Pandemic Borders: Feature

How the UK’s East and South-East Asian communities are fighting COVID-related violence

Migrant and diaspora communities are coming together to respond to a rise in racist violence

Diana Yeh
23 November 2021, 11.46am
A protester at a Stop Asian Hate rally in London in July 2021
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Eleventh Hour Photography / Alamy Stock Photo
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I’ve spent much of the pandemic speaking to people from East and South-East Asian communities in the UK – and have seen something extraordinary. On one hand, it’s been a devastating 20 months. Anti-Asian racial violence has surged. People from these communities are disproportionately represented among frontline workers and the virus has taken a grim toll. The official response has been woeful.

On the other hand, these experiences have led to a radical transformation within these communities. We’re seeing what I think is a historically significant moment in racial consciousness and organising.

Last year, the World Health Organization, the United Nations and Human Rights Watch appealed to governments worldwide to address a shocking rise in COVID-19-related ‘hate and xenophobia’ targeting people from East and South-East Asia, due to the association of the virus with China.

In the UK, despite under-reporting by victims, police figures suggest that hate crimes against the Chinese almost tripled from January to March 2020, and one source cites a 900% increase in online ‘hate speech’ towards China and Chinese people.

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But the UK has been slow to acknowledge the racist attacks and has barely registered the ways in which this racial violence intersects with the wider disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on East and South-East Asian communities. It was not until October 2020 that a first parliamentary debate to discuss the racial attacks was tabled by the Labour MP Sarah Owen, herself of mixed East Asian heritage. During this debate, she disclosed that she was in her teens when she discovered that “my racial identity meant that my safety was threatened, when a student brought a knife into school to stab me with because she did not like it when races mixed”. In this debate, Owen also identified the necessity of communities filling the vacuum left by the lack of state support.

Hate crimes

Meanwhile, the official focus has been on ‘hate crime’, a notion often used by states to narrow down the understanding of racism, which is reflected in media reporting of individual ‘hate crimes’.

This focus on hate crimes hides the structural dimensions of racism and diverts attention away from a range of systemic inequalities that impact the way in which minorities and vulnerable groups – including refugees, precarious and irregular migrants, those in poverty and frontline workers – experience COVID-19 as it intersects with other structural inequalities.

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For example, one community organisation, Kanlungan, reports that Filipino precarious migrants face difficulties in accessing healthcare and childcare, loss of employment, being forced to choose between working and destitution, overcrowded housing, and living in constant fear and isolation during the pandemic due to the government’s ‘hostile environment’ policies. As one interviewee put it, “You’re scared. Every step, you look back, because you don’t know. Are the doctors going to tell on you? They said it’s confidential, but you don’t really know if it’s true.”

When it comes to anti-Asian racial violence, a ‘hate crime’ focus also builds on – and perpetuates – racialised constructions of the Chinese as a successful and well-integrated model minority. The response to these crimes is then used to demonstrate that the government ‘cares’ for ‘deserving’ minorities, like the Chinese and sometimes other East and South-East Asians, with whom they are often conflated. However, it simultaneously legitimises the expansion of police powers that disproportionately affect migrant and minority communities.

A further glaring structural problem is the way in which, with the exception of the Chinese, East and South-East Asians in the UK are rendered invisible in official ethnic and racial categories, within an aggregated group called ‘Asian: Other’. This lack of acknowledgement – we might call it neglect – constitutes a form of structural violence, and to quote from the recent book ‘Empire’s Endgame’, is “an active, wilful and targeted technique of state power”.

Community response

Yet, it is in the context of this vacuum of state support that community responses have emerged. In the UK, we are witnessing a historically significant moment for East and South-East Asian community organising – which is now happening on an unprecedented level. Though the experience of COVID-19 has devastated and traumatised our communities, it has also galvanised a new anti-racist consciousness, which has led to the development of new networks of mobilisation.

Existing community organisations, such as Kanlungan, Hackney Chinese Community Services, daikon, Remember and Resist, and SEEAC (South-East and East Asian Centre) have responded to racist attacks through work on recognising, confronting and, indeed, interrogating hate crime. They have also offered a range of community-oriented support and healing projects that respond to wider racial violence and COVID impact.

In the context of a vacuum of state support, community responses have emerged

There has also been a historic rise of a range of new, specifically pan-East and South-East Asian collectives and organisations. ESA (East and South-East Asian) Scotland is “dedicated to empowering the community to realise our rights to active participation in democratic civil society”, End Violence and Racism towards East and South-East Asian Communities is “an intergenerational anti-racism campaign group using intersectional approaches to educate on, redress and prevent structural racism and inequalities”, while besea.n (Britain’s East and South-East Asian Network) is a grassroots movement founded by six women, whose mission is to promote positive representation of East and South-East Asian people in the UK and tackle racism and discrimination at all levels in our society.

The pandemic has sparked the coming together of a diversity of people across different Asian ethnic groups for the first time, to respond to the surge of racial violence. This testifies not only to an intergenerational coalition-building but is also sparking new conversations around racism and its intersections with other oppressions. Questions relating to interethnic and interracial solidarity and community-building, including anti-Blackness and Asian model minority status, are also beginning to be explored.

But despite all this, challenges remain. The state’s emphasis on ‘hate crime’ risks co-opting and neutralising the anti-racist work of these community organisations. And despite performative consultations, the communities suffering the most remain ignored by decision-makers.

To ensure community justice, instead of a punitive framework, we need to envision a radical new future, oriented towards a politics of care, where states are held accountable for caring for all regardless of status, and where communities are not only centred in decision-making but are also themselves properly resourced and empowered to care.

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