Fury over East End Mela festival ‘being used for people trafficking’ into UK

An independent review of the annual Mela street festival in London’s East End has been called after allegations that it’s being used again for “people trafficking” to get illegal immigrants into Britain.

The call by Tower Hamlets councillors follows the arrests of 19 men by the UK Border Agency in Bangladesh earlier this year.

Meanwhile, protesters from the East End’s own Bengali community picketed the Town Hall on Wednesday demanding cancellation of the nine-year contract Mayor Lutfur Rahman has given the Baishankhi Mela Trust.

Protest organiser Gulam Chowdhury handed a petition to the council meeting claiming the Mela was being used for trafficking.

He told councillors: “The event has become subject of scandals and allegations of abuse and misuse.

“There are repeated incidents of arrests of those linked with the Mela.”

Mr Chowdhury called for regular open tendering to run the Mela.

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He had earlier told the Advertiser: “A nine-year lease is too long. It should be open to tendering at least every three years.”

Councillors then voted to call on Mayor Rahman to carry out a review of the 2012 Mela to make sure all obligations were met and make the findings public.

Labour’s deputy leader Motin Uz-Zaman said: “People are saddened by activities which have tarnished the reputation of this council and the Mela.

“There are questions of accountability and the way the Mayor has given out a contract for nine years—I cannot recall any organisation getting such a contract.”

Tory group leader Peter Golds warned he would have “no hesitation to go to the District Auditors” if there were problems with the Mela.

Allegations of ‘trafficking’ were being taken seriously by Mayor Rahman’s own cabinet.

Cllr Oliur Rahman said: “Trafficking is not acceptable under any circumstances. Whoever is responsible must face full punishment, whoever they are.”

But Culture lead member Rania Khan insisted there was transparency over the way the Mela was being run. The accounts would be available through Companies House at the end of the year, she pointed out. Top accountants had also been brought in to audit the books.

Opposition councillors called for the Mela to be taken over by the Town Hall—like it was when trafficking and corruption allegations emerged five years ago.

Former council leader Denise Jones said: “We took it in-house for two years and it worked well. It’s sad this issue has come back to the council.”

The turbulent history of the Brick Lane Mela goes back to 2007 when the Town Hall cut links with organisers after the-then Bethnal Green MP George Galloway called for an inquiry over whether it had been used to smuggle illegal immigrants.

It was cancelled the following year when the council refused to allow any public park to be used, then taken over in 2009 before being handed back to the community.

But trafficking allegations resurfaced this year, with the arrests of 19 men in Bangladesh on May 24 trying to get visas with forged bank statements pretending to get work at the Mela. The UK Border Agency and British High Commission had been tipped off by the Mela Trust.