Italian Bangladeshis in UK: Ethnic minority fears Brexit impact

Italian Bangladeshis seeking better education for their children and more diversity now live under threat of Brexit.

Italian-Bangladeshi community, from London
The Italian Consulate estimates the number of Italian Bangladeshis in the UK to be around 7,500 [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]

London, United Kingdom – Prince Coffee and Sweets on Romford Road in East London caters mainly to Italian Bangladeshis who have settled in the area over the past 10 years. 

There is an authentic Italian coffee machine behind the counter and pictures of cappuccinos, pizza and South Asian sweets on the windows.

A narrow room at the back has been turned into an office, where Zakir Hossain, an accountant, occupies a desk.

He used to deal mostly with tax returns and business plans, but these days he spends much of his time helping clients with their settled status applications, the UK government scheme to allow EU citizens to remain in the UK legally after the end of the Brexit transition period in 2021.

“My customers have Spanish, Portuguese, but mostly Italian passports,” Hussein told Al Jazeera.

Private consultants like him and charities have stepped forward to assist people in the application process, which despite government reassurances of it being “straightforward”, can be complicated by gaps in the state’s own records on the applicant.

“[Children’s applications] tend to take longer than normal,” Hussein said.

Golam Maula, who consults as a language teacher and interpreter, occasionally doubling up as a driver, sits across from Hussein’s desk.

His political activism has led him to be an elected member of the London branch of Comites, a government-funded association that represents Italians abroad.

He prides himself to be the first Comites councillor, “not just in the UK, but worldwide” whose birthplace is not Italy.

The Italian Consulate estimates the number of Italian Bangladeshis in the United Kingdom to be around 7,500, equal to just over two percent of Italians registered in England and Wales, and nearly 10 percent of those who were not born in Italy or the UK.

The number, which does not include children and dependents, is thought to be much higher as not everyone will have registered with the embassy.

No one comes here for the money. We do it for the children, so they can have more opportunities.

by Mohammed Polash Basher, Italian Bangladeshi taxi driver

While the centre of gravity for the British Bangladeshi community has historically been Tower Hamlets, closer to the City of London, many families were priced out when the area was gentrified and began to attract wealthy young professionals.

Italian Bangladeshi families, most of whom arrived in the last decade as London property prices soared, were pushed to rent further east.

There are said to be 13 coffee shops on Romford Road alone in which the main language spoken, after Bengali, is Italian.

“When I got my [Italian] passport in 2010, something clicked in my head. I thought: ‘I am fine here’,” said Maula, a former trade unionist who later got involved in politics with the centre-left Democratic Party in Italy.

“But my children, I just couldn’t see their future. Italy seemed to me at the time, and today still, not yet ready for this diversity.” 

Italian-Bangladeshi community, from London
Golam Maula, represents Italians abroad in an official capacity, said diversity is more vibrant in the UK than in Italy [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]

After 18 years in Italy, he moved his family to the UK, arriving with the first wave of Bangladeshis to have obtained Italian citizenship.

In Italy, they represent one of the largest migrant communities – 140,000 people, many of whom live in the industrialised north.

The economic crisis was a push factor, as several factories shut down. But according to Maula, it is not the principal reason for migrating.

“Second generations have to do something to demonstrate they are not foreigners,” Maula said. “I looked at the only mixed-race guy working at my local bank and I thought: ‘This young man, how much will he have to struggle to emerge?'”

A recent film by emerging director Phaim Bhuijan about a young Italian Bangladeshi growing up in Rome was the first of its kind in portraying a second-generation story on screen, in a country that is just beginning to navigate its increasing diversity.

London, on the other hand, offered people like Maula a well-established Bangladeshi community and family contacts from home.

“There is something else that you can say, it’s in our DNA as South Asians. We were a British colony, they came to our country to rule. Only the children of ministers and the elite could come to the UK to study,” he said. 

“Now, we have this opportunity that our children can come to London to study. What used to appear like a dream, now was within reach.”


Brexit has now thrust this dream into uncertainty, as young people with EU passports may have to pay higher university tuition fees, like current non-EU “international students”, from 2021.

This worries Mohammed Polash Basher, a 34-year-old taxi driver on a break at a hole-in-the-wall coffee shop in nearby Ilford.

“I had a good life in Italy. But together with my wife, we decided we wanted our children to study in English,” he said in a northern Italian accent, having grown up in Brianza, an area near Milan. 

The other customers, mostly taxi drivers, too, nod in agreement. 

The chat around the counter quickly switches from Bengali to Italian as they begin voicing concerns about their business plans, mostly import-export, that are now on hold because of continued Brexit uncertainty around trade tariffs.

“No one comes here for the money. We do it for the children, so they can have more opportunities,” said Polash as he walked to a supermarket next door, where Italian biscuits, olive oil tuna cans and pasta line the aisles, as well as Italy-grown fresh produce, including traditional Bangladeshi foods like bitter melon.

“At home, I speak to them in Italian,” said Polash, whose children are nine and six. “They are Italian citizens and I want them to maintain a link with the country where they were born.

“The parents of the friends I grew up with call me regularly to ask me to visit them. Now, it is not possible, but one day, I would like to go back to Italy.

“The UK has always seemed to me like an open-air prison. Brexit isn’t helping.”

Italian-Bangladeshi community, from London
An Italian supermarket in East London sells homegrown fresh produce such as bitter melon, a vegetable used in Bangladeshi cooking [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera