Fair Immigration? Britain’s Leave Campaign Struggles to Persuade Ethnic Minorities on Brexit

If there was a Brexit, analysts broadly expected a surge in market volatility amid uncertainty over what would happen next

The Palace of Culture and Science is illuminated in Union Jack colours by Warsaw's capital authorities in support of Britain staying in the EU, in Warsaw, Poland June 22, 2016. Image Courtesy: Reuters
  • Brexit campaigners are trying to persuade minorities to support their campaigns
  • Whilst there is free movement for EU citizens, some British Asians are particularly unhappy at visa rules that apply to non-EU migrants
  • 14 percent of people in England and Wales identified themselves as non-white in the 2011 census

At a limestone North London temple under the image of the Hindu god Krishna, a British Asian minister is striving to persuade ethnic minorities to support leaving the European Union with a message of ‘fair’ immigration and stronger ties to the Commonwealth. Britain is set to vote on Brexit Thursday, June 23.

British Prime Minister. Image courtesy: Wikimedia commons

Despite polls showing Black and Asian Britons are more pro-EU than the rest of the population, prominent Brexit campaigner Priti Patel has led the charge to win over the fastest growing section of the electorate ahead of Thursday’s referendum.

Leave campaigners have used worries about migration from the EU to tell millions of voters whose families hail from former British colonies that a Brexit could make it easier for people to come to Britain from places where their family roots lie.

Whilst there is free movement for EU citizens, some British Asians are particularly unhappy at visa rules that apply to non-EU migrants, making it difficult to bring over relatives for social functions or staff for restaurants.

“This is about having an immigration policy that brings fairness back and takes discrimination off our Commonwealth countries and off communities like the Indian community, the Pakistani community,” Patel told Reuters, as a dozen praying women in colourful traditional dress chanted at the temple.

There is no official definition of an ethnic minority but 14 percent of people in England and Wales identified themselves as non-white in the 2011 census, and nearly 20 percent said they were not white British, a sizeable group that could sway the outcome of a vote which polls show is too close to call.

But the murder of British lawmaker Jo Cox, who had backed refugee causes, has raised concerns about the tone of the debate on immigration and could make some minority voters think twice about backing the Brexit campaign, experts and voters said.

A poster bearing the message: “Breaking Point: The EU has failed us all” against a drop of a long line of refugees, unveiled by the leader of the anti-EU UK Independence Party, Nigel Farage, also damaged support among minorities.

At the East London Mosque, one of the largest Muslim places of worship in Europe, one voter said she had been leaning “70 percent” towards backing Brexit until Cox’s murder, which helped tip her in favour of continued membership.

“It made me think that if she is someone who is saying that we should stay in, someone of her character then that’s the right decision to go with,” said 33-year-old Zinia Khan, who works in the voluntary sector.

“You’ve got people like Nigel Farage with that poster and then you’re thinking: What are they going to change? How are they going to make things more difficult for people from black and ethnic minorities… and you feel safer if you’re in.”

Farage, who apologised for any offence caused but not for the content of the poster, has repeatedly denied accusations that UKIP is racist. “It was the truth,” he said on Wednesday.


Black and Asian voters tend to back the pro-EU opposition Labour Party, and the little available polling data and previous voting habits suggest the Brexit campaign has faced a difficult battle to win over minority support.

Whilst polls show Britons evenly split on the eve of the vote, four surveys which provided a breakdown by ethnicity showed that half or more of minorities want to remain in the EU compared to between a quarter and a third who back Brexit.

Only around 20 percent back Brexit according to the most recent nationwide findings from the British Election Study (BES) conducted between April 14 and May 4, similar to the 28 percent who supported an exit in a May 2015 Survation poll.

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A YouGov poll taken this month in London, the most diverse part of Britain, showed 52 percent of non-white Londoners backed EU membership, compared to 46 percent of white respondents.

Maria Sobolewska, a specialist in ethnic minority public opinion at Manchester University, said while many minorities backed tougher rules on immigration, they did not trust some of the leading campaign figures such as Farage.

“They don’t like the messengers,” she told Reuters.

“They do have to worry about what it means to hand these people a win and whether it would lead to more isolationist policies but they certainly think: these people are not friendly to minorities.”

While many minority voters share concerns felt by some white Britons about the impact of immigration on the National Health Service (NHS) and housing, polling shows they are less worried about the cultural impact.

“What we know in election studies is that the main difference on issue preferences, which are very similar – jobs, the economy, the NHS – is that immigration ranks lower,” said Sunder Katwala, director of non-partisan think-tank British Future, which focuses on migration and identity.

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Demographic factors could also help explain higher support for EU membership among ethnic minority communities which the Brexit campaign could find difficult to overcome.

Britain’s black and ethnic minorities are younger on average than the white British population, with younger voters among the most pro-EU regardless of background.

There are also distinct differences between Britain’s ethnic communities, many of whom hail from disparate Commonwealth nations in Africa and Asia, according to both the British Election Study and the Survation poll.

Only 42 percent of Bangladeshi Britons want to stay in the EU compared with 63 percent of those from a black African background and 65 percent of Chinese voters, according to BES.

British Indians, the country’s biggest ethnic minority group numbering some 1.4 million people, are marginally more pro-European than the wider population but half said they would either back Brexit or had yet to make up their minds.

“I think the Asian community is divided in the sense that they haven’t got enough information,” said Conservative Councillor Manji Kara, outside the Shri Vallabh Nidhi Mandir temple near Wembley Stadium during Patel’s visit.

A supporter of Brexit, he said his scientist son wanted to stay in the EU and that many others in the Asian community were leaning to remaining in the EU without all the facts.

“Quite a few of the people think they should vote for ‘In’ without actually realizing what’s in it for them if they stay in or what are the benefits of getting out,” Kara said.

-prepared by Saurabh Bodas (with inputs from Reuters), an intern at NewsGram. Twitter Handle: @saurabhbodas96