In June of 2000, 58 Chinese people, 54 men and 4 women, died of mass suffocation in the back of a lorry as it was carried on a cross channel ferry. They died attempting to enter the UK illegally. So the issue of Chinese migration to the UK was firmly brought to the attention of the British public.

Media attention focused on the ‘snakeheads’ who trafficked these people, placing the blame on unscrupulous criminals whose only intent was to exploit for profit. Yet seldom are issues so simple. Yes, the journey which was to end so tragically was organized by criminal gangs, and yes, profit was the motivation. However the context to this tragedy including Chinas economic reforms, British immigration policy, and a employment market in the UK which was ready and willing to employ such people in a wide range of business sectors, all play a part in the story.

Just how widespread Chinese workers had become in Britain’s grey economy was highlighted by a second tragedy of national significance when, in early February 2004, 21 Chinese workers drowned in rising tides in the perilous waters of Morecombe Bay, dubbed by the Chinese press as the ‘Devil’s Beach”.

Such high profile events are a double-edged sword. They raise the profile of the plight of those who come to Britain with dreams of getting rich by working hard, and the reality of their lives once they arrive...if they arrive. Yet let us not forget the impact this has upon a community which shuns publicity, and whose proudest claims to their life in Britain relate to law abiding citizenship. Indeed, on the ornamental arches in London’s Chinatown are inscribed the words “The Chinese will uphold honesty and good public order.” These events cause embarrassment to many in the Chinese community, and the personal tragedies often become lost in a cultural paradigm which instinctively will cause many to recoil from activities which are seen to be illegal. This was summed up in a Chinese newspaper which said of the Morecombe Bay tragedy, “Their complete disregard for national laws and international repercussions has not only brought harm to the country’s prestige, but has also thrown away their own lives”.

Yet for the majority of Britain’s Chinese, there was a journey, a point of arrival and the challenges of life in a new country. The motivation for those who came in the past will vary little from those who are arriving today. The benefits of previous Chinese migration to the UK is clear, from food to feng shui, medicine to martial arts. The latest migrants bring challenges, but undoubtedly, as history tells us, will also bring great benefits. I commend this report to you, and hope it will challenge the Chinese community, politicians and policy makers to address the issues facing new Chinese migrants to Britain.

Steve Lau
Chinese in Britain Forum