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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 February, 2004, 18:30 GMT
Manchester's hidden community

By Alastair Leithead
BBC correspondent in Manchester

To the established Chinese community in Britain they are "the invisible". Illegal Chinese immigrants are smuggled into Britain knowing little about the country or its language and are forced to live underground lives in squalid conditions.

This, and their reliance on gangmasters, who are also known as snakeheads, isolates them from the very community that could show them there is another way to live.

"I don't really feel that they fit in to the Chinese society in Britain very well," says Kai Hung Lee, chairman of the North West Chinese Council.

"This group of people come from different provinces of China. Language may be a problem for them to approach us - I really feel that they are a group of the 'invisible' which is quite detached from the normal Chinese community."

Isolated immigrants

The council is doing what it can in the aftermath of last weeks Morecambe Bay tragedy, which left at least 20 Chinese cockle pickers dead when they became trapped by rising tides.

Already the North West Chinese Council has raised 10,000 for the survivors and the victims' families.

But what the Chinese community would really like to do is bring these illegal immigrants into their support structures. Hidden and isolated as they are, this is becoming increasingly difficult.
Chinatown in Manchester
Manchester has a large and established Chinese community

The busy kitchens of Manchester and Liverpool Chinatowns, or the countless takeaways, were the obvious place for illegal immigrants to get work, but the firming up of rules has changed things.

Gerry Yeung was 16 when his father, a chef, brought the family to Britain. He entered the trade and now runs one of the most successful Chinese restaurant businesses in Manchester, where he is president of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

"There are actually quite a large number of asylum seekers who are legally allowed to work and 60 to 70,000 students from mainland China who can work also," he said.

"There is enough of a labour supply within the Chinese community that there is no need to take the risk of employing illegal workers. Therefore you now rarely come across illegal workers in Chinatown."

Cultural differences

Most of the illegal immigrants come from the Fujian province in the south east - where people speak local dialects or at best Mandarin. Most of the British Chinese community speak Cantonese.

I have to work to pay off my debts, and when you don't know anybody, the only thing left is cockle picking.
Anonymous cockle picker
Fujian is not the poorest province in China, but is a place from where people have traditionally travelled.

Kin Cheng works in the community for a housing association in Manchester - he has his theory about why people pay up to 20,000 for a path to Britain when they are doing reasonably well where they are.

"I think it's the false promises of illegal gangs telling them that when they arrive in this country they'll get free education, free housing and there is a very lucrative business waiting for them," he said.

What everyone calls for is a closer co-operation at a governmental level, between Britain and China, to tackle the problem.

But according to Ian Stewart, the MP for Eccles and vice chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on China, this is not always easy.

"I'm not an apologist for the Chinese government. There are things the Chinese government do that I'm not happy with," he said.

"The best way to deal with it is at source, in the country of origin. The victimisation starts in the homeland where there are unscrupulous people encouraging others to participate in this."

The cockle pickers tale

The story of one man - himself a cockle-picker - is typical of the vicious circle people become trapped in. Speaking to us on condition of anonymity, he told us his story.

"I came here for my family. I've been in England 18 months and it's been very difficult as no one wants to employ me as I have no work permit.

"I have to work to pay off my debts, and when you don't know anybody, the only thing left is cockle picking. I have no home to go to at night. I have no education - and no skill - it is difficult."

Illegal Chinese immigrants continue to come into Britain - it's only tragedies like that at Morecambe Bay which bring the situation to the surface, and increase the demand for action.

South China's fortune seekers
09 Feb 04  |  Asia-Pacific
Family mourns lost cockler son
12 Feb 04  |  Asia-Pacific


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