Imagine. Your country is under a corrupt, tyrannical regime
where torture, imprisonment without trial and the vilest atrocities
are commonplace; your country has collapsed into anarchy and civil
war; your country is a wasteland of abject poverty, disease and
famine; your country has been blown apart by other people’s wars.
You dream of peace, freedom from terror, a job, a roof over your
head, food in your belly – basic human rights that people elsewhere
take for granted, as they do in Britain. In that ancient democracy
ruled by the common will, its people shelter under the protection
of legally enforceable human rights. If only you could get
You gather up your family, sell everything that can be sold, beg
and borrow, then go to the man who knows a man who can get you to
Britain – for a price. You do not have quite enough for the fare
and the necessary false papers but never mind, the man says: you
can pay the balance when you reach Britain – your introduction to
the never-never. Full of hope, your faith in human nature
rekindled, you embark on your journey. It is a terrifying ordeal.
You are holed up in the back of a lorry, fearing for your life,
starving, thirsty, ankle-deep in excrement, but freedom is a prize
worth any suffering. You pity the countless thousands who perish on
the way, like the lorry-load of Chinese people who suffocated to
death, but you survive and, as a fugitive from everything the
British abhor, you know they will embrace you into their
But suppose your welcoming committee is another arm of the enormous
global business of people trafficking? These “friends” of the man
who arranged your passage spirit you away. You disappear into a
black hole where your wife and daughters are forced into
prostitution, your sons into drug-running, yourself into slavery.
And while you try to earn enough to pay off the man, you also make
thousands for the apparently legitimate businesses that exploit
illegal workers because they come cheaper than cheap. It is called
the black economy.
Alternatively, you may fall into the ungentle hands of immigration
officials, who simply throw you and your family into prison. You
have committed no offence, you have not been on trial; nonetheless,
you are locked up indefinitely. Why, when you are within this
democracy, do you not have the same human rights as others?
You learn why from newspapers and television. Far from offering
salvation, the British want you out – you and your family are
cheats, spongers, even terrorists, even though you are intelligent,
educated, and may, in your other life, have done important work.
The government, when it is totting up the deportations of people
like you, seems to use the vocabulary of pest control. You wonder
whether its immigration policy is incoherent and chaotic because it
is driven by the engine of entrenched xenophobia.
Do the media reflect the will of the people or of the government?
Does an unconscious, symbiotic relationship between all three
create a zeitgeist that determines the cultural interface of
immigration? With black propaganda, the media whip up hatred and
incite violence towards you and your kind; only the occasional
small voice mentions the devastating global impact of Western
foreign policies and trading practices and points to these as the
cause of the modern diaspora.
You accept that you may be perceived as an economic threat – a
nation is entitled to safeguard resources that are always finite –
but you are not here to steal jobs or freeload; given the
opportunity, you want to do your best for your new country. Fat
chance, you say to yourself, having already mastered the English
idiom. Your life is on hold and you are completely at the mercy of
faceless, nameless officials whose overriding wish is to see the
back of you, who are making plans to detain your kind in remote
places or in prison hulks moored off shore.
Meanwhile, you and your family exist behind bars, in squalor,
hungry, idle, sinking deep into depression and hopelessness.
Uneducated, sickly, bored, your children become hostile,
antisocial, dangerously disaffected – brutalised by the
There are some officials who go out of their way to help but they
have too much work and too little power. Their best efforts are
like drops in the ocean. So, you spend your days staring at the
high walls around you and realise that you have simply exchanged
one despair for another.
Alison Taylor is a novelist, a former senior child care
worker and the winner of the 1996 Community Care Readers’