Sunday, 2 May 2010

Election 2010: Immigrant Stories II

It’s been amusing watching the issue of immigration being played out between the Prime Ministerial candidates as well as mainstream media outlets in the run up to the elections. Clegg keeps banging on about how more than a million illegal immigrants are being held hostage by “criminal gangs” and the importance of bringing those people out of the “black economy”. The guys at my local car wash seemed to be in total control of their destiny the last time I asked. Brown and Cameron are constantly on about immigration caps, allowing entry only for skilled workers, exit controls, strains on public services, jobs robbed…

As I sit at a coffee shop writing this, looking at the Latvian immigrant who’s warming up my steak and cheese panini (she’s studying English when not preparing lattes), I wonder how refreshing it would be for one of the candidates to raise the question as to what would happen to British society if all these immigrants were pushed into the Channel? And to raise the possibility of sending the BNP to Alicante, parts of which have become entirely devoid of Spaniards.

The contenders talk of big societies, spending cuts, sending the House of Lords into exile in Hyderabad and of course immigration. Most immigrants I have spoken to however, are not fully attuned to the fact that they have become a contentious “issue” in this increasingly fractious election. They are voters nonetheless who are more inclined to base their vote on personal circumstances rather than the policies promoted by the candidates and their parties. Their voting intentions are as much a reflection of the state of Great Britain as it is of their personal prejudices.

The Socialist-Accountant
“She was bigoted! I don’t know why they are laying into the Prime Minister so much. He comes across as a man of integrity”, says Usha, a 37-year-old accountant. I’m watching Sky News with Usha and her family (husband Sanjay and 3-year-old Karan) at home in North London. The bulletin’s dominated by the news about the Prime Minister’s unguarded comments about Gillian Duffy. “She is clearly bigoted to say something like ‘Where are all these Eastern Europeans flocking from’, adds Usha; “Where does she think immigrants come from? Does she think they’re a band of inbred sheep from a communist collective or something?” Usha may be an accountant but that’s only because her father was an accountant in Nagpur. If she had not stuck to convention, she’d probably be a left-wing, tree hugging Guardian columnist.

Usha has lived in the UK for 8 years. She came to the country as a Highly Skilled Migrant and enjoys a more than comfortable life. The recession has dragged the value of a property she owns into the negative but she’s philosophical – “It’s a long term investment so it will have ups and downs.” She’s a pragmatic person with a social consciousness, and believes Gordon Brown’s a good man who has tried really hard while the other two just look good and dither a lot. Brown’s hypocrisy may have cost him a pensioner but he has certainly gained an accountant.

£15,465.37 for a life in the UK
Stories abound about desperate, impoverished people who pay thousands of pounds to people smugglers to bring them to the United Kingdom; 35-year-old Sanjeeve spent more than £15,000 for a life in the UK but he has never met a people trafficker. Sanjeeve is from Goa and used to work in the hotel industry. He came to London in 2000 on a student visa but never saw the inside of a classroom. His first job was as a cleaner at a McDonald’s restaurant in Harrow. He then secured a job as a shop assistant at a high end clothing shop owned by a Middle Eastern man in Central London, working variously as a leaflet distributor, stacker, sales assistant and cashier. After impressing his boss with his work ethic, he managed to convince him to apply for a work permit for Sanjeeve (in the days before the points system was brought in).

The boss agreed to cover the £1200 cost of the work permit and to create a new position – “Merchandising Manager” – for Sanjeeve’s benefit (the shop specializes in buying designer wear cheaply in places like Dubai, Hong Kong and Istanbul and selling them at sky high prices in London – it never had a merchandising manager nor will it ever require one).

Sanjeeve employed the services of a South Indian lawyer who agreed to create fake certificates, including a Bachelor’s Degree certificate (Sanjeeve’s education ended in High School) as well as reference letters and other documentation for a price of £3000. The first application for a permit was rejected; so were the second, third and fourth appeals. The Work Permit was finally approved on the 5th attempt; “I think the Entry Clearance Officer just got fed up!” says Sanjeeve.

