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The long read: Britain's Goan flavour

Prasun Sonwalkar
Filed on April 22, 2021

In a unique migration flow, tens of thousands of mostly young Goans have migrated to the United Kingdom before Brexit, adding another layer to the global Indian diaspora


December 31 is usually a time of revelry with vows and promises of new tidings, but there were little signs of that in 2020. The day was grey and gloomy for Britons facing tighter curbs over the Christmas-New Year holiday period due to a spike in Covid-19 cases. But there was also much handwringing about 7,500km away, in Goa, India. The reason: the day marked the completion of the Brexit process; the UK would no longer be part of the European Union (EU) from the next day, which meant that the doors until then open to a migration flow that uniquely conflated colonialism, political economy and long-distance nationalism would close from January 1. After Brexit, it is no longer possible for Goans to easily settle in Britain after acquiring citizenship of Portugal, a unique facility availed by tens of thousands in recent years and decades.

Goans have a long history of going global, but the contemporary text of their migration to Britain is as significant as its context. Portugal was the first western country to colonise a part of India (Goa, from 1510) and the last to leave when independent India liberated Goa on December 19, 1961. Under Portuguese nationality law, those born in Goa, Daman and Diu before the liberation, and their three generations, can register their births in Lisbon and acquire Portuguese citizenship. Not many were aware of the route after liberation, and few made the transition in the 1970s and 1980s. The flow picked up from the mid-1990s and particularly since the early 2000s.

Portugal is a member-state of the EU, so its citizens are EU citizens, and can freely travel, work and settle in any of the member-states and access state benefits. There were 28 EU member-states until Brexit; Goans with Portuguese passports could settle in any of them.

The vast majority of the Goans-turned-Portuguese citizens chose to settle in Britain, mainly due to post-colonial familiarity and knowledge of the English language. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), in 2012, there were 7,000 Portuguese citizens in Britain who were born in India.

The Oxford Migration Observatory said in a 2015 analysis of EU nationals that “the only group larger than 10,000 with a common EU country of citizenship and a common non-EU country of birth is Indian-born Portuguese citizens. This group accounted for just over 20,000 UK residents in the first quarter of 2015”. The figure went up to 28,000 in June 2017; as of June 2020 the figure was 35,000, according to ONS. The actual figure is likely to be higher because more arrived before the December 31 deadline, while many who previously arrived with Portuguese passports acquired British citizenship after completing the qualifying period in the UK.

A large number of the new arrivals settled in the south-west town of Swindon, Leicester in the east Midlands and in London areas such as Wembley and Southall, picking up a range of jobs in various sectors. The other side of the Goan migration is that many streets and localities in villages such as Aggasaim, Goa Velha and Siridao have emptied out as their residents began new lives in Britain. The main driver of this wave of migration to Britain, as in earlier ones, is economic, to seek ‘greener pastures’, jobs, and a better life for the next generation.

Leaving Goa for a better future

Aleixo Reginaldo Lourenco, Congress MLA from Curtorim, said during a visit to London before the Covid-19 pandemic curbed international travel: “There is some fear at the back of the mind due to Brexit, but that has not stopped more Goans from giving up Indian citizenship and applying for Portuguese nationality. The situation is bad in Goa, many don’t see a future there. Most of those leaving Goa are youngsters, they are not leaving out of love of London or Britain, but they just don’t get jobs in Goa. Some are scared about the future.”

Goans have migrated over the centuries to various countries and continents. In Britain, the community broadly comprises four groups, reflecting four historic migration flows: descendants of the first seafaring Goans and others who interacted with the East India Company in India and moved to London around the middle of the 19th century; the Goans who arrived from former British colonies in east Africa in the 1960s and 1970s; the Goan doctors, dentists and other professionals who arrived with Indian passports; and the recent arrivals with Portuguese passports. Interactions between the groups reflect similar patterns of affinities and angularities evident in other community groups migrating from the same country or a region. Several associations and groups formed over the years and decades ensure close interaction. Many in the community — particularly the recent arrivals — closely follow events and issues back home through social media and regular visits, often seeking to intervene in developments; for example, many Goans came together in north London in October for a silent protest organised by activist Carmen Miranda on the controversial Mollem environment issue, holding placards with slogans such as ‘Goans Against Coal’, ‘Kollso Naka, Kollso Naka’, ‘Save Mollem’.

In British politics, the community has four representatives in the frontline — Suella Braverman (nee Fernandes), Claire Coutinho, Valerie Vaz and Keith Vaz — and at least three at the council level: Rabi Martins in the Watford Borough Council and the husband-wife duo of Imtiyaz Shaikh and Adorabelle Shaikh in the Swindon Borough Council. A Goan-origin candidate is in fray in the local council elections in Swindon in May: Lourenco Sipriano Fernandes (Conservative). Keith Vaz (Labour) has been the longest serving Asian MP (from 1987 to 2019), while his sister, Valerie Vaz, MP from Walsall South, is a leading member of Labour’s shadow cabinet. Braverman has a cabinet-level role as the attorney-general in the Boris Johnson government, while Coutinho (Conservative), who was elected to the House of Commons from East Surrey in the 2019 election, is tipped for a ministerial role in the next reshuffle.

Keith Vaz, born to Goan parents in the erstwhile British crown colony of Aden, and who moved to England in 1965, says: “The Goans — Christians, Hindus, Muslims — who arrived with Portuguese passports have integrated well. My area in Leicester East alone has thousands of people from Goa, Daman and Diu. They are already making a huge contribution to society. Besides, churches that were seeing declining attendance have been boosted by the Goans. There is pressure on housing; its capacity in Leicester needs expanding to accommodate the new migrants. Due to Brexit, Goans are of course welcome to visit, but now cannot come and settle down. Those who arrived before December 31 need to sort out their paperwork and get ‘settled’ or ‘pre-settled’ status from the Home Office by June 30.”

As Vaz says, Goans have been boosting church attendance in Leicester; similar is the case in London and Swindon, where prayers and service are regularly held in Konkani by priests of Goan origin. On Sundays, before the Covid-19 curbs prevented gatherings, the St Michael & St Martin Church in Hounslow, for example, would overflow with devotees, the vast majority of them Goans. Says Panaji-origin structural engineer Oliver Menezes: “The attendance for every mass in this church was overwhelming prior to the pandemic and over 90 per cent of those attending the church services were Goans. Apart from the main bay, the side bay and passage ways as well as the choir loft used to be packed, people spilling over to the external footpath.”

The Goan-Portuguese migrants have largely been assimilated as a legacy of the UK’s membership of the EU, but they were among the thousands of Poles, Romanians, Bulgarians and other EU citizens whose ability to freely move and settle was resented by a significant section of the British population. The migration to the UK of the large number of EU citizens from less prosperous member-states since the early 2000s, and the pressure it was building on local communities, was a major factor behind Britons voting to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum. Campaign group Migration Watch raised the issue in 2013, calling it a ‘loophole’ that allowed EU citizens to settle in the UK and immediately access full state financial benefits. Andrew Green, the group’s chairman, said in a paper on the issue: “It is absurd that EU citizens should be in a more favourable position than our own citizens.” The paper mentioned the migration of Goans using the Portuguese passport route as an ‘example of abuse’.

There are also instances of the paperwork needed to acquire Portuguese passports being exploited to enable ineligible people to migrate. The process is based on applicants providing official and church records of births maintained during Portuguese rule in Goa, Daman and Diu, but not all records survive in original form. In an operation codenamed ‘Livro Mágico’ (‘Magic Book’), the Immigration and Borders Service of Portugal has busted a major international network that arranged fake papers to enable people to gain Portuguese nationality for a price. The operation spanned India, Portugal, the UK, Guinea-Bissau, Senegal, Mozambique, Principe and Cape Verde.

‘Their hearts are in Goa’

Take a walk along Elmina Road, Manchester Road or Broad Street in Swindon and you hear popular ‘kantar’ songs, as the aroma of Goan cuisine wafts across accompanied by animated discussions in Konkani. Inhabitants of houses along the streets once occupied Goa’s idyllic villages, but now work for car makers, hospitals, retails shops and chicken factories in the grimy English industrial town. Few Goan migrants have figured in local crime and convictions. Housing is a challenge, with many owners operating the ‘kudd’ (dormitory) system, in which more people live in rooms in a house that, by British standards, amounts to over-crowding, and is now posing a challenge to local health authorities dealing with Covid. In London and elsewhere, several restaurants offer traditional Goan cuisine with names such as ‘Viva Goa’, ‘Olde Goa’, ‘Palms of Goa’ and ‘Casa De Goa’, with interiors replete with images of houses, locations and symbols back home.

Says Jaime Barreto, a Panaji-origin civil servant: “They are Portuguese citizens, but their heart is in Goa. There are many community groups formed along the Goan villages they hail from; events include feasts and ‘tiatr’ (theatre) by groups from Goa. In Leicester, some neigbourhoods are entirely inhabited by people from Daman.”

Many recent migrants found jobs in London and elsewhere, but wider challenges in the British economy and growing unemployment, particularly due to the pandemic, have left others disappointed. Says Nisha Rosario: “I have just come to England in the hope of better career opportunities, but I was a little disappointed when I realised that it is not all that hunky-dory as is perceived back home in Goa.”

After the UK’s doors closed after Brexit, those planning to migrate are looking at other countries in the EU and elsewhere, but others who have no such plans are keen to encourage the youth to consider entrepreneurship and take up traditional options such as baking and toddy tapping. Shaeen Gomes Gonsalves, the Panaji-based chairperson of the Goa ForGiving Trust, has attended the ‘UK Goan festival’ during one of her recent visits. Aware of the reasons why many have migrated, she believes there are many opportunities in Goa itself: “Many Goans have migrated for myriad reasons; primary amongst them is the rampant corruption in getting government jobs. Of course, many are genuinely happy to have left Goa for better prospects. But there are many options here in Goa in the form of entrepreneurship, especially in traditional occupations such as baking, toddy tapping, coconut plucking, farming, tailoring etc. Sadly, we Goans are more inclined to taking up jobs, and starting a small business is sometimes viewed with fear, though things are changing. For example, I come from a traditional bakers’ family, and we have been baking bread for decades. Government agencies and others must put their heads and hands together to inspire our youth to take up such ideas. Our trust works in areas such as the environment, traditional occupations and music, and will be happy to support entrepreneurship.”

(Prasun Sonwalkar is a journalist based in London.)





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