Stepney Green Councillor Sabina Akhtar quits Labour
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Stepney Green Councillor Sabina Akhtar quits Labour over Keir Starmer comment on Bangladesh and illegal migrants

Stepney Green Councillor, Sabina Akhtar has quit the Labour Party after Keir Starmer singled out the country of Bangladesh when asked about the deportation of illegal migrants. Akhtar, who is of Bangladeshi heritage and was deputy leader of the Tower Hamlets Labour Group, resigned from the Labour Party last night (June 26).

Cllr Akhtar, who represents Stepney Green ward in Tower Hamlets, said Keir’s remarks had insulted her Bangladeshi identity and had singled out her community. Labour has since said the viral video clip circulating around social media of Keir’s comments is ‘misinformation’ and that he has ‘proudly supported’ the Bangladeshi community across the UK.

During a debate hosted by The Sun, Keir was asked about how Labour would tackle the deportation of illegal migrants. He said: “On the first few days in government, I’ll tell you what I’ll do, I’ll put the staff back in the returns unit. I’ll make sure we’ve got planes going off, not to Rwanda because that’s an expensive gimmick, they will go back to the countries where people come from.”

When asked about where he was referring to, Keir said: “At the moment people coming from countries like Bangladesh are not being removed, because they aren’t being processed.” He later defended the comment and refuted any claims that it was intended as a derogatory remark about Bangladesh or Bangladeshis.

But the Labour leader’s comments have angered the British Bangladeshi community particularly in Tower Hamlets, where more than a third of the population were recorded in the 2021 census as being of Bangladeshi ethnicity. Two of Labour’s parliamentary candidates for the Tower Hamlets seats of Poplar and Limehouse, and Bethnal Green and Stepney expressed their concerns.

In a statement posted on X, Cllr Akhtar said: “I was the first female speaker of the council from Bangladeshi origin, and I was a proud Labour party member, but I find I cannot be proud of this party any more when the leader of the party singles out my community and insults my Bangladeshi identity.

“I have defended the party all my life and was very proud of it. But it is clear the direction it is heading is unacceptable to me and my community.”

Apsana Begum who is standing for Poplar and Limehouse, also condemned the remarks, which she called ‘dog whistle racism’. In a video posted on X, Ms Begum said: “I will never ever stand by and let migrant communities be scapegoated. It is totally unacceptable for politicians, for any party, to use dog whistle racism against Bangladeshis or any other migrant community.”

Meanwhile Rushanara Ali, the first British Bangladeshi MP and Labour’s candidate for Bethnal Green and Stepney, said she had been in ‘close contact’ with Keir’s team as she relayed the concerns felt in her community. Earlier today (June 27), Keir said it wasn’t his intention to offend the British Bangladeshis.

He said: “I’ve got many Bangladeshi constituents in my own constituency who I’ve been working with for many years, and I want to build on that in government. The reference in the debate the other day was an example of a country that is considered safe as far as asylum is concerned, and one of the countries that’s actually got a returns agreement with us, and that is actually a good thing where both we and Bangladesh can be proud of.” He added: “I certainly wasn’t intending to cause any concern or offence to any Bangladeshi community here.”

Cllr Sirajul Islam, leader of the Tower Hamlets Labour Group, said he was left disappointed by Keir’s comments, and said British Bangladeshis make an ‘invaluable contribution’ to the UK and the Labour Party.

However he went on to say Keir’s comments had been ‘heavily edited’ by people who want to split up the community. Cllr Islam said: “The comments Keir made were quickly chopped up and heavily edited by those who seek to sow division and discord in our community. It should be acknowledged that Keir was referring to an existing returns agreement and not proposing what was in the viral clip.”

He added: “However, I do not think it was necessary in the first place to single out any community, let alone the Bangladeshi one, to score political points on asylum and migration. I came to this country as a baby when my family fled conflict during the independence war, which is why this feels so personal.”

Islam went on to claim that some Tower Hamlets Labour councillors had already been attacked online by the far right following the viral video clip. A Labour Party spokesperson said: “Keir has proudly supported the Bangladeshi community across the UK, who make an enormous contribution to our country.

“This clip has been edited to make it look as though Keir Starmer is suggesting repatriation of British Bangladeshis. It is misinformation.” They added: “In fact, Keir is referring to Labour’s long-established policy of returning those who don’t have the legal right to be in the UK to safe countries. Bangladesh was only used as an example, as there is already a bilateral agreement between the two countries.”

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