Hostility towards migrants
One day years ago, getting off the bus at my usual stop on the Stratford Road in Sparkbrook, Birmingham for the short walk to the office where I worked for a local community organisation, I noticed a brand new, very large, billboard poster dog-whistling a truly disturbing message: “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?” it asked, “it’s not racist to impose limits on immigration“, it went on to proclaim.
I could feel the anger rising in me as I walked through the area that had for decades been at the heart of Birmingham’s migrant communities and their descendants.
It was 2005, and this billboard was part of the then Conservative Party leader Michael Howard’s unsuccessful general election campaign. Howard did not get his chance to implement his anti-migrant policies but the victorious New Labour were already complicit in propping up an increasingly anti-immigration narrative. Two years later, Liam Byrne the then Minister for Immigration, described how new proposals, including fines of up to £10,000 for employees found to have recruited people who would not have passed a right to work check, “will, I think, flush illegal migrants out. We are trying to create a much more hostile environment in this country if you are here illegally”.
The hostile environment was later significantly escalated under the Conservative – Liberal Democrat coalition, and the Conservative administrations that continue to the present day, particularly after Theresa May’s notorious 2012 interview with The Telegraph where she declared: “The aim is to create here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal migration.”
Hostility has in fact been extended to all migrants in the UK, whatever their so called ‘legal’ status. The ‘Go home’ lorries and the Windrush scandal. Brexit and the unkept promise that nothing would change for EU citizens’ rights. The multiple horrors of this year’s Nationality and Borders Act. The insidious nature of the hostile environment now sees everyday citizens, like it or not, engaged in immigration control through implementing right to work and rent checks, deciding who can and cannot access secondary and tertiary health care without being charged, calculating how much students get charged to access higher education, controlling who can open a bank account or get a mortgage, even gatekeeping who can and cannot be safe in the knowledge that they can come home to the UK after spending time abroad without being questioned, detained or threatened with removal.
The 10-year anniversary of that article has rightly been reported in the more progressive media as a rallying cry to resistance and the need to bring about systemic change. The sad truth though is that a hostile environment has existed for migrants in the UK for far longer, underpinned by racist and xenophobic immigration and nationality laws, rules and guidance.
Back in Time for Birmingham series plot
This longer view is movingly illustrated by the recent BBC series Back in Time for Birmingham, filmed just a few minutes walk away from my old office and that truly awful billboard, posted years earlier.
In many ways a portrayal of how people moving from place to place and simply existing, is a life enhancing, culturally enriching and community enhancing thing to be loudly celebrated. The series also does not shy away from showing the everyday and state sanctioned hostility that migrants and their UK born descendants have faced through the years.
The Sharmas are the wonderfully watchable family followed throughout the series as they role play what life was like for South Asians making their way in Britain. Beginning with first generation migrants arriving after the end of British colonial rule and partition in 1947. The subsequent 1948 Nationality Act “gave everyone living in both countries [India and Pakistan] British citizenship and with it the right to live and work in the UK“.
Mum Manisha and Dad Vishal were born in Britain to parents who moved from India and Uganda. Together with daughter Alisha (20), son Akash (19) and their guides, BBC Asian network presenter Noreen Khan and historian Yasmin Khan, deliver an engaging blend of the Sharmas’ lived experiences and family history, and the broader history of migration, societal attitudes and changing Government policy.
In episode one, historian Yasmin explains how post-war Birmingham “had a massive need for industrial labour and there were loads of jobs”. But the reality on arrival was that “overcrowded accommodation in poor condition was the norm”. The men of the family usually arrived first and Vishal and Akash discover that the shabby mattress on the floor of their recreated 1950s digs will need to be shared. After returning from a shift working a metal stamping machine at a whistle making factory, Vishal shares a meal prepared by son Akash, of “baked bean stew” enhanced with curry powder and Branson Pickle, before they both settle down for the night, top and tailed on said shabby mattress: “your – feet – stink!”, complains Akash.
For his first weeks’ work Vishal receives £12 – £400 in today’s money. Earning that would have meant working overtime and nightshifts and, as he discovers, Vishal would likely have kept around £3, and sent the rest to family still in India or Pakistan.
