Vaughan Jones is a rather cautious man, the Chief Executive of the community NGO “Praxis” chooses his words rather thoughtfully when he speaks of the many small and big challenges that they face here in this borough in the east of London. Tower Hamlets is one of the poorest quarters of the entire country, the proportion of people with migration background is higher than in any other area of the country. The last Census showed that the indigenous British population constitutes about 43 percent of the inhabitants, while Bangladeshis and Sudanese form the largest minority groups.
“You can’t really call these people refugees though, the majority already belongs to a well established and long standing community in this borough”, says Jones and adds that many of them are already second or third generation migrants who have been living in the UK for a long period of time. There are still many new refugees from all over the world arriving everyday though, creating a hyper diversity that has no peer. “We definitely are facing many challenges in our everyday work, many concerning the living conditions and integration of these people”, admits Jones. “Praxis” has found their space in the area, working as a welcoming meeting place for displaced communities and providing advice and support services to migrants and refugees for 27 years.
The organisation has its concern mainly on issues of migration and focuses most of its work on the problems faced by “displaced people” in the UK, i.e. refugees. “Praxis” offers vocational training regularly, encouraging people to take language and other educational courses that should enable the participants to share their experiences, build solutions to their problems together and voice their concerns to policy makers.
“Most of the PR is actually done through word of mouth and advertised events”, explains Jones, “though sometimes we are also referred to by other organisations or even social services.” Since “Praxis” is a voluntary organisation they can also tackle some of the riskier issues concerning migration, like working with vulnerable migrants, those who have no legal status or are considered asylum seekers who went into hiding.
To actually gain legal status in the UK might take an awful long time and it’s not unusual that proceedings are delayed over many years, leaving people in a constant state of uncertainty. Many illegal migrants are drawn to manufacturing and food service industries, the gastronomy, with some of the female ones even ending up in prostitution. Once people gain legal status, they are entitled to apply for social housing and look for jobs.
Tower Hamlets has gone through some major developments, one of them concerning the project planning of the borough. And while many new buildings are being constructed around the area, not everything was for the better.
Affordable flats are becoming scarce, the borough is stuck between two richer areas, one of them being the river banks in the south. London’s upper class has found a new home around there, with lots of richer population in their wake looking for houses. Vaughan Jones is following this development rather critically: “The whole borough used to be working class labour area, while nowadays you have the super-rich living in gated communities just outside of the socially deprived neighbourhoods. I mean I got Bill Gates as my neighbour, that’s how the situation around here has changed!”
While fancy projects are being developed around Tower Hamlets, the borough itself is rather suffering from is housing problems. Socio-economic issues are among the most difficult challenges, as Alex Dhlakama a “Praxis” staff-member and former refugee points out. He left his mother country Zimbabwe in 1999 for good and was granted permission to stay in GB a few years later, starting to do advice work and teaching in the beginning.
“Many migrants are employed in low-income jobs in gastronomy and construction, the unemployment rate too is still very high.” Alex also explains that a ghettoisation process has taken place in the borough, with parts of the migrant population living in a parallel society.
Is multi-culti dead?
While some might argue that parallel societies are a failure in integration-politics, multiculturalism does have its positive impacts too. A few examples are food, culture, music and sports. “It’s kind of a mutual acculturation, merely a process where two cultures – in this case the traditional British and all migrant ones – live side by side”, Alex says.
Multi-culture might be considered dead in policy matters, but the multicultural climate is very much alive and acceptance of diversity is still high. Londoners are very proud of their city’s diversity and they are so with good reason. While walking down the Bethnal Green Street in the Tower Hamlets one only has to walk down a few blocks to see an immense amount of flavours, looks and different languages. It’s like travelling around the world, without having to leave your home.
“Cultures always forge a way into living together, even if the whole thing is kind of dynamic”, says Alex, well aware that they still face many problems in the area. One of them being the cultural shock many migrants suffer when they first come to the UK. “Many feel like they’ve come to a completely different universe, when they first get to know this city”, says Jones, who was on the staff of “Praxis” when it was founded in 1983. “While it´s easier to adapt certain things like food and certain living conditions it is harder with fundamental values like religion. They are far more difficult to connect” continues Jones and adds: “The misunderstanding of cultural backgrounds is big and sometimes you really have a clash of values.”
Although it might seem like the integration debate in the country is slightly messy and people are talking whether there should be a ban on migration, there are always those who won’t just take this as the end of the argument. “It’s a time of great change and we’re going through a period of development in migration”, concludes Jones“. At Praxis they are well aware that challenges lie ahead and they are not afraid to dive deep in the matter. In the end it is always about bringing people together.
By: Armand Feka