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Should Britain's South Asian community be wary of Brexit?

February 1, 2020

Many analysts have dubbed Brexit an isolationist phenomenon that could lead to a surge in racism and extremism in Britain. Is the country's South Asian community alarmed over the adverse effects? DW analyzes.

Brexit supporters wave Union flags
Image: Getty Images/AFP/D. Leal-Olivas

Britain ended nearly 50 years of integration with Europe, making a historic exit from the European Union (EU) on February 1, 2020.

Analysts say that Brexit should be a matter of concern for most foreigners living in Britain because many supporters of Britain's divorce from the EU tend to pursue an isolationist approach. Brexit, with alarming support from the far-right, could fuel a rise in racism and extremism in Britain. But polls and studies before and after the 2016 Brexit referendum have shown that a considerable part of Britain's South Asian community favors their country's separation from Europe, ignoring the possibility of a post-Brexit xenophobic surge.

"A large number of South Asians have been living in Britain for a very long time. They have different concerns and perspectives than those South Asians who have just arrived in the country. The older generation is definitely concerned about the rise of racism and far-right extremism, as they believe that Brexit has fueled these tendencies," Adeel Khan, an anthropologist and researcher at Cambridge University, told DW.

"But the new economic migrants are less exposed to racism. They believe that Brexit is going to increase economic opportunities for them," Khan added.

Some experts think Brexit offers a unique economic opportunity for British South Asians — something that was not possible with Britain being part of the EU bloc.

Asad Abbasi, a London School of Economics (LSE) alumnus, attempts to explain the reasons behind the South Asian community's anti-Europe inclinations in a blog for Vice magazine: "For months before the referendum, everyone I spoke to in Newham [a London borough] — 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.

Read more: As Britain votes, the economy hangs in the balance

A view of a butchers selling halal meat in Brixton, south London
According to the 2011 UK Census, South Asians make up almost 5% of the total populationImage: picture alliance/empics/D. Lipinski

An economic opportunity?

Faheem Nusrat, a British-Indian who works in London, agrees that Brexit would offer more economic opportunities to South Asian immigrants, but warns that they are unlikely to be the same across the country.

"It [economic opportunity] depends on where you live in the country. Asians living in areas outside large cities will be more fearful of the competition post-Brexit. In the cities, Asian communities won't be affected in the same way. They will likely follow the conservative line and try to get ahead economically," Nusrat told DW.

Many South Asian students in Britain believe that fewer 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," said Adeel Khan.

Read more: Brexit: Why South Asian students are looking forward to it

Basharat Issa, a student of anthropology at the London School of Economics, 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 fees and a new visa policy for European students after the Brexit process is completed," he said.

Issa believes 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.

Isolation could fuel extremism

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 is not necessarily a racist phenomenon in the political discourse, but activism of pro-Brexit parties in the UK has somewhat aligned itself with racist tendencies and far-right groups. Because of this alignment, Brexit could pose a serious challenge to South Asian immigrants in the coming years," Khan underlined, adding that the resurgence of nationalism in Britain has not been taken seriously by Asian communities.

Read more: Nigel Farage addresses Germany's far-right AfD

"The EU provided a wider check and balance for extreme nationalism. There could have been human rights appeals to the European Court of Justice, for instance," he added.

Are Bangladeshis, Indians and Pakistanis living in the UK worried about the prospect?

"In the late 70s and 80s, I experienced racism firsthand. Then over the course of 25 years, I didn't experience anything along those lines beyond veiled institutional racism. But then [the referendum on] Brexit occurred three years ago and I experienced a violent attack myself. I believe it was not necessarily related to racism but rather an assertion that those people could attack Asians," Indian entrepreneur Nusrat said.

Read more: UN: Racism has risen since Brexit vote

Khan said the post-Brexit isolationism could also push British Muslims toward radicalism. "As there will be no European checks, the situation can lead to the exacerbation in community and race relations. With an increasing frustration in certain sections of the Muslim community, which were not able to express their extremist view because of the large EU influence, they could increasingly try to assert themselves in the future."

Some experts are of the view that Britain's exit from the EU has harmed the pluralistic European model of integration and cultural diversity. Although many British South Asians at the moment are rooting for their country's separation from Europe, it could be extremely harmful for them in the long run.

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