Within policy circles, transnational practices amongst migrants have sometimes been criticised for acting as a barrier to processes of effective ‘integration’ in a local community of settlement. The continuation of an active engagement, the maintenance of social networks and regular interactions with communities in countries of origin has sometimes been viewed with suspicion by Western states (Snel, Engberson and Leerkes, 2006).In the context of the current COVID-19 crisis, these transnational practices of social engagement – through Zoom, Skype, WhatsApp, Facetime, Viber or a phone call – have become as much a way of connecting to your friend at the bottom of the road, or your mum in a neighbouring town, as your relatives overseas. Suddenly, the physical distance of thousands of miles away has become the same as the distance across the town and it is used by everyone.
Despite the sharp increase of virtual communication, isolation has recently become the word of the day.Whether referring to the physical self-isolation, or the impact of isolation from the imposed social distancing and the lock-downs on many peoples’ mental health across all communities.As with all crises, these extraordinary circumstances are no exception, they shine the light on the existing societal structures and they impact every social group in a different way, usually hitting those already vulnerable groups the hardest.
Our recent project on British Bengali communities in London and Birmingham investigated the value and purpose of transnational practices and their relationship to experiences of citizenship, and many of the findings speak directly to the ‘new normal’ that we find ourselves in. One of the issues raised by the project was the isolation of older people within the Bengali community. Community organisations have traditionally played a fundamental role in people’s lives to combat isolation that first generation migrants might face, and we found that they played multiple roles in connecting people, providing advice and, for many, functioned as an important site of sociality. As one of our research participant’s (Shabed) explains, the examples of such support and sociality varied from community organisations offering working men an opportunity to socialise after work and to gain additional qualifications, to supporting women who often did not work, to overcome the language barrier and to enable them to meet other people. Shabed first talks about the men: ‘everyone would finish school…., go to work in restaurants and, you know, they thought there needed to be something done for them to socialise. So they set up a club called the Bangladeshi Working Men’s Club in Newtown. So they did this food hygiene course, they were giving out certificates’. He then gives an example of support community organisations provided for women: ‘We do a lot of work with Bangladeshi women and I’m sure you’ve seen it, maybe small things, but it makes a huge difference to their quality of life.’ When asked to explain how it makes difference to women’s quality of life, he offers an interesting insight: ‘…you know, like they come here, make friends, you know, if there’s some elderly ladies who… you know, if they weren’t here they wouldn’t be exercising, they wouldn’t be socialising, they’d just be in their family unit.’
A lack of funding and gradual closures of physical centres has been happening for some time and the opposition towards such closures received little to no attention from the Government. But it wasn’t just the older generation that was affected. We also found a range of concerns emanating from the closure of youth clubs, particularly in East London. It is well known that closures of local community centres fragment social groups and isolates already vulnerable individuals and as this virus crisis is showing us, this kind of local physical support is absolutely essential for a healthy and functional society to develop a network of resources that individuals can lean on during difficult times such as these. The COVID-19 crisis will make it even more difficult for these organisations to continue to exist or to recover and re-establish themselves after the lockdown is over, when they may be needed most. As for many vulnerable individuals, organisations and communities, COVID -19 has exacerbated a funding crisis that post-2010 austerity introduced.
Equally, in relation to our project, the transnational practices that our participants engage in, have become a common way of dealing with the absence of the kind of physical sociality that the local community centres would have offered. What this crisis highlighted is that migrant’s active engagement in transnational /virtual communication has not only made these communities resilient, robust and resourceful but also, it is a way of creating local community in ones living room, an important coping strategy during these unprecedented times. As expressed by our research participants, such as Chamela, the ability to regularly communicate with family back in Bangladesh has been incredibly important and clearly has a positive impact on people’s mental health and general wellbeing:‘I miss my family, I miss my country. So, connecting with them via Viber, telephone, Skype, we feel like we are connected. We are not missing them, somewhere it is mental satisfaction.’ The local and transnational communities are completely intertwined. As one of our other participants, Mehmuda, says: ‘[in Viber, WhatsApp, FaceTime] I see them and I talk to them, so it is not me being there, but it’s a lot like that, so that helps, definitely.’
Transnational practices, far from preventing people from ‘integrating’ locally, instead enable both local and transnational communities to support each other. In fact, our research shows that transnational practices can function as means through which local integration occurs. But, importantly, we know that ethnic minority communities have been much harder hit by Covid-19 than the rest of the population. And not only do resources need to be directed towards better understanding the structural inequality that has produced this uneven effect. But also investment will still need to be found for the community centres and youth clubs in East London and Birmingham that were already so neglected, if those vulnerable sections of the British Bengali community are to receive the help and support they need in the difficult post-lockdown recovery.