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No cap or control system will keep determined immigrants out

Alice Miles recounts a chance meeting in Belize with a savvy thirtysomething Bangladeshi. To David C

I met Hasan last year in Belize. He was helping a local man start up a restaurant, a hot tin shack on a sandy street with a barbecue and some plastic jars of coleslaw. Hasan was 30, neat, earnest and from Bangladesh. He had arrived in Belize half a year earlier believing that "central America" would be the United States.

It wasn't any ordinary journey, either. Hasan's route to what he thought would be the US had taken three days. As an illegal immigrant, he had flown from Bangladesh to India, then to Dubai, Brazil, Panama, Peru, Honduras and finally Belize. And when, after all that, he landed, it wasn't the US.

How had he felt? "Oh, shocked, yes."

Hasan wasn't keen on Belize. He didn't agree with its sexual liberalism - "If I take a girl home, in my culture, we marry" - or the lack of respect from the young. "In my country, not like here: young, old, same same. In my country, he older, I respect. Because he know more, can teach me, see? Not like here." And in particular, he didn't like the lack of money. "In US, UK, you work, get income. Here, you work, no income."

Hasan had very high expectations of the US and England. He was hanging out in Belize hoping that American relatives would get him a work permit to the US; failing that, he was coming to the UK. When I asked him to tell me about Bangladesh, he drew a rough map of the world. It contained Bangladesh ("very peaceful persons"), India, Pakistan ("too much violent"), Afghanistan ("violence, Taliban"), Sri Lanka ("suicide, Tamil Tiger"), Singapore, Iraq - and then a big line to the US with a small blob floating around underneath it for England. The rest of the world didn't feature.

Working world

Hasan knew he could get work in the restaurant business in Britain - "All my cousin have restaurant, near City of London" - but his first choice was the US. He may have missed the legal boat into the UK now, but that won't stop him. On 6 April, the government changed the rules to prevent any but the most highly qualified chefs from outside Britain coming into the country to work. As part of their promise to cut net immigration from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands a year, the Conservatives changed the qualifying rules for non-EU applicants to exclude skilled workers who are not highly paid, including chefs earning less than £28,260 a year.

The government is unable to calculate net migration with any accuracy, partly because illegal immigrants do not register, but mostly because it doesn't keep records of who leaves the country and when. Hence the endless tit for tat over immigration numbers and the rather meaningless promises from ministers to cap or control them. Given that we cannot control immigration from the EU, nor the arrival of family members, it is left to non-asylum migration from outside the EU to be targeted for caps and crackdowns and controls.

The list of workers who will still be allowed in includes engineers, science and maths teachers, biological scientists, geologists, psychiatrists, pharmacists, children's dentists, special- needs teachers, vets and, for some reason, sleep physiologists, animators and genito-urinary consultants. I can't imagine why we cannot train our own. Anyway, Hasan is the sort of migrant - not highly skilled, not wealthy, but determined to work and earn money - who ministers definitely do not want here and the new rules are designed to keep him out.

Hasan had a more extrovert friend, Sami. He had travelled with him from Bangladesh and now ran a small stall in Belize City. He, too, was on his way to the US or the UK, or possibly to Germany. Sami was 26 and had travelled fairly widely, to Hong Kong and to Japan, to the United Arab Emirates and Thailand. In Japan, he worked 12-hour days in a glass factory for $2,000 a month. "Good money, but expensive country," he said. He used $1,500 a month to cover living expenses; the other $500, he saved.

Marrying type

Sami carried around a sort of index card system of immigration rules in his head. "Japan, you marry, can residence after seven years. Must work hard - eight hours a day, no money, just pay house and food; 12 hours a day, money. But marry, then resident - no citizen. America, marry. I have many cousin in America. Pay cousin, pay friend, get work permit, no problem. In England, marry, get citizen straight. Easy. Or work five years, can get citizen."

His expertise extended to employment pros­pects in the public sector: in Japan, he said, it was impossible for an immigrant to get a government job or anything that paid decently, no matter what his education. But in Britain and US, once you had citizenship you could get a government job and a pension. "At what age in UK you stop work?" he asked.

But you need a work permit, I said. You can't just get a government job and a pension in England. "Is come from Belize. Belize, come illegal, one-month tourist visa, anyone can have. Renew. Renew. Renew . . . 12 months, get green card. Anyone can get green card. With green card, can get holiday visa for visit England, because till 30 years, Belize was English country. In England, marry. Marry, get citizen.

“In UK, in US now, is very difficult for Asian people. Many questions. Central America, Mexico, no problem, can come. Is why we come this way now. Can't come straight, so . . ." Sami's arm made a swerve around an imaginary world in the hot tin shack.

I wonder where Sami and Hasan have got to now. There is no sense or equity to a system that prevents determined and hard-working young men such as these from making their way in the US or the UK or anywhere else they choose. But the economic imperative being what it is, I don't think there's any cap or control system that will keep them out, either.

This article first appeared in the 25 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special