The parallels with my own life, growing up nearby, made for great nostalgic entertainment. Like the new products arriving in the 80s at the shop the Sharmas run as their own business – from Spam on the deli counter and Pot Noodles to VHS movie rentals. When Alisha and Akash pay a visit to Shabab’s restaurant, a nearby Birmingham Balti stalwart, I remembered diving enthusiastically into my first Balti in the late 80s at the, sadly now closed, Royal Naim, walking distance from the Sharma’s Sparkbrook home and business. I bought my first Indian vegetarian cookbook after that first Balti experience and the recipes were prepared using ingredients bought from the many South Asian shops in Sparkhill and Sparkbrook.
In 1977, the Sharma’s silver Jubilee picnic reminded me of watching the Queen drive by on the same Stratford road referred to in the series. Also in the 80s episode, we learn about ‘daytimers’, where night clubs opened their doors during the day to entertain British Asian teenagers with a new sound combining the ”traditional beats of Bhangra with Western dance tracks”– often when their families thought they were studying. They were hosted at clubs such as the Powerhouse and the Hummingbird. The latter I recall fondly for its pound-a-pint indie nights, many great live gigs and having probably the stickiest dancefloor in the city.
But I also remembered the violence, racism and the affect this had on kids at school and their families.
Colonialism, imperialism and racism
The Sharmas provide particularly poignant and pointed commentary as they experience this for themselves, re-enacted through the decades. On hearing Enoch Powell saying, “in this country in 15- or 20-years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man”, during his infamous rivers of blood speech, Alisha comments: “he has the audacity to say that when it was the British people with all of their imperialism and colonialism came and enslaved black people”. Manisha says “people… who should be there to serve their community… say words like that that do everything to break it” and make it okay to “pick on that guy over there because he’s a different colour to you”. Something that could be applied easily to certain contemporary politicians.
We learn that Manisha’s father arrived in Britain from Uganda before Idi Amin came to power and expelled Indians from the country. This year marks the 50th anniversary of nearly 30,000 of them being resettled in the UK. We also learn how Ugandan Asians by the 1970s made up 1% of the population but held 90% of the country’s wealth. This inequity is shown to be a further legacy of divisive, racist white-British colonial rule, with those 1% being descendants of Indian nationals transported to “build railways for the British Empire”. Subsequently “favoured by the British over and above the East African population, some gained high status roles in government trading and banking”. As historian Yasmin Khan points out “It really strikes me how this is seen as something that’s got nothing to do with Britain as if it just happened out there, but Uganda was ruled by Britain into the 1960s”. Alisha agrees “once you trace it all the way back [it] comes from Britain’s involvement in colonialism… it makes me so angry”.
The Sharmas store is graffitied with “NF go home” in the 70s. “I was born in Leicester, where in Leicester do you want me to go” Manisha comments later. A brick is thrown through the window in the 80s. Manisha again: “If this was happening… on a regular basis that must have been really heart-breaking – and scary”.
They receive a visit from actor Nitin Ganatra who recounts his own experiences of racism growing up in a shopkeeping family. Nitin describes the violence they lived through: “My mum was spat at; my brother was attacked with a knife… you just got used to surviving and not being liked… I remember having a few Doc-Martins in my head”. Vishal asks if they gave a reason for kicking him – “bleep off back to your own country you bleep”he replies. Akash is visibly moved as he comments on Nitin’s story: “I could feel everything he was saying – you can tell that it really scarred him”. Sister Alisha observes that her parents’ and grandparents’ generations “hold a lot of trauma… they were probably in survival mode for a very long time”.
We then hear that today, there are 200 racially motivated crimes recorded in Britain daily and later that, following 9/11, Between 2001 and 2013 around half of all mosques and Muslim centres in the UK were attacked.
Vishal says in the final episode “when the country is not doing so great economically, everyone needs something to channel their anger at and it’s very easy to channel it at the foreigner”, “racism doesn’t stop or sleep right?”. Manisha wants to say we’ve moved on from the racism of earlier decades but in reality “nothing’s changed and we’re still having similar conversations”, as the video cuts to Nigel Farage posing in front of his vile “Breaking Point” Brexit poster and far right marchers bearing “stop the silent invasion” placards.
There is such richness to discover in this series that it’s better at this point to leave the rest to you. If you haven’t seen it, you will find it on BBC iPlayer. I will though leave the last words to the younger Sharmas on how South Asians have enriched the UK;
Akash: “Well we’re here to stay we’re British Asian we’re going to share our culture, share who we are to you and just hope for the reciprocation back”.
Alisha: “South Asian culture became more mainstream by the 90s and it’s a beautiful thing to see”.