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Integration: whose responsibility is it?

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Originally published for The Backbencher on 16/12/12


FOLLOWING the release of the 2011 census, it was inevitable that immigration and integration were going to be subjects of great debate.

Earlier this week, the Labour party leader Ed Miliband, speaking in south London, described his enthusiasm for ethnic diversity in the UK, while claiming that ‘too little’ has been done to integrate people within British society.

He said:

    “Some people say that what we should aim for is assimilation whereby people who have come here do so only on the condition that they abandon their culture. People can be proudly, patriotically British without abandoning their cultural roots and distinctiveness.

    But there is another idea we should also reject: the belief that people can simply live side by side in their own communities, respecting each other but living separate lives, protected from hatreds but never building a common bond – never learning to appreciate one another. We cannot be comfortable with separation. It blocks opportunities, leaving people at the margins. And it breeds ignorance, suspicion and prejudice. Instead, we must think of the home we build together in all its richness, variety, diversity.

    With an immigration system (under Labour) that allowed two million people to come to the UK over ten years, there is a degree of anxiety about Britain’s cultural identity and the levels of immigration.”

   The issue of identity becomes even more complex when one learns that up to two million people in the UK are mixed race. Is this important for integration? Certainly: US scholars consider intermarriage rates as the gold standard of integration due to the intimacy and social implications.”

Why is your dad brown and your uncle is white?

A friend of mine, Omar Mehtab, who lives in Ilford, grew up in a mixed and diverse background. His maternal grandfather, an Indian Muslim, married a Pakistani Hindu woman, while his paternal grandfather, a Pakistani Muslim, married a German-Polish Catholic woman. Furthermore, his Hindu uncle married a Seventh-day Adventist  Brazilian woman.

Growing up, he said, he never noticed the differences in the family – as he rightly pointed out, children aren’t born racist or prejudiced. “The only time I noticed the difference is when someone asked me, why is your dad brown and your uncle is white,” he said.  As well as this, he went to a school that had a mix of pupils from diverse backgrounds.  “I’m glad I’ve had this,” he said. “It’s given me different cultural and religious viewpoints. My generation is a product of a mixed environment – we love it.”

Many friends and acquaintances of mine have said something similar – that the reason they are so open-minded and well integrated is down to, a) – their own open-minded and diverse families, and b) – their own willingness to integrate and mix with a diverse group of people.

Which brings me  to my next point – to what extent are families to blame for this? As pointed out earlier, racism is taught; no one is born racist or prejudiced.

The 2001 UK Census showed that people from South Asian backgrounds were the least likely of the minority ethnic groups to be married to someone from a different ethnic group. Only 6 per cent of Indians, 4 per cent of Pakistanis, and 3 per cent of Bangladeshis had married someone outside the Asian group.

This could possibly change in the next few years, who knows, but I believe that there are certain prejudices and barriers there that have been long-held by the elders. Although some of them are no longer with us, the subsequent generation absorbed some of those views – you are a product of your environment.

As the study by Shamit Saggar and Will Somerville shows, there are several factors that drive successful immigrant outcomes:

“One of these is proximity to…buoyant local labour markets. In London, the professional service and corporate business sectors have been important in generating demand for highly educated and skilled employees. This signal has been received and reflected in middle-class Indian educational patterns… This has not been seen in the case of many Pakistani immigrants, whose settlement patterns were concentrated in declining heavy industrial areas of northern England.”

Poverty and deprivation lead to a lack of integration

  Poverty and deprivation are major factors which lead to a lack of integration, and in areas with high levels of deprivation, there will be high levels of tension between the different ethnic groups, and people will live in clusters and blocks, not really mixing with people of a different background to theirs.

The Pakistani immigrants who first came to the UK to work in the mills brought with them their culture and their way of life. Subsequently marrying off their British born children to their nieces and nephews from their village abroad has continued this mentality. This trickles down to the children. (Forgive me for discussing Pakistanis mainly, but this is my background and a group that I’m more familiar with)

Lejla Kuric, a 36-year-old businesswoman in Manchester, originally from Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, has faced racism from both English and Pakistani people alike, for being married to a British-born Pakistani man. Although his family accepted her without any objections, others have not been as tolerant.  She said: “On one occasion, a group of Asian lads had a go at my husband at the Trafford Centre, saying, ‘why, oh why is he with a white woman?’”

Of course there will be idiots, and downright vicious people everywhere. But there are people out there who will hold such views because of the way they have been brought up – certainly with some Asian children, they will pick up such prejudice from their parents, who will no doubt talk about the ‘shame’ and ‘dishonour’ of marrying someone from outside their ethnic group.

“We don’t like pakis, they smell”

  When I was in primary school, being the only Asian girl in school at the time was challenging at times but the overall experience was fine. The children did come out with racist terms, but I do not believe they were racist – I believe they were simply repeating what they had learned from their parents.  For example, in class one day, a boy sat next to me said, “We don’t like pakis, they smell…but we like you Iram, you’re okay!”

Of course I was okay (actually, no, I’m fabulous!), because they knew me, they were my friends. Which got me thinking, how many other ‘pakis’ would they think were ‘okay’ after they had bothered to get to know them?

Although Lejla was abused with terms such as “Eastern-European c*nt,” “immigrant,” “white paki,” and “guest in this country” that has “no right to comment on British politics”, her experience of Britain overall has been pleasant.

  She said: “In general I found British people open, friendly and tolerant and I found Britain multicultural and a very tolerant society. This meant it wasn’t difficult for me to accept the British identity, and preserve my Bosnian identity at the same time.

Again, we see this issue of identity cropping up again. How do immigrants preserve the identity of the homeland while maintaining their British identity too? If they are to live in the UK peacefully, tolerating other people, which aspects of their culture do they retain, and which do they abolish?  Additionally, whose responsibility is it to integrate – is it the role of the host community or the immigrants?

Language is a gateway to a culture

Omar believes that while it is the job of the immigrants, he also thinks that English people, in general, are not really aware of other people and cultures.  Part of this could be down to the school education system. Apart from Ireland, the United Kingdom is the only EU country where learning a language at school is not compulsory. As a result, only 44% of school pupils took a modern language GCSE in 2009. The figures are even more dire at A-level: fewer than 5% of all A-level entrants sat a language exam last year. After all, language is a gateway to a culture.

Education and awareness should begin at an early age. But if parents are prejudiced, is it then the school’s responsibility to tackle such prejudices and allow children to become more open minded?  There are certain schools where 90% of the pupils will be of one ethnic group – although schools are reflective of their areas (in a majority Asian district, the majority of the children in that school will be Asian), there should be a policy which should tackle this.

In Oldham, two schools were closed down to merge into one big academy school in order to tackle the issue of segregation between Asian and white children (though many politicians still do not acknowledge that Asians segregate themselves from other Asians too, e.g. Bangladeshis against Pakistanis).

It is difficult to say whether this project has been successful yet, but it might be a case of too little, too late. The damage may already have been done, which is why early intervention is necessary.

There is so much more that I could say, but time is of the essence (and my editor must be furious!), but please do share your thoughts and opinions on what we, as a nation, can do to integrate better and educate our young.

Written by Iram Ramzan

December 23, 2012 at 9:35 pm

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