Diaspora, Identity, Peace and Conflict

Life is no better for many migrants in UK

When I came to Britain for the first time in 1976 there were hardly any Sri Lankans except those who came to study. If ever I saw a Sri Lankan I was more than thrilled and I never turned down an invitation to a meal since I was surviving on fish and chips and the occasional long-grain rice and curry with green pepper instead of chillies and throwing in papkrika for chilli powder.

This time round in 2001 I could not walk the streets without spotting a Sri Lankan shop selling everything from spices to Karuthakolumbu, from dried fish to fresh seer fish. You are practically at home in London. But all is not well with the Tamils in the UK.

Having lived my younger days in Jaffna where divorce was unheard of, domestic violence only among a very few, I was shocked to find that quite a number of Tamil women are subjected to beatings and verbal abuse on a daily basis but they never talk about these openly for fear of reprisals and stigma. Families are splitting up at an alarming rate. I will not go so far to state that every Tamil man beats up his wife. But I have seen enough domestic violence and in my part-time job as interpreter I was dumb-founded at the level of domestic-violence very often directed at wives and children. More often than not severe alcoholism and over-crowding are the underlying causes, according to the police and the Department of Social Services. Depression and suicides are on the increase.

The Social Services handle more than their share of divorces, separation and children being taken into care and I came to the conclusion the Tamils who came circa 1990 particularly those from villages were suffering from culture shock and they were not prepared for the completely modern life that lay ahead of them.

Gang-violence which plagued Europe including  UK led to the London Metropolitan Police to set up a Tamil Squad. It was no longer the Blacks who led the drug culture; it was the younger generation of Tamils who were quite literally a confused youth torn between the mores of a backward tamil culture and the peer pressure of the modern western youth culture.

It was difficult for the juxtaposition of their entrenched Tamil culture and the Western way of life which had become too much of a strain; they had no orientation from their own community charities in these matters that sprang to help them and were not geared towards addressing these issues unlike the African, Middle-Eastern or Afghan refugee communities. Instead these charities taught Bharata Natyam, Violin, Tamil and cookery instead of teaching integration into the wider community.

Many households I have been to still do not use toilet paper despite being here for more than a decade due to the cost! But they will subscribe to Tamil channels at nearly £100.00 per channel and you can tell it is a Tamil household when the curtains are drawn even during the day to watch Tamil shows. And oh, the tap water is not good enough for them. They buy bottled drinking water although tap-water in UK is the safest.

Owning property in the Tamil psyche has not left when they fled from the war in Sri Lanka and when Labour government took hold in 1997 they also offered bank loans for first-time home buyers without a penny in deposit. Banks and finance companies did not go into your declaration that you are earning £30,000 when in fact a family’s combined earnings were not even £12,000.

So you took a mortgage on a £250,000 property paying premium insurance and interest rates. You declared you were self-employed catering to the tune of another £20,000. Banks believed you or could not care less. If worse comes to the worst the property would be confiscated for non-payment.

Credit cards were also handed out willy-nilly and everyone knows what their interests are; astronomical. Now, where’s the money to pay back all these? You can only take in so many tenants who are often asylum-seekers. You work day and night in sandwich factories, bakeries, shops and you do not have time for family life. These take a toll on family harmony. Children hardly see their parents and they are like the old British latch-key kids. Ping nuggets and frozen pizzas on microwave, take-away during weekends and off to violin classes and back at home watching Tamil channels.

I do not want to generalize but the greed for owning property has sent many a family into a hell-hole it can hardly get out of. Instead of parting with their hard-earned money to demonstrations for independent homeland they could get together and organise community organisations to educate themselves into integrating into the community in UK rather than living a frog-in-the-well life.

Once this piece is published the Tamil refugees would have my guts for garters but thankfully they would not know my face and I will carry on merrily.

On a serious note, I want my Tamil brethren to take stock of their lives and cherish why they came to UK in the first place; which is to get a better life than they did fleeing for their lives all because their beliefs were obfuscated by politicians bent on instilling into their confused minds that they were the saviours of Tamils; in the wake of having the LTTE vanquished but nevertheless carrying on its fight for an independent homeland for Tamils.

What really matters is that Tamils are their own saviours. They do not need Sinhala chauvinism. Tamils lived with this since 1948. Britain gave them an opportunity to clear steer of racial prejudices and make a mark for themselves. It bent itselves backwards to provide them with the opportunities they were deprived of in their motherland.

On the plus side the offspring of refugees are doing well and in fact certain failing schools in London in late nineties had their grades marked up with the influx of Tamil refugee children whose one and only aim is to excel. These kids are now in Oxford and Cambridge reading science, psychology and new media among others.

But when it comes to marriage they had better stick to their castes and very often they would leave their lovers in the lurch to get married to an import from Sri Lanka who would come with a fat dowry or someone who need to get a PR status in the UK.

The Tamil diaspora still have not integrated with the wider UK community never mind the Sinhalese. Both the Tamils and the Sinhalese eye each other with suspicion you would rather find a needle in a haystack than have Tamils invited to a Sinhalese home and vice-versa. I think Tamils and Sinhalese despite all the manipulations of the politicians integrate better with each other at home than abroad.

What needs to be done under the circumstances is for the Sri Lankan High Commission to incorporate the youth in community and social activities particularly during these festive times.