How come so many British Asians sided with a campaign characterised by bigotry?
The morning after the EU referendum, my day started with a text from a friend: "Congratulation lad, UK left EU." The result was a surprise, but the text was not. In my social group of about 20 South Asian immigrants, only one friend and I voted Remain. The rest were fervent Brexiteers. The South Asian immigrants at my part-time job – all of whom are either residents or British citizens – voted Leave. Every South Asian immigrant I met before the referendum thought that even I was voting Leave, because that was the "right thing to do".
A few months ago when I visited Rochdale, a town in north-west England, to see my friend I noticed that a) Rochdale is like the movie set of East Is East, and b) the South Asians I met were supporting Brexit. A day before the referendum, my friend called me. "Everyone here is voting Leave," he said. "Why?" I asked. "Why not?" A day after the election, he was shocked that "only 60 percent voted Leave". He thought it would be higher.
Much has been written about the north of England, racist white people, uneducated voters, disenchanted industrial towns and so on, but there has been little discussion of how South Asians voted.
Outside London, nearly every constituency with a double-digit South Asian population voted Leave. Luton has a 25 percent Asian population; Leave won there with a 19 percent majority. Places like Pendle, Oldham, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton also have high South Asian populations and voted Leave with large majorities. The only exception was Leicester, with its 30 percent Asian population – narrowly a Remain town, with a 2 percent majority.
The results in these places aren't solely down to South Asians, of course, but the fact is a significant number of Asians in Britain voted for a campaign associated with bigotry and xenophobia. Anecdotally, it seems Asians who were born here voted for Remain, while a lot of first generation Asian migrants voted Leave.
What about South Asians in London, a city that generally voted Remain? For me, the most interesting case is Newham, where I have lived for over a decade. Since 1991, the ethnic minority population has increased 128 percent and, at present, the South Asian population accounts for somewhere between 36 to 38 percent. Newham has a white British population of 16.7 percent – the lowest proportion in England and Wales. Remain won in Newham with only a six percent majority – slim for London.
For months before the referendum, everyone I spoke to in Newham – the local grocer; the Asian barbers; the chicken shop employees; the restaurants owners; estate agents; the underpaid workers; the tax-avoiding shop owners – supported Brexit. The arguments were the same: the rent prices, the NHS, the benefit cuts. The blame: immigration. More than this, there was the hope that once European migration stops, migration from South Asian countries can restart. It is a fight for resources between immigrants. Even though many first generation immigrants are overworked and underpaid, it's better than the alternative. In the words of the British economist Joan Robinson: "The misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all."
Brexit means the loss of "freedom of movement", but it is also a loss of European identity. These are two things many South Asians never had to lose in the first place. For years, a policy of assimilation has forced first generation immigrants to take up "British values" – it never occurs that we immigrants are also part of Europe. Some South Asian intellectuals identify themselves as Europeans, but not everyone has that luxury. A loss of European identity doesn't mean much to a South Asian barber. What about freedom of movement? You mean border controls? Well, "we are used to it".
A week after the Brexit results, waiting for my visa interview at the Malaysian Embassy, I joined a conversation between a Tamil businessman and a Malaysian woman. In the background, Sky News was airing Gove vs Johnson. The Tamil man, with his smartly trimmed moustache and sharp blue suit, explained to us why he voted Leave. "They don't integrate in our society." What? Who doesn't? "These Eastern Europeans." Really?
Of all the arguments that I have heard about Brexit, this was the most absurd. "They come to this country, just drink and make noise." How do they afford to live? "Benefits, of course." It boggles me to this day. "Eastern Europeans are not productive. Why should they be rewarded, when we worked really hard to get where we are?" he asked. The evidence is clear: EU migrants are net contributors . But the referendum was rarely about facts.
Maybe it's about fairness, then? A Bengali first generation immigrant, now a British citizen, told me that Brexit is "about equality". What kind of equality? "Why is it that we have to suffer, pay thousands of pounds each year to extend our visa, face work restrictions, stay here for years, and only after that – after spending so much money and time – we get rights? And the Eastern Europeans get it straight away."
I told him he should fight for his rights rather than fighting to take away the rights of another. "What if that [Brexit] is the only option I have?" he replied.
Not all South Asians are happy, of course. Last week, my friend and I went to get an MOT test for his car. The business owner, a Pakistani guy with a strong Punjabi accent, was upset with the Brexit results. "Who will work now?" he lamented. "Eastern Europeans are good workers and good customers. They spend money. Desis [South Asians] will negotiate. Desi wants discount."
After Brexit, xenophobic attacks headlined the news coverage, and rightly so. Among my acquaintances, however, I found indifference. Perhaps Europeans were the target for xenophobia for a change, and not Muslims, Sikhs, burqas and curries. Or perhaps "go back home" from some racist thug is less daunting than "Go home or face arrest" was from Theresa May in 2013. The immediate concern, for the South Asian immigrants, was the plunge in the pound's exchange value.
For British holiday-makers, a good exchange rate is important. For South Asians, it's imperative, because many immigrants have immediate and extended families to support "back home". According to David Harvey, the post-2007 recession decline in remittances increased malnutrition and deaths from starvation in many poor countries. Brexit is not as severe as a global recession, but many South Asians hadn't anticipated this financial hit, and are bearing it weekly.
Ultimately, the Leave vote is not against the EU bureaucrats but against British politicians. The Leave campaign were very successful at tapping into a feeling of powerlessness and helplessness. That feeling exists among South Asians just as strongly as it does for white people in forgotten provincial towns. South Asians who voted Brexit were showing two fingers to Corbyn, Cameron and the continent, just like everyone else.
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