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South Asians in Britain

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Coming home to mother? Bhikhu Parekh on the impact the subcontinent’s peoples have had (and continue to have) in Britain itself.

Although South Asians had been coming to Britain during the colonial period as students, cricketers, visitors, pedlars, housemaids, governesses, entertainers and political supplicants, and some had even settled here, their number was extremely small. The picture changed radically after the Second World War when Britain, after exhausting European sources, turned to South Asia and the West Indies to recruit labour it desperately needed to regenerate its economy. Even as late as 1956 it had 174,000 more unfilled vacancies than unemployed workers. Thousands of semi-skilled and unskilled South Asians came to work in the textile and steel industries, at first alone and later joined by their wives and children. They were followed by skilled workers and professionals, especially the doctors whose services were badly needed to run the National Health Service. As their numbers increased, pressure for immigration control mounted, leading at first to various kinds of restrictions and to a virtual halt of primary migration in 1971.

As Britain began to decolonise its African empire from the 1960s onwards, South Asians, whom it had recruited to help run the empire and its economy, felt insecure. Their sense of insecurity increased when the newly independent African countries, especially those in East Africa, embarked on a programme of giving preferential treatment to their own people. South Asians from Kenya, many with British passports, started coming to Britain. As their number increased, the Labour Government under James Callaghan passed a law in 1968 denying them entry. The news of the impending legislation caused a panic, and resulted in the arrival of several thousands, including those who had otherwise no intention of coming to Britain. When Idi Amin came to power in Uganda, South Asians were harassed and began to arrive in Britain in small numbers. In 1972 when Amin expelled all British passport-holding South Asians, Britain asked the world to ‘share the burden’ and was helped by Canada, Australia and India. Over time it gracefully accepted and resettled over 27,000 of them.

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