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The Myth of the Immigrant

Tuesday, 24 March 2015


Immigrants are often accused of refusing to integrate, but FRF’s experience in East London proves that with a little encouragement and support, they’re willing to try,

writes Tasneem Abdur-Rashid, Project Manager, UR Britain, The FRF

I may be a third generation Bengali living in Britain, but that never used to stop me from cringing whenever I’d hear of yet another influx of immigrants leaving their home land to forge a better future for themselves in the UK. The El Dorado of the modern world, with its flush welfare system, free medical care and host of other benefits unavailable in third world countries, Britain seems to attract immigrants like magpies to a piece of silver.

Forgetting the fact that my own grandfather did the same back in the 60s, I used to feel frustrated at the way my country’s (yes, I do consider England to be my country) public services were being overburdened. Had I done a little research before I started my misinformed silent tirades however, I would have learnt that immigrants from the European Economic Area (EEA) between 2001 and 2011 contributed 34% more to our financial system than they took out, while non-EEA immigrants paid in 2% more. Overall, the net fiscal balance of overall immigration to the UK amounts to a positive contribution of roughly £25bn between 2001 and 2011.

If I, the granddaughter of an immigrant, used to harbour bitter sentiments towards my own kind, I’m not surprised that those with longstanding English ancestry may feel resentment towards the interesting shape their country has started to take. The simple fact that chicken tikka masala has overtaken fish and chips as Britain’s favourite cuisine speaks volumes about the evolution of British culture. It also highlights the positive impact immigrants have made in Britain. Yes, they may be placing a strain on our public services, but they’re giving back more than they’re receiving, not just financially, but culturally as well.

So why exactly is the immigration debate so contentious? They contribute a lot to our economy and our culture. Surely that’s a win win?

According to Alice Sachrajda, researcher at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), integration is one of the keys to driving a change in public opinion. “Integration should be encouraged and fostered at the "everyday" level - in the workplace, in childcare and school settings, and in community settings, such as leisure centres and shopping centres. This approach goes with the grain of how real people live their lives and is therefore much more likely to result in migrants succeeding and thriving in the UK, and local people responding more positively to migration into their areas.”

I mentioned this to an acquaintance who retorted that most immigrants didn’t want to integrate. They were perfectly happy living in little bubbles they created to replicate their previous lives, cultures, communities, whilst sponging off Britain’s resources. They didn’t want to learn English or foster a strong sense of British identity.

Based on FRF’s experience over the past 13 years, and particularly my own experience working in East London, I beg to differ.

Our office at the London Muslim Centre on Whitechapel Road is in the heart of East London. 55% of Tower Hamlets residents are from BAME (Black and Ethnic Minority) communities, and with street signs in Bengali, it’s often considered one of the most insular and least diverse communities in London.

This may be the case, and in previous generations, there was certainly a lack of understanding about the importance of integrating and learning basic skills to adopt a healthier and more inclusive life in the UK amongst Bangladeshi communities.

This year alone however, we have enrolled over 100 Bangladeshi and Pakistani women into our UR Britain programme, funded by the European Integration Fund, which aims to help women become more involved in life in the UK through ESOL, Employability and Cultural Diversity courses. And these are just women who do not have British citizenship yet, do not hold EU Passports and have been here less than 10 years. We’ve unfortunately had to turn away a far greater number of women who do have British or EU Passports but are keen to learn English and learn more about British culture.

Aside from being Bangladeshi or Pakistani, the main common factor between all these women is their eagerness to become a part of British society and their thankfulness for being granted the opportunity to do so.

I took one of our intakes to Kensington Palace recently as part of the course, to give them a taste of British heritage. The look of awe and appreciation on their faces as we walked up to the palace was priceless. At over £15 a ticket, visiting English heritage sites isn’t usually a priority for newly-arrived immigrants from third-world countries. They absorbed every single artefact, painting and historical fact with curiosity and attentiveness and by the end of the trip, they didn’t want to go home and they certainly didn’t want the course to end.

Each student had the same earnest request – to let them know if we ever ran a similar project again. After speaking to them at length throughout the day and watching them interact with each other and those around them, I realised that the 10-week course wasn’t just a course to them. They weren’t just learning English, they were gaining skills to equip them for a new phase in their lives.

The course gave them a reason to leave their houses and focus on more than just cooking, cleaning and child-rearing. It gave them the opportunity to make friends in a setting they were comfortable in. It whetted their appetite and showed them a glimpse of what existed outside their windows if they just reached out a little. It gave them confidence – confidence to speak in a foreign language, to conduct their lives in a foreign land and try new things. It was a safe space for them to talk about their dreams, their fears.

It gave them hope.

My narrow-minded views on immigration and its effects in Britain have altered drastically since meeting the women on our U R Britain programme. Women who would wake up at 5:30 AM, make mughlai paratha for their husband’s breakfast from scratch, feed their children and get them ready for school, clean the house and cook for the entire day, take the kids to school and then make their way to the course.

I’m not naïve enough to believe that every single immigrant positively contributes to Britain, but I’m not ignorant enough to think they are all a hindrance either. In fact, we can learn a thing or two from some of them - like striving to make a better future for yourself; making sacrifices to help your family and improve your life; working hard while staying positive and true to yourself; never taking anything for granted and appreciating the little things that come your way. How many British-born teenagers do you know like that?

From my limited experience it’s become extremely clear that with guidance and support from organisations such as the Faith Regen Foundation, Britain’s newly-arrived immigrants can become integrated, engaged and valuable members of our society, and if we let them, perhaps we can benefit from their culture as much as they can benefit from ours.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not represent the Faith Regen Foundation or any of its partners, funders or subsidiaries..