South Asian migrants to the UK after 1947 come from different countries and for different reasons - to escape civil war, to seek better economic opportunities and to join family members already settled here. In spite of facing discrimination in Britain, these migrants have settled in the UK, and through their struggles for workers’ rights and civil rights many have contributed to the political, economic and social life of the UK.
Migration to the UK from Punjab, India
The ties between the British and the Punjab region of India go back a long way. From 1857 onwards many Punjabis served in the British army. Sikh soldiers who served in elite regiments, were often sent to other colonies of the British Empire, and saw active service in both world wars. There is a memorial in Sussex which honours the Sikh soldiers who died in WW1.
Britain’s labour shortages shaped the post-war migration patterns from the subcontinent. It was primarily men from middle-ranking peasant families in Punjab, particularly those who had been previously employed in the colonial army or the police force and their relatives, who took up this opportunity.
These Punjabi migrants found work in the manufacturing, textile and the service sectors, including a significant number at Heathrow Airport in West London. After the Commonwealth Immigrants Act was passed in 1962 which restricted the free movement of workers from the Commonwealth, most workers from South Asia decided to settle in the UK and were eventually joined by their families.
Migration to the UK from Mirpur, Pakistan
A large majority of Pakistani migrants in the UK originate from Mirpur in Kashmir, which has a long history of out-migration. Sailors from Mirpur found work as engine-room stokers on British ships sailing out of Bombay and Karachi, some of whom settled in the UK in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Pakistani migrants who came to Britain after the war found employment in the textile industries of Lancashire, Yorkshire, Manchester and Bradford, cars and engineering factories in the West Midlands, and Birmingham, and growing light industrial estates in places like Luton and Slough. After the Mangla dam was building 1966 which submerged large parts of the Mirpur district, emigration from that area accelerated.
Other groups who migrated from Pakistan in the 1960s include Punjabis who mainly settled in Glasgow, Birmingham and Southall in London, and migrants from urban areas who were more likely to be professionals and who worked for the NHS.
Migration to the UK from Sylhet, Bangladesh
Bangladeshi migration to the UK also has a long history. Sailors (lascars) from the Sylhet region in Bangladesh arrived on ships through the 18th and 19th century, some of whom settled in the UK. However, large scale Bangladeshi settlement in the UK is a more recent phenomenon compared to that of other South Asian communities.
When India gained its independence from British rule, the country was partitioned creating a new state of Pakistan. Pakistan comprised of two territories divided by a thousand miles - the present day Pakistan, which was then known as East Pakistan, and the present day Bangladesh, which was then West Pakistan. There was a civil war between East and West in 1970-71
, which resulted in the creation of Bangladesh in 1971.
Most Bangladeshi families in the UK in the present time are the result of large scale migration in the early 1970s from the Sylhet region of Bangladesh, as people fled from the civil unrest in their homeland, to seek a better life in Britain. They settled in the East London boroughs, which had previously been home to waves of immigrants such as Jewish migrants from Eastern Europe
escaping persecution before WWI, and others who fled Nazi Germany and Austria in the 1930s. Bangladeshi men initially found work in the steel and textile mills across England, but when these industries collapsed, they turned to small businesses including tailoring and catering. Many found work in the growing number of “Indian” restaurants and takeaways in the UK, most of which are actually owned by Bangladeshis.
Migration from Sri Lanka
During the 1960s and 70s, small numbers of professionals emigrated to the UK from Sri Lanka (known as Ceylon till 1972), and found work in the NHS and other white-collar occupations. These early migrants came from affluent backgrounds, were well-educated and have become established in British society.
Compare the different types of migration to the UK from:
- Punjab, India
- Mirpur, Pakistan
- Sylhet, Bangladesh
- Sri Lanka
When comparing, you could think about the history of migration from these countries to the UK, the reasons for the migration, any differences or similarities in the backgrounds of the migrants, in the places they settled in and the jobs they took up.
The next distinctive phase of Sri Lankan migration to the UK
occurred from the 1980s onwards, during the civil war in Sri Lanka. A large number of Tamil Sri Lankans sought asylum in the UK.
These migrants were from less affluent backgrounds, but like most who make a journey to the West, they were by no means from the poorest sections of their society. Many Tamils from poor backgrounds sought refuge in neighbouring India to escape state persecution. 70% of people of Sri Lankan origin live in London, 20% in the Midlands and the rest in other parts of the UK. Many Tamils in the UK have found employment in small businesses, including grocery shops and newsagents, with increasing numbers setting up their own business