Migrants continue to cross the Channel and to reach Britain by other means. But what happens once they arrive? The answer for many is a new life of boredom and endless waiting. Dotted around the south coast are hotels where these people are housed, hidden out of sight. I went to meet some of them.
A dozen Afghan families have ended up at a hotel three miles from Canterbury. The new arrivals numbered about 35 in all, including children, and the hotel seemed delighted to welcome them. ‘We are proud,’ said a poster in the lobby, ‘to be part of the programme to resettle the Afghan community in the UK.’
I got chatting to the men by offering free cigarettes in a porch outside the lobby. There I met a 39-year-old Farsi speaker from Afghanistan’s Bamyan province, where the Taliban famously destroyed two effigies of Buddha in 2001. He had made his way to Kabul where ‘British forces’, as he called them, transported him to Dubai with his wife and two children. From there, a second plane took them on to London. He feared that he could easily have been killed in Afghanistan. ‘Taliban is bad people. All about money people. I am Muslim but not like that.’ Already, he told me, life was being made impossible for Farsi-speakers. ‘Work, school, TV, all is Pashtun. The Taliban is racist.’
He was hugely relieved to have reached Britain and he expected to settle here permanently. ‘Everyone is same in UK. African, Asian, all is same… I have friends in Manchester. Want to find house. First find house, then will work.’
I asked how he had covered his costs in a hotel that charges adults £66 each per night. ‘Not pay,’ he said. He declined my invitation to blame the woes of his homeland on the US-led occupation or the botched withdrawal in August. ‘Not US is bad. Not UK is bad. Afghanistan is bad.’ He was smart and charming. The type that prospers anywhere.
An older man, who spoke better English, told me that the regional powers were responsible for Afghanistan’s difficulties. ‘Iran, China, Pakistan, all want to destabilise Afghanistan.’ He’d worked as a cab driver in London for 22 years, and when he’d heard of the US withdrawal he’d flown straight back to rescue his wife and six children. All had been evacuated to London and from there to Kent. Four of his kids were already enrolled in a local school. ‘A good school,’ he said.
None of the migrants I spoke to asked me for help, for money, for work, or for contacts. Some were embarrassed even to accept a free cigarette. They believed that a mysterious benefactor, ‘the government’, would provide them with housing, education and food. And not one of them could tell me how long their sojourn at the hotel would last. ‘It’s boring,’ was the only complaint I heard.
After breakfast, a 25-seater coach arrived and collected a dozen children in school uniforms. The men passed their time in the lobby hunched over their smartphones, receiving texts and tapping out replies. Text messages were the only reading material available. There were no books or newspapers, not even a pictorial guide to Kent or a map of the county on the wall. The murmuring TVs were tuned to a 24-hour sports channel that nobody watched. It could have been a faceless airport lounge anywhere in the world.
The restaurant was lined with uncaptioned photographs of Canterbury cathedral, but the migrants avoided this communal area. They lingered in two private lounges marked ‘reserved for group meals’ and their food was brought to them separately from their fellow guests.
At 10 a.m. an Englishwoman set up a board in a private lounge and started to teach a gathering of veiled mothers. The menfolk were exempt from school and they stayed in the lobby, texting. The subject of the lesson was bad English. ‘One pound’ was written on the whiteboard, and its multiples were rendered as ‘ten pound’ and ‘twenty pound’. That may sound a bit pedantic but to ignore the formation of plurals is to assume that your pupils can’t grasp one of the simplest and commonest inflections in the language. Then again, perhaps their teacher had concluded that her students were already being isolated from the local populace and would probably never need to speak English fluently.
Some of the teenagers were learning the language through the medium of junk food. A plump lad of 15 ambled up to the kitchen door and knocked. The chef appeared.
‘Chips?’ asked the boy, rhyming it with ‘Pepys’.
‘Chips on its own,’ asked the chef, ‘or fish and chips?’
‘Fish and chips,’ came the answer. This time ‘chips’ rhymed with ‘Cripps’.
The chef prepared the order and the lad wandered back to his private lounge holding a plate full of deep-fried goodies. The kitchen accepted requests for food at any time from the migrants. Women in flip-flops constantly shuffled across the lobby to collect tea, orange juice and trays of croissants with butter and jam. Unsurprisingly, many were overweight. They had nothing to do all day but feed their young and grow their tummies. The hotel was enclosed on three sides by farmland and woods. No buses stopped there. The main entrance gave on to a bleak car park with a BP garage beside it. Beyond that, the busy A2 thundered with traffic heading for Canterbury. Technically, the Afghans could go anywhere but in real terms they were prisoners of government policy.
By holding migrants in out-of-town hotels, the state can make them invisible. I wandered the streets of Canterbury for hours and spotted only two people asking for money.
I found a tiny, shivering Pakistani man in an alcove near a shopping centre. He wore the red waterproofs of a Big Issueseller. I offered him £5 for a copy. ‘It’s new,’ he said, producing a tatty magazine from a protective wrapper. It was so ancient that it might have been a first edition. His name was Ahmed and he lived in a hostel for the homeless. Six months ago, he told me in basic English, he crossed the Channel at night in an overcrowded dinghy.
‘I nearly died. Too many people.’
‘Cost you a lot?’
He nodded sadly, but didn’t elaborate. I preferred not to probe him because my questions were reviving painful memories. He’d risked his life in search of prosperity and had ended up destitute in a country whose language he could barely speak and whose people could offer him nothing but handouts. He was in his mid-sixties and had no family here.
‘Like to go back?’
‘Of course,’ he said. And yet he clung to his pride. ‘But first, wait a bit. Wait and see.’ Perhaps something will turn up.
It would be easy to help Ahmed, and others like him, to return to their homes, but such a policy would be derided by some as ‘racist’ or ‘the deportation of the most vulnerable’. One can already hear the clamour of left-wing moralisers and their habitual cry: ‘I thought Britain was better than this.’ But better than what? Better than other countries. That’s the subtext. Those who argue for open borders assume that every migrant who arrives here will find it easy to work and prosper. And that view — the belief in Britain’s dynamism and tolerance — arises from the doctrine that the UK is superior to its competitors around the world. It’s a strange sort of jingoism that wants migrants from every nation to settle in this one.
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