayfair, which was the first truly Indian restaurant in the UK. After the Second World War, ex-seamen, mostly from Sylhet in Bangladesh, bought bombed-out fish and chip shops, selling a combination of British and Asian classics. Today, there are more Indian restaurants in London than in Delhi and Mumbai combined, with hundreds of thousands of Brits enjoying the gastronomic benefits of South Asian immigration daily.

South Asian immigrants have built Britain and contributed their labour, culture, patriotism, families, religions, and languages to the Great British family. Britons should be proud that people from across the globe are willing to share their cultural expertise and livelihoods with us, because immigration, not least South Asian immigration, built Britain from the bottom up.

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English student, lifestyle writer, vehement Brexiteer.

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