Each time the application was rejected, the solicitor came back to Sanjeeve saying new documents had to be prepared. Each appeal cost up to £1500 and with assorted other costs Sanjeeve’s total tab came £15465.37. His wife and daughter are now in England but Sanjeeve is still in debt to the tune of about £8000 to his boss who deducts £300 a month from Sanjeeve’s net monthly salary of £1250. The “Merchandising Manager” also works as a delivery man at nights and weekends to support his family. He’s voting Labour on March 06th because he feels he owes a debt of gratitude to a lax system that nonetheless allowed him and his family a “second chance” in life.

Another reverse xenophobe…
Thuran is in stark contrast to Sanjeeve. Thuran is originally from Madras and worked as a security guard at a factory in the sprawling South Indian city until he was 23. In 1994, unhappy with his lot, with no qualifications or experience, Thuran happened on the idea of smuggling himself to England and seeking asylum here on the pretext of being a Sri Lankan Tamil escaping state persecution. He embarked on his journey that same year, first travelling to Thailand by boat, taking an overland trip to China and into Russia. From Russia to Poland and then on to Germany and down to Italy and on to Turkey from whence he was shipped to France and then on to England, on a journey that took just over two years. On the way he nearly froze to death, was bitten by German Shepherds, was stuck in the ceiling of a toilet on a Russian train for two days, was arrested several times, forced to camp out in hot, cold and mild weather. The journey cost him £5000.

Once he got to Britain, the process was relatively simple in the days when Tamils fleeing persecution in Sri Lanka were welcomed with open arms. Thuran is now a British passport holder and co-owns an off license shop in East London.

In spite of spending his entire time in the UK under the Labour government he will vote Tory on 06th May because he thinks Labour’s been “too soft” on immigration. He despises those new Tamils who continue to arrive in the UK. He believes that they are fabricating “atrocities” to gain asylum in the UK, conveniently forgetting his own fabrication of 14 years ago. Perverse, but he’s only wearing blue these days.

The enraged journalist…
Ashley is a 31-year-old journalist from India, married to an English lady and living in Slough. He’s not particularly keen on David Cameron. “People say Brown tries a little too hard but Cameron takes it to a whole new level!” says Ashley. “He was at a school the other day and he was so patronizing towards the kids.” Ashley however, is going to vote Conservative because he thinks the Tories in power will spell an end to the rampant political correctness in Britain. Ashley’s lived in the UK for 3 years. He was appalled when Muslim protestors demonstrated during a repatriation ceremony in Wootton Bassett last year, waving placards stating, “Baby Killers of Afghanistan”. “The soldiers were doing what the politicians asked them to do. So going there to protest at a time of grieving was unfeeling and just plain stupid. Even more appalling is that the authorities allowed it to happen. The political correctness is ridiculous and the Labour government just perpetuates it. We are guests in this country and we should show some regard” adds Ashley. Slough may have a massive Labour majority but David Cameron’s party is assured of at least one immigrant vote.

The Coopers of Palmers Green, North London
The Khambaita’s have lived in this leafy part of London for more than 35 years. Unlike The Coopers (Kapoors) of Goodness Gracious Me, they have rejected the temptation to anglicize their surname. When I first moved into the house across the street from the Khambaitas, I remember them staring intently. Initially they refused to acknowledge a ‘Good Morning!’ or even a friendly smile. However, an incident involving my car, its open sunroof and a disoriented OAP (don’t ask) has brought us together in the last 12 months or so. They are Punjabis but cannot stand the overcrowding in Southall, calling it a ghetto and swearing off it. The Khambaitas fled Uganda in the 1970’s thanks to the friendly Mr Amin but cannot stand immigrants and garlic naans and instead stuff themselves silly with scones and clotted cream. In the past few weeks they have literally, bathed their house in blue and white stickers, promoting the local Tory candidate.

Ask them anything about what the Conservatives stand for and they swiftly reach for more clotted cream. In their eyes, voting Conservatives is what “proper English” people do and that is precisely what they’ll do.

Nick who?

- Vijitha Alles

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