After a day weeding and picking vegetables in one of Norfolk’s vast and featureless fields, Kwan drops in on social services to pick up a claim form for health benefits on his friend’s behalf. But Daisy Line, the social worker for asylum-seekers in King’s Lynn, can’t help him. Kwan and the 2,000 other illegal Chinese immigrants in the town are not entitled to any welfare.
The local people call these low-profile visitors “the invisibles”. Fearful of being sent home, they stay out of sight in cramped lodgings.
Kwan, who is 27, arrived from China four months ago, after seven weeks of travelling by lorry, boat, bus, train and on foot. He is not sure what route he took. Speaking through an interpreter, he tells me: “I know I came through France and perhaps Germany. There was a lot of stopping and waiting. . . We slept on the streets or wherever we could find shelter. People would tell us when and where to go and who we should ask for.” In one country, they had no money. “I’m ashamed to say, we took whatever we could to eat.”
When Kwan arrived in England, a woman took his passport and gave him further directions. The final destination was King’s Lynn, a Norfolk market town that has become a centre for an unskilled, illegal and fast-growing workforce. Here, farms and factories that have failed to attract local workers through a combination of long hours and low pay rely on migrants to make up the shortfall. Labour contractors (gang masters) and job agencies, which co-ordinate the employment of the illegal workers, have no scruples about exploiting their vulnerability.
“I hear of some people working for a week and earning nothing because, they are told, they haven’t worked hard enough,” says Tony Lombari, Norfolk Constabulary’s minority ethnic liaison officer.
Kwan recalls arriving in King’s Lynn in the dark and being taken to a house. “The people there told us that we should get up with them in the morning and a bus would take us to work.” This has been Kwan’s life since. “The bus picks us up at five o’clock in the morning, or earlier if the work is far away. At lunchtime, it sometimes takes us to another field. We get home at four in the afternoon, but if the work is far away, it can be as late as seven or eight in the evening.”
At the end of the day, Kwan returns to the house he shares with 11 other men, the third house he’s been in. “Sometimes other people sleep in my bed during the day, but I don’t see them because I’m at work. Others aren’t so lucky – they have to share with people who wet the bed. We cook and play cards and board games together. We can watch television, but I don’t understand it much.” Kwan grins: “A couple of times we’ve paid for girls to come to the house and keep us company.” Other than this, his routine is seldom broken. “We don’t get to visit many places. We’re all told not to go to big towns.”
The little money that Kwan earns soon goes. “I pay for the work bus and my bed every week. If I’ve had a lot of work and the bus has had to take me, I pay more for transport, but it is always £25 for my bed. I usually end up with about £40. I keep half and send my uncle the rest.”
Kwan is the main breadwinner for the family he left behind in China – “I cannot say where I am from; it means I’ve said too much.” His father is dead and his sick uncle cannot leave the two-roomed flat that he shares with his wife, daughter and Kwan’s mother. “My family want me to send them money because there’s not enough at home,” he says.
Kwan has to send a constant flow of money back to China. “A man collects the money for my journey from my uncle,” he explains. If he fails to keep up the payments or gets sent back home, his family will be in danger. “Some people get hurt and some disappear. I owe my family and I will not let them down.” Kwan also fears for his own safety: “I’m scared about being here. I know people who have to pay to remain safe, but they haven’t asked me [for money] yet.”
Is Kwan happy? He is ambivalent: “I have to work hard and keep my job. I’m young and healthy . . . it’s OK. I’m no sadder here than I was in China, but I cannot say I would choose to do this again. I’m lonely sometimes.”
Kwan has experienced hostility from some King’s Lynn residents. “People shout, even children. My friend had his jacket stolen off his back. We found it later in the street, but it was ruined.”
According to Lombari, local resentment, rather than the migrants themselves, has caused most problems. You only have to see the housing to tell which buildings the Chinese live in, he says, because they’re damaged in some way – graffiti daubed on the fence, broken windows. “The people themselves are no problem at all,” Lombari stresses. “They work hard, live quietly and are very pleasant and respectful. They’re here to try and give themselves the chance of a slightly better life back in China. Ultimately, they just want to go back to their families.”
Kwan is no different. “When I’ve spent enough time here and my journey has been paid for, I would like to go back to China,” he says.
But the decision may not be his to make. As Lombari reminds us: “The people who have been brought over here have their documentation taken off them to ensure they don’t disappear. Whoever has that documentation controls their return to China. They’re not going home – not easily, anyway.”