On Christmas Day in Bangla Town, at the heart of London’s Bangladeshi community in Spitalfields, more than 200 people gathered for an impromptu celebration at a well-known eatery, the Dilshad restaurant. News had come in that Shafiqur Rahman Chowdhury, a long-standing community leader in Tower Hamlets, had been nominated as the opposition party candidate for Sylhet, a district in north-eastern Bangladesh, in the forthcoming elections.
By five o’clock the restaurant was packed with people who turned up from all over London to lend their support. The meeting went on for well over four hours, with speaker after speaker pledging support. Many even volunteered to go out to Bangladesh to help. The atmosphere was electric.
It is not unusual for Bangladeshis to get excited about politics “back home”, especially those of the first generation who came here as adults and have strong ties with the country. What was unusual was the large number of second- and third-generation Bangladeshis present. Of the 200-plus people, well over half were under 30, and a good number even younger. So what is drawing these young people to the politics of Bangladesh, and why do they rarely show similar enthusiasm for politics here?
The key is social exclusion. Unemployment and educational underachievement are widespread among British Bangladeshi youth. Although things are improving, the dominant picture is one of failure: even those who achieve educationally often find themselves on the dole. In Tower Hamlets, the London borough with the largest concentration of Bangladeshis, 32 per cent of 18- to 25-year-olds are unemployed. When people are excluded, there is a natural tendency to turn inward, to look for recognition and excitement from within.
The Prime Minister talked recently about the “duty to integrate”. What Tony Blair doesn’t appreciate is that integration cannot be achieved by imposing a set of values from the top. Integration is a process achieved through real and lived experiences. The most important of such experiences are provided by the education system and the workplace.
The sad fact is that a large number of British Bangladeshis find themselves poorly educated and with no job. It is this group that is turning to politics elsewhere. It is also the same group that is being targeted by extremist groups and being radicalised. During canvassing in last May’s local election, I was stopped many times by young Bangladeshis and challenged about why I was standing for the Labour Party. Clearly, they felt that by being a Labour candidate, I was betraying my religion and my community. These were ordinary local lads, born and brought up here. It left me wondering where these young people were getting their political education from.
Unless social exclusion is tackled, disenchantment with the political process, especially among young people in our community, can only grow stronger.
Ayub Korom Ali is a Labour councillor in the London Borough of Newham
147.4 million: total population
88% are Muslim
£4.60: weekly average income
50% of males and 69% of females aged over 15 are unable to read and write
45% of the population live below the poverty line
62: average life expectancy
22: average age
250,000 Bangladeshis leave their country each year
84% of the population live in rural areas
2/3 of the country is flooded each year in the monsoon rains
500,000 Bangladeshis were killed in 1970 by a tidal wave caused by a cyclone
138,000 were killed in
1991 by a tidal wave caused by a cyclone
1 metre: the rise in sea level that would inundate more than 15% of Bangladesh
60 million Bangladeshis are ingesting arsenic by drinking contaminated groundwater, a newly discovered threat
8,500 Bangladeshis have been diagnosed with chronic arsenic poisoning from drinking unsafe water
238,000: Bangladeshi population of Britain
154,000 live in London, 15,000 in Birmingham, 10,000 in Greater Manchester
1/3 of Britain’s Bangladeshi population was born in the UK
90% are Muslim
£182: average weekly income
45% of the Bangladeshi community have no qualifications
68% live in low-income households
78: average life expectancy
21: average age
2/3 of all immigrants entering the UK are from the Indian subcontinent
3% marry non-Asians
£80m: value of UK exports to Bangladesh in 2005
80% of all “Indian” restaurants in Britain are run by Bangladeshis
18% of Bangladeshis are self-employed
25% of the men work in restaurants
44% of Bangladeshi men smoke, the highest proportion among all ethnic groups
Research: Mosarrof Hussain