The Soft Power of the UK’s Pakistani Diaspora

The Pakistani diaspora has contributed greatly to the social, economic, and cultural life of the United Kingdom (UK), which exemplifies its potential as a vehicle of soft power in relations between Pakistan and the UK. Soft power is a persuasive and influential, rather than coercive, approach to international relations. This influence shows both Pakistan and the UK that they have shared interests, which can be more easily secured through cooperation. Members of the Pakistani diaspora are well-placed to highlight the benefits of bilateralism in securing these interests.

The 2021 Census is due at the end of March, but, as of the 2011 Census, people of Pakistani ethnicity accounted for 2% of the population in England and Wales, and it was the fastest-growing of all the Asian communities between 2001 and 2011. Though a pattern of migration from the Indian-subcontinent has been established prior to Partition, the number of Pakistanis migrating to England peaked in 1961 and 1962. One factor that commentators have suggested contributed to this was the creation of the Mangla Dam in Pakistan which began in 1961, for which the citizens of Mirpur were compensated for its flooding of the town. With this compensation, many migrated and settled in the UK.

Pakistanis and British Pakistanis bolstered the workforce, particularly in the labour and unskilled sectors. Those that were qualified became instrumental in the National Health Service (NHS), particularly when many doctors arrived from Pakistan following an appeal by the health minister in the 1960s. Despite the racism that such doctors experienced in terms of what jobs they were offered, they became a part of the foundations of the NHS, and South Asians constituted even a majority of general practitioners (GPs) in areas like the Rhondda Valley of Wales.

The importance of the Pakistani diaspora in all aspects of UK society is by no means a purely historical phenomenon. Some of the most vital contemporary contributions include the ongoing participation in the NHS, particularly through the COVID-19 pandemic, business, and cultural influence.

Firstly, the NHS is a pillar of the UK’s society, as it provides free healthcare to the legal residents of the UK. Having been essential in the development of the NHS, the Pakistani diaspora continues to play a leading role in sustaining it. As of January 2020, in England, 4,313 members of the NHS staff registered themselves as having Pakistani nationality. Also, Pakistan was the third highest country of qualification for NHS doctors, after the UK and India.

The importance of the Pakistani diaspora in all aspects of UK society is by no means a purely historical phenomenon. Some of the most vital contemporary contributions include the ongoing participation in the NHS, particularly through the COVID-19 pandemic, business, and cultural influence.

Furthermore, as medical and frontline staff, Pakistanis and British Pakistanis have truly put their lives on the line during this pandemic, given the disproportionate effects of the virus on people of Pakistani ethnicity. A report by Public Health England (PHE) found that, among the working-age population, people of Pakistani ethnicity have a 50% higher risk of death than those of White British ethnicity. So, just as Pakistanis endured discrimination and racism as they formed the backbone of the NHS, they have continued to serve the country in the face of a deadly virus that discriminates. Given that anti-Pakistani sentiment has been a problem in the UK since the 1960s, the role of British Pakistanis in the NHS should influence increasingly positive perceptions towards Pakistanis.

Beyond this, British Pakistani doctors have been working to help patients and advise other doctors both in the UK and in Pakistan. For example, Dr Suhail Chughtai built telemedicine software that enables doctors to video call and share notes while they talk, which is so important now, given that COVID-19 can be an enigma to even the most senior doctors. This shows that the British Pakistanis have been instrumental in the fight against COVID-19 not only in the UK but in Pakistan too. This highlights the importance of cooperation in areas, such as medicine, that require a bilateral or multilateral approach to protect as many people as possible.

Secondly, in terms of business, there are a number of success stories in which British Pakistanis have made empires from nothing. They have the status and ability to represent the interests of the Pakistani diaspora and Pakistan to the wider society. One prominent example is that of Sir Anwar Pervez. He, having been born in Pakistan and moved to the UK, started work as a bus conductor in his 20s before developing the Bestway Group from the bottom into a company worth billions of pounds.

Sir Anwar Pervez has since given back to his communities by establishing the Bestway Foundation in 1987. The foundation has donated and worked towards many charitable causes, including the provision of scholarships to South Asian students to study abroad, the creation of health units in Pakistan that provide free treatment, and apprenticeship training to thousands of people since 1998.

The UK’s Pakistani diaspora has demonstrated that it is indispensable to British society. This influence places the diaspora in a unique position to not only maintain ties with Pakistan but to raise awareness of and represent its shared interests within the UK.

This, among other initiatives such as the British Council, is an exemplification of soft power because Pakistan has established an educational and social influence in the UK and vice versa. Many young people from Pakistan, including the underprivileged, are given the opportunity to realise their full potential, which strengthens their links with and influence over the society of the UK and its institutions, particularly as they climb their respective vocational hierarchies.

Thirdly, the Pakistani diaspora, which is constituted of a significant number of public figures, has manifested soft power through its cultural influence. These figures have been able to raise awareness of issues in Pakistan through their work and thereby encourage greater involvement in issues that affect Pakistan within the UK. For example, British Pakistani politicians, like Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, have been campaigning against Islamophobia within the UK’s political system. Baroness Warsi remarked in 2019 that she felt that she did not want to be pitted against the entire Conservative party, but “it’s increasingly becoming like that because there are so few other voices.”

Indeed, the issue of Islamophobia has become increasingly pertinent in the UK, which aligns with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan’s message. Khan has recently called for Muslim countries to stand up to the West, which highlights that the dangerous dichotomy between Western civilisation and Islam is still strong. This signals that the campaigns by British Pakistanis against Islamophobia must be accompanied by action from allies of Muslims in the West. British Pakistani Muslims, who are pillars within our society, have the ability to help make this a reality through their influence, and other Brits have to answer this call. This should be answered out of love for humanity, but the dedication of British Pakistani Muslims to the UK, particularly through the NHS, should move all to action.

In sum, the UK’s Pakistani diaspora has demonstrated that it is indispensable to British society. This influence places the diaspora in a unique position to not only maintain ties with Pakistan but to raise awareness of and represent its shared interests within the UK. Issues like Islamophobia show there is still more to be done to ferment the diaspora’s soft power but, through cooperation between the Pakistani diaspora and other Brits, these issues can also be set aside for the greater good of humanity

Mary Hunter

Mary Hunter is a postgraduate Research Fellow at the Centre for Army Leadership, based in the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. She is also Research Fellow at the London Institute of South Asia and regularly writes articles on Pakistan and its diaspora in the UK.

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