Immigrants continue to define East London, and some of them are illegal. Their precarious legal situation is made worse by an atmosphere in which they are mistrusted, because of the association of immigration with terrorism.
Within 24 hours of the November 2015 Paris attacks, over 100,000 British citizens signed a petition to “Stop all immigration and close the UK borders until ISIS is defeated.’’ There are now almost half a million signatures on the petition.
And a recent Migration Observatory study reports that around three quarters of the British public want immigration reduced.
But the truth is that immigrants come here not to destroy, but to earn, and are willing to put up with appalling conditions while they do it. For example last year council enforcement officers raided a three-bedroom house in East Ham to find 26 illegal immigrants living there.
Jonathan Portes, director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research has described the “typical’’ illegal immigrant as a Brazilian who came here on a tourist visa but decided to stay and work in a restaurant.
It’s a profile that perfectly matches the two illegal workers that I interviewed for Rising East.
They did not think it was safe to answer questions on the phone, so I had to travel to their Italian restaurant during the afternoon lull.
The place was full of businessmen and women, and alive with the sounds of chatter and music. An Italian woman who knew why I had come greeted me and led me down a narrow staircase to the underground kitchen, which was clean and bright, and busy.
Two of the five men looking after it were introduced to me. They looked tired but smiled broadly and offered me cheesecake. They said they did not have long, so we found a quieter spot outside at the back where mice scuttled around foraging for scraps.
Over the course of about thirty minutes I recorded what these men had to say on my iPhone 6. They were confident and friendly until we began to talk about the families they had left behind in Brazil, at which point Mattheus seemed to struggle to find the right words, and Thiago’s voice lowered as he told me how much he was missing his fiancée.
Both of them came to the UK with a tourist visa but are now illegally working and living in London. Because both of them have Italian ancestors, they are eligible to apply for an Italian passport that will allow them to live anywhere in the EU.
But from the point of applying for the passport, it can take over a year to find out if you are successful. And in the meantime they have no status, and no entitlement to healthcare.
But Mattheus and Thiago may end up being the lucky ones. Perhaps one day they will be able to work here legally. Whereas most of the other people working for low wages in British restaurants and other service sectors won’t ever be able to come out of the shadows. Their pay will stay low and their living conditions will stay poor, but at least they will be able to send money home to their families.