Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 October 2017, 07:05 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - United Kingdom : South Asians

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date July 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - United Kingdom : South Asians, July 2008, available at: [accessed 18 October 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Updated July 2008


In the UK the term South Asian usually refers to people from the Indian subcontinent. The 2001 Census recorded 1,053,411 Indians (1.8% of the total population), 747,285 Pakistanis (1.3%), 283,063 Bangladeshis and 247,664 other Asians. The majority of 'other Asians' were Sri Lankan, but this group also includes third-generation Asians, Asians of mixed parentage, people from Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldive Islands and some from the Middle East.

The main religions are Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism. The Indian community is Hindu (45%), Sikh (29%) and Muslim (13%). The Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities are each around 92% Muslim. There are also Jains and Buddhists.

Most of the community comes from three areas of the subcontinent: the Punjab (Pakistan and India), Gujarat (India) and north-east Bengal (Bangladesh). Some Gujaratis and Punjabis came to Britain from East Africa, especially Kenya and Uganda. The main languages are Punjabi, Gujarati, Bengali (or Bangla), Hindi, Urdu and English.

The majority of South Asians live in the major cities and large towns throughout the UK. Over 96 per cent live in England, with 43 per cent in London and the south-east, while about 2.5 per cent live in Scotland, 1 per cent in Wales and less than 0.1 per cent in Northern Ireland.

Historical context

South Asian servants, seamen employed by the East India Company, and theatrical performers lived in Great Britain from the seventeenth century onwards. The 1660 Navigation Act restricted the number of non-English sailors employed by the East India Company to one-quarter of their crews in order to limit the number of Asians left stranded in London. Some South Asian immigrants settled in Britain and set up businesses to cater to the seamen and other members of the community. From the mid-nineteenth century lawyers, doctors and businessmen established themselves in Britain.

Pakistani and Indian men were recruited mainly from the Punjab in the 1950s and 1960s to resolve manual labour shortages in the post-Second World War reconstruction of Britain. They worked on the railways, on Heathrow Airport, in the Midlands iron foundries, in Sheffield and Scunthorpe steelworks, in a rubber factory in Southall (London), and in textiles factories in Lancashire and Yorkshire. Asian doctors were also recruited for the new National Health Service.

Many of the immigrants were from rural areas and had lost their homes and jobs when India and Pakistan were partitioned in 1947. Most early South Asian migrants knew little or no English. Their social life centred around temples, mosques and cultural associations. Some married British women, but most sent money home to their extended families and, from the 1960s, the families began to join them in Britain. The public broadcasting company BBC launched English-language programmes in Hindi and Urdu on radio and TV in 1965 aimed at teaching English to the families to help them integrate. Family reunification increased in the 1970s and 1980s. Many South Asian businesses in retail, other services and manufacturing were set up with family members as the main workforce.

From 1968 and 1972 Punjabi and Gujarati business owners were thrown out of Kenya and Uganda respectively, and many came to Britain where they set up retail businesses.

The decline in British manufacturing in the 1970s and 1980s badly affected the South Asian community, but they adapted to the service sector, using their redundancy money and raising funds from family to set up businesses. The number of restaurants and Asian-owned corner shops increased rapidly. By 1991 about one-quarter of the community was self-employed.

The events of 11 September 2001 in the USA have affected the South Asian community, who account for most of the Muslims in Britain. Racist incidents against South Asians and those who appear to be Muslim increased, as did police surveillance of the community.

Current issues

The South Asian communities make a major contribution to British life in business, medicine, science, the arts, academia, politics and sports. Around 300 of Britain's 15,000 millionaires are of South Asian origin. There are thriving British Asian film and music industries, and many British Asian writers and actors reach the highest levels.

There are significant differences between the various South Asian communities, and there have been clashes between them. There are further differences between first and subsequent generations. Modern British values do not fit well with traditional South Asian values, particularly regarding women's rights and marriage.

According to the Parekh Report published by racial justice organization the Runnymede Trust, published in 2000, Indian children tend to achieve above-average qualifications in school, whereas Pakistani and Bangladeshi children are more likely to achieve below-average results. However, these three groups have higher attendance at university than the national average, with the exception of Bangladeshi women. A report in 2003 by the Department of Work and Pensions indicated that over two-thirds of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis live in low-income housing, whereas the Indian community is generally more prosperous. In the 1990s around 80 per cent of Indians owned their own homes, whereas the figure for Bangladeshis was 44 per cent, and the national average was two-thirds. A 2002 report showed that unemployment among Pakistanis and Bangladeshis can run as high as 40 per cent.

The 2005 report on the UK by the European Network Against Racism (ENAR) notes that Bangladeshi workers have among the lowest average earnings of any minority group, and that Muslims are the most disadvantaged religious minority in education, employment, housing and health. Also prejudice against Muslims, and those considered to be Muslims, increased significantly after the 7 July 2005 London transport bombings, according to some reports, while other reports indicate that there was little effect from these events.

Distrust of the Muslim community by mainstream British society increased following the 11 September 2001 events in the USA and the launching of the 'War on Terror', along with many media scares about bombs and chemical attacks. Racist incidents against the Muslim community, including violent attacks, rose. General election votes for the anti-immigrant, far-right British National Party increased four-fold from 2001 to 2005. Police action against Muslims also increased, with disastrous consequences in some cases. For example, the wrong people were arrested for plotting terrorist acts, and a Brazilian was shot dead by mistake. High-profile police action, intended to reassure mainstream Britain, in some cases has alienated moderate Muslims, who are opposed to fanaticism and whose help the police need if terror incidents are to be prevented.

The wearing of the veil by Muslim women and other overtly religious symbols, such as the Sikh turban, Jewish skullcap and Christian crosses, became an issue in 2006, raising more anger and division among communities. The issue of the veil pitted modern Muslim women against traditionalists within the British Muslim community. In November 2007, a school in Wales excluded a 14-year-old Sikh girl for wearing the Kara, a steel bangle important to observant Sikhs, in violation of rules against wearing jewellery. The High Court ruled in her favour in July 2008, finding that the school's actions represented indirect discrimination in violation of equality, race relations, and human rights laws.

There is an issue with the treatment of women by some parts of the South Asian communities, where women's rights are not respected in relation to national laws regarding gender equality.

The South Asian communities have their own faith schools. Some state schools within South Asian areas have made provision for minority religions and other cultural issues. There are several British Asian radio stations and TV channels and many daily and weekly newspapers and magazines.

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