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LONDON: Candidates in this week’s London elections are urging local councils to engage Muslim communities and address growing wealth divides leading Muslim children into poverty faster than any other group.

Londoners will go to the polls on Thursday in the wake of a damning indictment from Human Rights Watch claiming that at 37 percent, the city has the UK’s highest rates of child poverty.

But for Muslim children it has reached 50 percent, a figure that does not surprise Mustafa Field, director of the Faiths Forum for London.

“Poorer communities tend to have weaker infrastructure, which includes access to good-quality food and nutritional meals,” he told Arab News.

“I don’t work on the frontline, but I’ve received direct requests from struggling families for food in the wake of the pandemic, which has been a very alarming development in the level of poverty within London’s Muslim communities.”

Field said candidates can alleviate worsening poverty rates by increasing funding, improving internet access to ensure children are not left behind educationally, and tackling the social stigma around poverty, which he believes inhibits many Muslim families from seeking support.

Sagal Abdi-Wali, a council candidate in Camden, a trustee in the voluntary sector and a former local government officer, said it is not unique that a minority community is faring less well.

Some 14 percent of London’s population identify as Muslim, making them the second-largest religious group after Christians, but they remain underrepresented at government levels. This, Labour’s Abdi-Wali told Arab News, makes it harder to address inequalities.

“Part of the problem underrepresented communities have had for a long time now has been that they’re disproportionately affected by socioeconomic and health inequality,” she said.

“These difficulties were compounded by the pandemic, which we in Camden found led to surging housing, health and employment issues.

“And now with a form of austerity coming and the cost-of-living crisis, it’s likely this will worsen for the foreseeable if action isn’t taken.”

Rabina Khan, the Liberal Democrats’ candidate for mayor in the borough of Tower Hamlets, said there are multiple reasons for the growing disparity among minority groups in London.

“It’s a range of factors that are seeing Muslim children fall into poverty at faster rates than other groups, from the pandemic to the cost of living, to Brexit and the impact this has had on small businesses,” Khan told Arab News.

“All these things are affecting children’s lives, but if we’re to address it, local governments and Whitehall need to listen to local people, local authorities and engage communities.”

Abdi-Wali and Khan agree that no matter the outcome of the elections, the winners must liaise with voluntary groups as they can help identify and support all communities.

Khan said since the pandemic, she had seen the voluntary and faith sectors play a “huge” role in tackling child poverty in the city.

“Even so, the voluntary sector is struggling, so it’s vital that local officials remain engaged,” she added. “They can do this by reaching out to developers and corporations active in the city to create mechanisms for them to give back.”

Field said many charities were so focused on COVID-19 that they did not see the looming cost-of-living crisis, and have resultantly found themselves unable to meet demand.

“There are mosques I’ve engaged with that used to provide free meals, but with rises in the cost of living for everyone, they haven’t been receiving the same level of donations that allowed them to provide daily meals, so they’re limiting their days of operation,” he added.

“For families who depleted their savings during the pandemic, they’re now having to borrow money to meet their basic needs.”

London’s local authorities are responsible for education, and for Khan, this offers a means to address poverty through investment in youth activities, and to provide free school meals, breakfast clubs, afterschool clubs and healthy snacks.

However, Field worries about voter engagement with the elections, noting rising levels of distrust in politicians among marginalized communities and younger voters.

“This increasing lack of trust stems in part from the electorate having had less engagement with their politicians, and if they’re unable to rally the support of these marginalized groups, it may be that they prioritize their voters — middle-class families, for instance,” he said.

“Should things pan out this way, this will be a real challenge to addressing poverty, and a big threat to democracy if the situation doesn’t change. It’s scary.”

Arab News reached out to Conservative candidates, but at the time of going to press had yet to receive a response.