“Whatever the colour of your skin, the shape of your lips or nose, whatever your height, you are neither a sub-man nor a superman; you are a human creature. Keep your language. Love its sounds, its modulation, its rhythm. But try to march together with men of different languages.”
Brazilian Archbishop Helder Camara, Spiral of Violence.
Migrants, Communities and Social Cohesion in the UK.
The Telegraph reported that over 300 languages were spoken in classrooms around the UK in 2015. This ethnic diversity is significant because children of this generation may hopefully have richer life experiences, become tolerant world citizens, and their shared perspectives may excitingly lead to greater productivity and innovation in the future.
However, these hopeful sentiments are contrary to research results on multiculturalism and social cohesion in the USA. A research by Putnam found that ethnic diversity through increased migration creates distrust in neighbourhoods causing people to ‘hunker down’ and withdraw from collective life and community. During the Brexit campaign, a simplified version of the above findings was told by pro-Brexiters across the UK and its effects were alarming. Some mainstream media capitalised on this narrative which dangerously associated increased migration to the erosion of social cohesion and British identity, even though research in the UK found this was a result of area deprivation and NOT increased diversity through migration. The police reported that hate crimes increased by 23% 11 months after the EU referendum. It was a bad time to be a migrant in the UK, but this was not the first time that such hostility became palpable.
Ethnic discrimination had been witnessed in the 60’s and the 70’s in many facets of British life. In Housing allocation, the Birmingham City Council conducted a formal policy of dispersal of migrants between 1969 and 1975. They justified their policy, which stipulated that there should be no more than one black household in a six-block property, on three factors:
- That dispersal would spread the burden on resources.
- It encouraged racial integration.
- There were objections from white tenants about living amongst too many black people.
Dispersal was also carried well till the 80’s on the political refugees from Vietnam. The dispersal of the Vietnamese ‘boat people’ in the 70’s and 80’s found that the success was minimal and short lived. Within a few years the ethnic groups had gravitated to clusters in the South East where there was already an established group which they had an affinity to. The policies pertaining to ethnic communities have improved since, but there is still a lot to be done if the Windrush Scandal is anything to go by.
For Fijian communities in the UK, there hasn’t been a comprehensive study on our communities and how, why and where they have developed. It would be interesting to see how Fijians have gravitated to each other, particularly following completion of military service. How have these communities developed? Are these communities coping? What are some of the socio-economic issues they face? Are their housing needs being met? Results from studies asking these questions may help us navigate through problems other ethnic minority groups have had to face and doing so may ensure that generations of Fijians born in the UK develop stronger social cohesion in their multicultural communities.
I understand the need to gravitate towards the familiar, however, the importance of assimilating into a society we have become part of cannot be emphasised enough. We need to challenge the narratives that extremists use against us, and we do that by integrating with people of different languages, making them recognise the beauty in all our languages combined. As Helder Camara said:
“Keep your language. Love its sounds, its modulation, its rhythm. But try to march together with men of different languages.”
When I migrated to the UK, I had a brief stint working as a help at the local hospital. One afternoon a deaf old lady was admitted in our ward. She sat alone on her bed looking melancholy and I hated seeing her unable to share in something as basic as communication. I ended my shift at 8pm and got home to learn British sign language. The next morning, armed with my you tube tutorial notes, I came by her bed and using my hands, asked her;
“Would you like a cup of tea or coffee?”.
Her face lit up and she gave me a look that seemed to say, “I ‘hear’ you speak my language”.
We formed a bond with a silent thread and that feeling has never left me.
I leave this personal account here as a reminder that language is more than spoken words. The beautiful differences between us should not be restricted by language and cultural barriers. We can do so much to address real issues like poverty, homelessness, inequality, environment degradation and such if only we can change the focus from flawed rhetoric that separates our communities.
There’s still so much work to be done to shift perceptions, change the narratives and introduce policies that will break down inequality and segregation in ethnic minority communities, but the work starts with each individual.
For every new migrant out there reading this, I hope you are open to discovery and actively seek out a place at the proverbial table in the community you now find yourself in. May your new journey not be limited to the familiar, the proven and the comfortable; and may your vision extend to further horizons than ours did.
Laia. B, Stafford. M, Lawrence. J & Nazroo. J (2011). Composition, Concentration and Deprivation: Exploring their association with social cohesion among different ethnic groups in the UK, Urban Studies, Vol 48, Issue 13, pp.2771-2787, DOI: 10.1177/004209801039
Phillips. D & Malcolm Harrison. M. (2010) Constructing an Integrated Society: Historical Lessons for Tackling Black and Minority Ethnic Housing Segregation in Britain, Housing Studies, 25:2, 221-235, DOI:10.1080/02673030903561842
Sturgis. P, Brunton-Smith. I, Read. S & Allum. N. (2011). Does ethnic diversity erode trust? Putnam’s ‘hunkering down’ thesis reconsidered, British Journal of Political Science, 41 (1), 57-82, DOI: 10.1017/50007123410000281