From the early 1970s and through the 1980s, the patterns of Bengali migration to Britain changed dramatically with the arrival of families and with communities becoming more settled across the UK. The 1981 Census records around 65,000 Bangladeshis in the UK, which included 16,000 'second generation' Bangladeshis born and brought up in Britain. By 1987, only six years later, the Labour Force Survey counted 116,000 Bangladeshis, just over half of whom were born in Bangladesh. This period saw the arrival of larger numbers of women (such as Husna Ara Begum Matin), often joining their already settled husbands, young people and children (like Jubair Ahmed).
There are a number of reasons for the changing pattern:
- changing immigration laws in Britain meant that travelling between Britain and Bangladesh for long periods of time became more difficult. Stricter immigration policies, such as the Immigration Act 1971 and the Nationality Act 1981, made many migrants fear that they might not be able to bring their children over in the future, particularly those over the age of 18;
- the struggle against West Pakistan's control over East Pakistan through the 1960s, the more and more difficult economic and social conditions in East Pakistan and the Liberation War of 1971 led to worries about the safety of family members in Bangladesh;
- these fears about safety and the quality of life in Bangladesh were made worse by the 10 years of economic and political struggle that followed Independence;
- the situation of the mainly male migrants in Britain was changing - first, because their needs changed as they grew older; second, because rising unemployment in the 1970s meant that the dream of earning money and returning 'home' had become impossible;
- with the arrival and settlement of larger minority ethnic communities and the growth of a religious and cultural community in some areas, people worried less about women and children being exposed to Western influences.
At the same time as families being reunited and settling down, there was a rise in unemployment in Britain, which saw the closing down of the industries in which many Bengalis were employed. This meant that the traditional jobs were no longer there and, for support, Bengalis were often forced to move to city areas where Bengali communities were well established. This has led to Bengalis being concentrated in particular areas, such as Oldham or Tower Hamlets, where high levels of unemployment and poor quality housing reinforced patterns of poverty and hardship.
This time also saw the development of large, vibrant Bangladeshi communities, with a new generation of young people taking on the struggles against racism and discrimination. In Tower Hamlets and elsewhere, Bangladeshi youth movements and organisations took on the National Front (a racist political group) and young people entered local politics to challenge discrimination in housing, education and employment. Community institutions, mosques and cultural organisations also grew in this period, as Bangladeshis became part of multicultural Britain.
Monowara Begum (Oldham)
As with Husna Ara Begum Matin and many other Bengali women from this period, Monowara Begum migrated to Britain to join her husband.
My husband came to this country a long time ago. He came here by ship. We used to live in Calcutta where he was a serang [recruitment agent]. He used to get jobs on the ships for people and helped them get onto the ships to go abroad.
Now in her 60s, Monowara Begum arrived in 1981. Like many Bengali wives we spoke to, she was not keen to migrate to Britain:
We didn't like what we used to hear about this country. We didn't want to come here. I was working in Bangladesh, I had two kids, my family was there. I was okay over there. In 1975 my husband applied for us to come, but I didn't want to come here… I didn't want to bring my children here because of the lifestyle of the boys and girls that I'd heard about and seen in films.
Monowara brought her son with her, but had to leave her daughter in Bangladesh because of complications with Immigration:
The officials did not give her a visa because they did not believe that she was my daughter.
She had orginally planned to come for only a short visit:
I came to this country intending to stay for only three months, but I realised that it would not be possible to leave my son alone here. But if I took him back to Bangladesh there would be problems with his education. But I also felt bad for my daughter.
