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Brexit offers hope to South Asian students

May 7, 2018

Many South Asian students in the UK believe that Brexit offers them more academic and economic opportunities. But aren't they worried about the racism and xenophobia that come with Britain's divorce from the EU?

Brexit symbol picture
Image: picture alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler

Polls conducted before the Brexit referendum had indicated that the majority of the South Asian community living in Britain would most likely vote for the "Remain" campaign. Many analysts also predicted the same trend. Experts believed that the large immigrant community from South Asian countries like Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka would not want to be separated from the EU because Brexit could mean a rise in xenophobia and racism in the UK. But the June 2016 Brexit vote proved many predictions wrong, including the one that most South Asians living in the country would prefer to stay in the EU.

"Why did some South Asians vote for a campaign that was, at times, seen as bigoted and xenophobic? Why did a number of middle-class South Asians (most notably those living in West London) not vote in a way which their socio-economic status would predict?" wrote Rakib Ehsan, a doctoral researcher in Political Science at Royal Holloway, University of London, for The Conversation academic journal.

"One reason might be that many voters within the British South Asian diaspora don't feel European. When the 'Remain' campaign sought to appeal to a sense of European identity, and warned that people were about to lose that identity, it didn't make for a particularly convincing argument," Ehsan said.

Asad Abbasi, a London School of Economics (LSE) alumnus, attempts to explain the reasons behind the South Asian "Leave" vote in a blog for Vice magazine: "For months before the referendum, everyone I spoke to in Newham [a borough in London] — 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 [National Health Service], the benefit cuts. The blame: Immigration," Abbasi said.

"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," Abbasi argued.

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A sense of hope

South Asian students in Britain tend to agree with Abbasi's analysis — less immigrants from European countries would mean more academic and employment opportunities for them.

"Brexit has led to a reinvigoration in Commonwealth relations, including stronger ties in educational exchanges between the UK's ex-colonies and the UK. South Asian and African students can expect to be given favorable treatment in the near future led by change in government policy in favor of the Commonwealth," Adeel Khan, an anthropologist and researcher at Cambridge University, told DW.

Basharat Issa, a student of anthropology at LSE, told DW that many South Asian students think that if the arrival of European students decreases, there could be more opportunities for them. "But I think it depends on various regulations and changes, if and when they occur. These include the hike in tuition fee and a new visa policy for the European students after the Brexit process is completed," Issa added.

Sajid Abbas, a PhD applicant at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), is unsure if Brexit would change the fortunes for South Asian students in Britain.

"I don't think that Britain leaving the EU would make a big impact on the situation of South Asian students, at least those pursuing higher education here. The reason: Eastern European immigrants usually seek low-paid technical jobs. For a social sciences student like myself, there won't be much difference after Brexit," Abbas, who is originally from Pakistan, told DW.

Issa believes that the impact of Brexit on Asian students is also related to their economic status. "Two types of South Asian students come to the UK: Students from affluent families and those who rely on scholarships. If Brexit does not result in increased scholarships for South Asian students, then it would be meaningless," Issa pointed out.

"Also, South Asian students working in Britain are already struggling due to stricter immigration policies. If the European students also require a work permit as Asians do, it might give South Asian students more academic and employment opportunities in Britain," Issa underlined.

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Fallout from the Brexit

Racism and xenophobia

Cambridge researcher Khan is of the view that the financial aspect of Brexit is blinding South Asian immigrants to "the general rightward direction in the country."

"Brexit has heightened xenophobic sentiments. The brunt of these is most likely going to be faced by South Asian and African students, especially those who try to extend their stay in the UK after their education in order to work in the UK economy," Khan added.

But reports suggest that post-Brexit racist attacks have so far targeted Eastern Europeans more than South Asians.

"As for the supposedly xenophobic and racist elements of the 'Leave' campaign, it could simply be the case that many well-integrated, South Asian voters who strongly identify with the UK were left untouched. The 'target' was perceived to be Eastern Europeans originating from non-Commonwealth countries who were taking advantage of the freedom of movement," researcher Rakib Ehsan noted.

LSE's Abbasi shares a similar view: "After Brexit, xenophobic attacks headlined the news coverage, and rightly so. Among my acquaintances, however, I found indifference. Perhaps Europeans were the target of 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 [PM] Theresa May in 2013," Abbasi wrote in his Vice column.

"The immediate concern, for the South Asian immigrants, was the plunge in the pound's exchange value," he elaborated.

In one way or other, Brexit gives a sense of hope to immigrants and students of South Asian background. In some ways, Brexit has also reinforced a British identity for South Asians. The downside of this, experts say, is that rightwing tendencies among Britain's South Asian community could further increase.

Read more: Japan seeks to calm uncertainties stirred up by Brexit