The television news has just broken the news of the murder of 86-year-old French priest Father Jacques Hamel while he was saying Mass. I walk outside to one of the main commercial streets in central Birmingham.
A man walks over; around his waist is a banner reading “Ask Me about Islam.” “Can I interest you in books about our religion?” he says. I am speechless at this public evangelization of Islam on the streets of Britain’s second city.
We walk into the Bullring, the main commercial center. The brands are those you find in most cities in Europe – Zara, Samsung, Nike and Adidas But, as you walk around, you are unsure which country you are in. Some women wear burqas, others cover their bodies but not their faces, wearing elegant scarves over their heads; there are Arabs, blacks, Slavs and Asians, including many from the Indian subcontinent. You hear many languages, most of whom I do not recognise.
According to the 2011 census, Birmingham had a population of 1 million, of whom British whites accounted for 58 percent, one of the lowest proportions of any large city in the UK. Those of Asian origin accounted for 27 per cent, including 13.5 percent from Pakistan, 3 percent from India and Bangladesh respectively and 1.2 percent from China.
This flood of foreign faces was the reason why 17 million British people, or 52 percent of those who voted, chose to leave the European Union in the referendum on June 23. In Birmingham, 50.4 percent voted for Brexit, a margin of 3,800 votes.
“The numbers are too great and our island is too small,” said John Waite, who sells shoes in a city center shop. “That is why I voted no. Many of the first and second generation cannot speak English. How can I communicate with them? Why do they not wish to assimilate?”
“I voted to leave out of a concern that the influx of people at the current volume is outstripping the rate at which Britain is able to build more houses and expand public services,” wrote G. Lanham in a letter to the Birmingham Post on Aug. 1. “I suggest a suspension of immigration for a short, limited period, to allow our government to take stock and appraise the entire immigration policy.”
Taxi driver David Whelan said: “there will be a war between us and the Muslims. Some of them want to assimilate, others do not. They hide their women behind burqas and say our women are sluts who show their bodies. We do not want them here. If they want to live like that, they should go back to their own country. Britain is going back to the country it was in the time of Charles Dickens. We are losing the social protections we have developed since World War Two.”
Many “No” voters see a direct link between immigration and the threat of terrorism. “Extremists, fanatics, lunatics are trying to come here to England and the policies and dictates of the EU are permitting, nay encouraging them to succeed,” wrote JB Greenberg in a letter to the Birmingham Post on Aug. 1. “The open-door policy of the EU is nothing more than a recipe for total disaster.”
On July 31, police in the West Midlands announced they had released 90 “suspected slavery victims.” They had been brought in trucks and coaches legally from Poland and Romania and held as prisoners, forced to work for long hours for very little pay.
“People of Southeast Asian heritage are also trafficked here to work in cannabis factories in squalid, dangerous conditions,” the police said.
Residents complain that many of those arriving from Eastern Europe, with large families, are given preference in limited public housing, ahead of local people who have waited for several years. They are said to enjoy free medical care and education, putting a heavy burden on schools and hospitals already stretched to the limit by government spending cuts.
The Brummies – Birmingham residents – from the Indian sub-continent find themselves trapped in the middle of the debate. Many have been here for two or three generations, with the first arriving after WWII when Britain had a shortage of labor and welcomed them to work in factories, building sites and service jobs. The families are well assimilated, with some of the third generation entering the professions like the law, medicine, engineering and the civil service.
So while they are “Asian,” they understand well the feelings of their fellow whites as they see the flood of migrants from eastern Europe and Africa. Mohammad Sadiq, a taxi driver of Pakistani origin, voted “Remain” because his business depends on many foreign visitors. If they need visas, fewer will come.
“My father came here as a migrant and worked very hard. He did not take welfare. He later set up two restaurants that are still in the family. I was born here and most of my family is here. I rarely go to Pakistan. The worst scroungers are Romanians and Somalis. They do not like to work. They take public welfare, they beg, they drink and they smoke. The Romanians come to your home, open the gate and go through the rubbish, to take things they want,” he said.
Asked about the killings of IS, he said: “we hate these killings as much as you do. If I could give my life to stop them, I would. These people are not Muslims. The Quran tells us that, if you see an ant crossing the road, you pick it up and put it to one side, to prevent it being killed.”
His colleague, Mohan Ram, of Indian origin, said that he also voted “Remain” for the same reason but was nervous of the future. “Migrants target Britain because its welfare and benefits are the most generous in Europe and it speaks English. There are Romanians and Somalis who have Dutch passports. Also there are many Afghans, Indians and Pakistanis who stay in Italy for several years, get Italian passports and then come. They will continue to come until the Brexit negotiations are completed.
“How many more people can this island take – another 20 million?”
Mark O’Neill, a Hong Kong-based writer, has published recent books on Chinese history; the latest is “The Miraculous History of China’s Two Museums” (Joint Publishing), with editions in English and Chinese. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.