Ishtiaq Ahmed (Newham)
Ishtiaq Ahmed first migrated to Britain to study in 1965, but returned to Bangladesh in 1970 to work on a tea plantation. He came back to settle in London in 1978 and worked in a hotel, bringing his wife and children in the early 1980s. He reflected on the changes in the Bangladeshi community over the past decades:
When I came in 1965, I saw a few Asian women, but it was very rare. I didn't see any Bengali ladies and Bengali men were mostly students. Bengalis used to go home to marry but they wouldn't bring their wives and daughters because of the fear that they would be influenced by English culture. We follow the Islamic culture and there was the fear that this culture would be affected. After 1971, gradually people started bringing their wives and children. Maybe the local mentality had changed. Another reason might be the complaints from the wives. If their husbands only came home after two or three years, they might complain that they felt lonely during their husbands' absence, so they wanted to come with their husbands. At first one or two wives convinced their husbands and then other wives convinced their husbands. This was how Bengali families grew in the UK. Nowadays nobody leaves his wife in Bangladesh. The mentality has changed, the culture has been changed.
However Ishtiaq Ahmed did not feel this change had been wholly positive. Now, in his mid 60s, he commented on what he saw as the problems of Bengali young people:
I think the earlier practice was good. It was good in the sense that many children of the families in London don't study much any more; they are addicted to drugs, alcohol… There are some families where the children are okay. But mostly not – 50%, 60%, 70% of Bengali children are corrupt, drug addicts. 30% are doing well, getting good jobs.
Rahela Chowdhury (Newham)
Rahela Chowdhury migrated with her mother and two siblings to join her father. This was compartively late, in 1989.
My father didn't want to bring us before that. Like other older people, he thought it would not be possible to bring us up properly here. But under pressure from friends and relatives, he brought us over. Maybe he also thought that if the children came when they were older they would bring their country's culture with them.
Now aged 37, Rahela recalled her first impressions of the Bengali community in Tower Hamlets, where she first lived:
At Tower Hamlets College, I was among a lot of Bengali students, but I thought they were not practising the Bengali culture. Both boys and girls moved around in a group, smoking. As I came from a village, it made me feel uncomfortable. Nowadays, even in Dhaka maybe, a more forward-looking culture is practised. But as l was brought up in a village, it seemed very unusual to me.
Rahela decided to try to promote Bengali culture amongst her peers:
I wanted us to return to a Bangladeshi culture. So with the help of the students' union and teachers, colleagues and friends, I formed a Bangladeshi students' forum. We started celebrating Bangladesh Independence Day, Bangladesh Victory Day. Not only Bangladeshis, but people from other cultures started to know about Bangladesh. At that time, people knew very little about Bangladesh.
Mehjabin Islam (Newham)
Mehjabin Islam, like Rahela, arrived in Britain in 1989 to join her father.
I have been living in this country for 20 years. I came to this country because of my father. He came here in 1962 or 1963. My uncle was living here and he brought my father over. At that time there was a system called 'voucher visa' or something and he came using that visa. After my father came, my uncle went back home. He thought if both brothers settled here then it would be difficult for them to look after their properties at home. So my uncle went back home permanently and my father stayed here. As he was settled in this country, we had to come here one day, even though we didn't come initially. We came when we were grown up.
Mehjabin recalled that when her father first came to England,
He lived in Northampton. He was there for many years. He worked in a bread factory and in a factory that made parts for the underground railway… Then, before he brought us over in 1989, he decided to move to London as one of my aunties [khalas] was living in Docklands at the time. He thought that it would be difficult for us to adjust at first, so it would be better to live with our relatives, which might help us to settle in. So he moved to London…
Despite her father's efforts, Mehjabin remembered being unhappy when she first arrived:
When we first arrived, we did not like living here. The atmosphere was very different to where we had come from. Everyone kept their doors and windows shut and lived inside, which was the reverse of our country. The doors and windows there are always open. We did not feel the environment was like home, like living with family. The relatives we had around were distant relatives, not very close. However, human nature is adaptable so we accepted the situation, although we found it difficult.
Korimunessa Begum (Shaw)
Korimunessa was born in India but moved to Bangladesh with her family after the Liberation War. She was married in 1973, aged 14, and came to Britain in 1975 to join her husband who was working in Hull. She commented,
When I first came here I didn't like it. My time did not pass quickly. Then we came to Oldham.
