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Changing face of illegal immigration

By Chris Peterson | China Daily Europe | Updated: 2015-08-23 14:35

Confused system has led to reactions ranging from hostility to making desperate people welcome

For decades, illegal immigration has been testing the emotion of Britons, whether it was through the flood of Vietnamese boat people heading for the then UK-controlled territory of Hong Kong, the plight of illegal Chinese immigrants picking cockles in northwest England, or the thousands of people risking all in Calais to get to Britain.

Britain gave shelter to thousands of Vietnamese migrants fleeing Vietnam after 1975, with little fanfare and no apparent disturbance to British culture, in itself a melange of various ethnic groups, from Vikings through to Normans, Celts, West Indians, Africans of various nationalities and Chinese, as well as other Asians, all of whom blended in over the centuries, each bringing their own extra spice to the demographics of a country of whose empire it was once boasted "the sun never set".

Chinese integration into the British way of life came in various ways, with British links in Asia - Hong Kong, Canton, Singapore, Malaysia - giving work to ethnic Chinese aboard ships of both the British navy and the merchant navy.

The appalling deaths of 58 illegal Chinese immigrants packed into the back of a container lorry in Dover served as a jarring wake-up call to the normally easygoing approach here, as did the equally dreadful deaths by drowning in 2004 of 23 Chinese workers, mainly from Fujian province, as they worked in freezing conditions for minute wages to pick cockles.

That event triggered revelations that thousands of Chinese workers were employed at below-subsistence wages in the catering and food processing industries in the United Kingdom.

Many had been trucked in illegally, and others simply overstayed various visitor and student visas.

Government crackdowns and an improving economic situation in China have apparently led to a dramatic lowering of those numbers. And there was never British outrage at their presence here, just acceptance that they didn't cause trouble and worked hard.

But the focus has now changed, with Britons watching aghast at the television news footage of thousands of would-be immigrants and possible asylum seekers fleeing by boat from North Africa, landing in Southern Europe and, if we can believe the reports, heading directly for the northern French port of Calais.

There have been brutal scenes of immigrants, many of Middle Eastern and African descent, clashing with French police and tearing down barricades to try and get at trucks and freight trains that would carry them through the Channel Tunnel to Britain.

What do Britons make of all this?

Reactions range from trying to establish a system that would make the more desperate feel welcome to those of outright hostility, with demands for migrants, few of whom seem to speak English or have ties with this country, to be sent back.

To say the system is confused would be understating it. Rules of asylum laid down by international treaties, to which both France and Britain are signatories, say asylum seekers should request shelter in the first country they land in after leaving their native land.

Events in Calais prove that to be a hopelessly impossible task. Add to the fact that many have destroyed any proof of identity they may have been carrying, making repatriation a well-nigh impossible task.

Boris Johnson, mayor of London, once estimated that it would take 30 jumbo jet flights a week to repatriate an estimated 500,000 to 750,000 illegal immigrants living and working here - if the country knew where to send them. Better, he said, to grant a one-off amnesty.

Even amongst more liberal sections of British society, voices have been raised saying, "There's no room, Britain is full up."

Others say the country should change its welfare system, which allows for migrants and asylum-seekers to be housed and paid weekly benefits. These are seen as a "pull factor", attracting migrants from a variety of places.

The irony, of course, is that Britain's steadily improving economy is creating more jobs, another pull factor.

Wars in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, initiated with Western involvement, are also to blame.

No one, least of all the beleaguered British and French governments, knows how it will end.

One thing is for sure - it will end in tears.

The author is managing editor of China Daily Europe, based in London. Contact the writer at

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