Photo: Paul Wells at Doverpast
A decade has passed since the horrifying discovery of the bodies of 58 Chinese immigrants trapped inside a sealed lorry container in Dover.
To mark the tenth anniversary, I've reproduced this article on the Dimsum website by Jack Tan, from July 2001.
Immigration On The Back Of A Lorry
In the 1920s a young Chinese woman got ready to perform the Tea Ceremony, the last and most important stage in the marriage ritual. She did not know her husband-to-be but she counted herself lucky to have found a family willing to accept her and was content to be a good wife to him. But as soon as the Tea Ceremony ended, he left immediately on a long trip overseas. She wept and waited for his return. After a year without word from him, and obviously being unable to produce a son without him, her standing in the family was in jeopardy. There was no choice for her but to go in search of her lost husband. She boarded a ship bound for Singapore and left her home province of Fujian for good. She was my mother's mother.
Fortunately for her in those days, there were no immigration restrictions in the British Empire. There was no question of her needing to go to criminal gangs like the Snakeheads to arrange transport. She merely sold what jewellery she had and bought her passage on a trade ship. After a long, uncomfortable and maybe even unhygienic journey she arrived at least safely in the British colony of Singapore as one of the ship's passengers, as a human being. Eight decades on, on 19 June 2000, 54 of her fellow Fujian Chinese arrived in England on the back of a lorry, sealed in like cargo, dead.
The finger of blame has been pointed at many parties: the shipping company, European customs, the Fujian authorities, the Snakeheads, and of course the British government for not ensuring stricter controls. But I put the blame squarely on the shoulders of English xenophobia.
Since the beginning of the twentieth century, in response to popular racism, there have been higher and stronger legal walls built around Britain to keep foreigners out. The effect of these laws has been to keep non-white Commonwealth citizens out, while ensuring that white Commonwealth citizens were freely allowed to immigrate into Britain. In fact, today, the laws are so tough that it seems unless you are fleeing genocide you would be classed as an illegal (economic) immigrant.
Restrictions have made it much harder for people to come to Britain, and for some reason we feel a safety and satisfaction in that. However strict controls do nothing to reduce the desperate need for people to emigrate, and where there is a real need, legislating against it does nothing but to drive people to find illegal ways of meeting that need.
But what is the answer? Reduce immigration controls? Surely if we were to ease restrictions Britain would be flooded with foreigners, so the xenophobic argument goes. But is this true? Would people flood into the UK if there were lighter restrictions?
The truth is that people do not willingly leave their home country unless they have to. If we think that people leave their families, friends and life they are used to in order to come to Britain where they cannot speak the language, find difficulty acclimatising, and are treated with hostility, then we think too much of ourselves and of Britain. People do not uproot themselves and emigrate unless the situation at home is so desperate that they have to leave.
As it is, EU citizens have the right to settle in the UK, but there is no flood of Europeans in our towns and villages. Last year, citizens of British territories in the Caribbean were given full settlement rights as British citizens. But as a Cayman Island journalist said "Nobody's going to up and move to the UK." (The Guardian, 1999). If controls were eased, immigration might increase initially but there would be no flood. What there would be is the prevention of awful tragedies like the one on 19 June in Dover.
For my grandmother, she did not have to escape Fujian in a goods container. But so great was her need to leave that she would have if there was no other way. Fortunately for me and my family, there was no need.