Aged only 16, she recalled the strangeness of England:
There were no Bengalis at first, so I felt lonely. I learned English and started mixing with White people quite quickly. I used to go alone to the shops. My neighbour was very good, she used to look after me day and night… Other Bengali women couldn't speak English so they were afraid even to open the door.
I didn't eat meat for two years. I used to wonder if it was halal or haram. I did not drink milk for a whole year. My husband would buy milk, but I would throw it down the sink. I was confused about what kind of milk it was… I used to eat fried eggs, sardines and mashed potato. I wouldn't eat anything else… Now you can find any kind of Bengali foods… How easy life is for girls nowadays!
Shoeb Chowdhury (Birmingham)
Shoeb Chowdhury was born in Britain in the 1970s but returned to Bangladesh when he was very young, finally coming back to Birmingham in 1985. His grandfather had been in England for several years during and after World War II, when his ship was blown up by a mine near Gibraltar and he was hospitalised in the UK. His father later came in 1957 and worked for some years for British Steel. Shoeb Chowdhury told us:
The situation in England in the early '70s was different. There were very few mosques and madrassas and there were not many Muslims. My father would always think about the culture – which culture would his children grow up with? Muslim culture or Western culture? Because of this, he sent us to Bangladesh to learn the Bangla language, to have a madrassa education, and to know Bengali culture. So we all went to Bangladesh in 1975. I studied up to high school there and in 1985 we came back to this country.
He reflected on the changes in this period:
At that time [in 1975], there were only 10 or 12 families. There were a lot of Pakistanis. I still remember we would gather twice a week in one or two houses. As there were very few Bengalis, we would get together to socialise. The sense of community was not developed. There was only one organisation, the Bangladesh Welfare Trust. When I came back in 1985, the situation was different. The community was fully developed. There were five or six active organisations in Birmingham.
Amjad Ali (Tower Hamlets)
Amjad Ali, a businessman and former restaurant owner who lives in Bethnal Green, arrived with his mother in 1973 to join his father. As with many others, Amjad Ali's father had come in 1963 on a 'voucher visa'.
They used to give vouchers. After World War II, this country needed labour. There was a shortage of workers here. They were bringing in people from other countries. My father, along with other people from Sylhet, came here as a labourer… He used to work in the leather factories around Brick Lane.
Amjad came to England after the Liberation War:
I came with my mother. My father was in London. During the War he had no communication with us and he was worried. So immediately after Liberation in 1971, he came to Sylhet. Our passports were ready and the process of coming to London began. By the time we came to London it was 1973.
Because of immigration restrictions, which meant that grown up children couldn't automatically migrate with their families, however, two of Amjad's siblings were left behind in Bangladesh with an aunt and uncle:
As my brother was over 16, he couldn't come. People advised my father not to apply for my brother, so he didn't apply... When he found out he couldn't bring one of my brothers, he decided to leave one of my sisters there too so that the two of them could be brought up together. He thought that would help them.
Amjad remembered the anti-racist struggles in East London at that time:
In the 1970s when the anti-racist movement was organised, I was one of the activists from the younger generation. I was the youngest person in our group. I would come to this area [Tower Hamlets] regularly. I lived somewhere else but I thought of it as my area because Bengalis dominated this area. We set up an organisation called 'Bangladeshi Front' in 1979. Another organisation, the Bangladeshi Youth Movement was also set up on the opposite side of Commercial Road. These two organisations worked together… In mid 1978 when there were racist attacks we divided into groups and would patrol the area at night or in the evening in order to resist the attacks and protect our people.
Amjad also remembered the beginning of the restaurant industry in Brick Lane:
The restaurant business started with the 'Sonar Bangla', a café-styled shop – tea, chicken curry and one or two other items. I saw it when I came here in 1973. There was also a café called 'Nirala'. Bengalis owned these two restaurants. Another restaurant 'Moussa' was owned by a Pakistani. At that time all the restaurants were café style… We would usually sit, gossip, chat at 'Sonar Bangla' and 'Nazrul'... In the 80s the number of restaurants increased… The Bengalis would go there and eat rice.