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A brief history of the settlement of Muslim communities in Britain

A brief history of the settlement of Muslim communities in Britain by Dr Asma Khan
© Cardiff University, Asma Khan

This article presents a brief history of the migration of Muslim communities to Britain. The resulting patterns of settlement in urban areas of high deprivation within close-knit co-ethnic communities, as well as the process of migration itself, have implications for the mental health of British Muslims.

The large-scale migration of Muslims to Britain began in the post-war period during the 1950s, although the presence of Muslims in Britain has been noted over a far longer period. For example, there are Somali and Yemeni communities that predate WWII in historical port cities like Cardiff in Wales and South Shields in the North of England (Gilliat-Ray 2010).

Proposed changes to the British immigration system in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which aimed to limit migration to Britain from Commonwealth countries in South Asia and Africa, led to a marked increase in migration from Pakistan and India during this time (Shaw 2000). Whilst previously men from these countries had migrated alone for primarily economic reasons, the proposed restrictions prompted the migration of Muslim women, leading eventually to settled Muslim communities in Britain (Kalra 2000). Muslim migration to Britain continued throughout the 1970s and 1980s, notably from Bangladesh and East Africa (Gilliat-Ray 2010).

Social networks from countries of origin were important to both migration and settlement for Muslim families in Britain (Werbner 1990). Families pooled resources of information and finances to support migration and to find work and accommodation, creating ‘chains of migration’ (Anwar 1979). This led to selective and localised migration from certain (often rural) areas of South Asia to certain towns and cities in Britain (Anwar 1979; Kalra 2000). For example, almost half the Bangladeshi population in Britain is from a single district, Sylhet (Iqbal 2016). Some of the mental health implications of these dense co-ethnic communities, positive and negative, are discussed in later in this activity.

Ethnographic studies of Muslim communities highlighted the essential role that dense co-ethnic communities played in the early stages of migration and settlement as a source of practical, social, and emotional support (Shaw 2000). These areas of settlement were most often disadvantaged urban areas where the cost of housing was low, and work was available (Kalra 2000). The labour market opportunities available to male migrants were limited to low-paid and low-skilled work in the industrial and transport sectors (work in textile mills, for example) due to their lack of education and fluency in English, or because qualifications from countries of origin were not recognised, alongside racism in the labour market and wider society (Kalra 2000). The current socio-economic circumstances of Muslim households and individuals in Britain are covered in more detail later in this activity.

More recent Muslim migrations, from 2000 onwards, are largely a result of transnational marriage and socio-political conflicts in other areas of Asia, the Middle East and Africa (MCB 2015; Britton 2019). Some recently arrived Muslims therefore have asylum-seeker or refugee status, including those from Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and, more recently, Syria. Those arriving more recently may have very different socio-economic profiles from those who arrived in the 1970s in terms of their level of education, fluency in English, and their socio-economic status in their country of origin (Shaw 2000). We will discuss the impacts of migrations on mental health are later.

Muslim communities in Britain are diverse in terms of their ethnic background, migration journeys and patterns of settlement. Among some of the longer established Muslim communities, for example Indians in Leicester, or Pakistanis in Bradford, there are third and even fourth generation families. Some ethnic groups of Muslims are concentrated in particular geographical areas, for example most Muslims of Turkish and Bangladeshi origin live in areas of London (Iqbal 2016).

Over to you

Share a brief account of what you know about the migration histories and settlement patterns of the Muslim communities in the area that you live and/or work? What would you like to know more about? Take a look at comments from others to see if you can add any insights or sources of information.

© Cardiff University, Asma Khan
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Understanding Muslim Mental Health

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