On the 2nd of January, 2017, Yassar Yaqub was shot dead by West Yorkshire Police. The 28-year-old was a passenger in a car that had been pulled over on a slip road off the M62, not far from Huddersfield. Yassar had crouched down when police approached, and as he sat back up – a court heard – a nearby firearms officer was "under no doubt he was holding a handgun".
Seeing his hometown of Huddersfield make national news, journalist Mobeen Azhar decided to head there to investigate Yassar's death. However, as he returned home to find a situation that, by some, was being treated as a "Black Lives Matter type thing" – where police brutality had resulted in the death of a young British Pakistani man – he soon discovered a different story, one that explains why Home Office statistics paint West Yorkshire as the UK's capital of violent crime.
Azhar (who won a BAFTA for the BBC series Muslims Like Us) found a spate of violent crimes – multiple shooting and stabbing incidents – many of which were linked to the local drug trade, which it soon transpired Yassar was involved in. Over six episodes, Hometown (which begins on BBC One on the 19th of June and is available as a box-set on iPlayer) sees Azhar investigate the huge escalation in violent crime, drugs and the links to, and impacts on, the British Pakistani community.
I spoke to him about what he found when he returned to Huddersfield.
VICE: What was your original intention for this series?
Mobeen Azhar: Just to cover the story of Yassar's death. When I originally went up I was welcomed with open arms by Yassar's family, and his dad asked me to get involved in the Justice for Yassar campaign. When the shooting took place there were riots in the streets, with people demanding to know who ordered this assassination. When I started to spend more time up there, that quickly changed. A lot of people told me he's involved in drug dealing and that everyone knows it. You then realise that it wasn't an allegation as much as an open secret that he was a massive drug dealer. I spoke to a range of dealers on the spectrum, from runners to people importing millions of pounds worth of heroin, and across the board they knew Yassar.
How was it for you, on a personal level, returning to a town you grew up in to see so much violent crime unfolding?
I wasn't prepared to be going to a serious weapons-related crime scene up to three times a week. I've lived in London for more than a decade and I've never seen as much police tape anywhere else as much as the time I spent in Huddersfield. Back when I was a kid there was a bit of weed or a fistfight outside a pub, but that's very different to what we're seeing now. Gun crime is down in most regions across the country, but in West Yorkshire it's risen by 50 percent in the last decade.
What do you attribute that recent spike to?
There are three key factors. Firstly, since the 1960s, Afghanistan has been the biggest producer of heroin in the world, and it shares a very porous border with Pakistan. The large majority of people that moved to Huddersfield and West Yorkshire in the 1960s were from rural northern Pakistan, a place that is very close to get in and out of Afghanistan. Post-War on Terror, heroin production is at the highest it's ever been out there.
So, secondly, you add trade links between the UK and Pakistan – the overwhelming majority of which is legitimate and valued at around £3 billion a year – and that is going to provide cover for the tiny majority of British Pakistanis that want to import heroin. And I saw that: I saw people importing heroin in everything from car engines to baby powder bottles.
The third point that hits home as to why has this gone up so much recently is the fact that Yorkshire and Humber, as of 2019, has the highest unemployment rate in Britain. So you have regional unemployment in the area, and where it gets specific to the Pakistani community is that the first generation of economic migrants came here for jobs – my dad worked on the buses, and a lot of people worked in mills and factories and set up businesses – so if you have a community that's built on doing jobs that working class white people no longer wanted to do, and then all of that goes away, what happens to those people? You have a community of people reliant on industries that are no longer there, in the region that has the highest unemployment in the UK. So a minority of people will start importing.
Was it a difficult or conflicting process having a personal connection to the community while also uncovering some of the problems that exist within it?
It was really difficult. I wasn't conflicted, but there were moments I was bracing myself. Like when we did the FOI request looking at convictions for possession with intent to supply class A drugs; I would love for that to have come back and for it to suggest that there wasn't a disproportionate number of Pakistanis involved, but the fact is it came back and there was. But rather than hide away from that or just say "every community has problems" – something you often hear – I think it's better for everyone involved, in all communities, to actually engage in these issues.
The dealers in the community are recruiting increasingly younger people, it seems.
I spoke to one ex-dealer in Bradford who spoke about grooming young people. Buying them trainers and tracksuit bottoms from JD Sports to show kids that they will do this for them, and that if they follow them and do what they're told then they're going to have this kind of cash. It's extremely seductive. One kid I met was very early teens and he'd already been dealing for 18 months, and in his bedroom had an axe, a machete and a baseball bat, and he doesn't leave his house without one of them. He told me he could get a gun with a single phone call. That's the climate and that's what's going on, so if you have literal children with weapons, there's no wonder there's a huge spike in these kinds of violent incidents.
Are you worried this series might piss some people off?
If you're pissing people off because you're asking a question that makes them uncomfortable then that's an important part of the job. It is a concern how it will be received, though. My number one concern is the far-right in the Yorkshire and Humber. They have constantly been super selective in how they view and use the news. So when it comes to grooming gangs, which everyone agrees are abhorrent and terrible, the far-right will focus on the Muslim cases. It feels like they're not actually concerned about victims of paedophilia; they're just concerned about how to push forward their agenda – which, let's be blunt about it, is explicitly racist, anti-immigrant and xenophobic.
There will definitely be someone on Twitter with no profile picture saying "surprise, surprise, Pakistanis are killing people with heroin", but I have faith that the majority of people in Britain are clever and nuanced enough to understand the complicated nature of these issues. There's a feeling in the community that people don't talk about these things because the media already likes to think we're all a bunch of paedophiles and terrorists, and I don't want drug dealer to now become something that's aimed at the British-Pakistani community – which I’m part of. Having said that, that's not reason enough to not have these conversations: you can't just bury your head in the sand.
Did you leave Huddersfield feeling hopeful for its future?
I'm an eternal optimist, and as much as I think this seriously might cause a bit of a ruckus, I really hope it's going to contribute to discussions in families and in homes. I genuinely love Huddersfield and it's a place that is always going to be very close to my heart. It's the town that raised and shaped me. Which is exactly the reason why I think this series is important. I want people to engage with it and change things, because it can't keep going in the direction that it's going in. There were more drug-related deaths in the Yorkshire and Humber in 2017 than there were in London – not per capita, but a greater number. We have to have these conversations, and if that means a few people are uncomfortable, then so be it.
'Hometown' starts on BBC One at 10:40PM tonight, and is available as a box-set on iPlayer.