Author: Sarah Marsh
The streets of London’s Chinatown are full to the brim with tourists coming and going from supermarkets, brightly painted restaurants and bustling bakeries.
As the sun shines down, a mix of smells, sights and sounds fill the air.
However, inside the doors of Imperial China restaurant on Lisle Street, the mood is more sombre and business owners and members of the London Chinatown Chinese Association (LCCA) are gathered to discuss their fears about the future of the area.
They say that a tightening of immigration rules means that the area, established in Soho since the 1970s, could disappear.
One issue is heavy-handed enforcement raids community leaders say feel like “fishing” for illegal immigrants.
Businesses complain that Home Office vans are visiting monthly, often without warrants, and disrupting trade.
Joseph Wu, a spokesperson for the LCCA, questions the motives of the visits that sit as part of what was previously known as the “hostile environment” strategy, pursued by the government since 2010 to make living in the UK as uncomfortable as possible for illegal migrants.
He believes the community is being seen as an “easy-target”, with raids not always “intelligence-led”.
Tensions came to a head this month when immigration officers clashed with protesting crowds, resulting in an elderly woman being taken to hospital.
The woman was filmed as she lay down in front of an immigration van as crowds gathered.
In the video, which has since gone viral, the van moves forward as bystanders push it back, helping the woman to crawl out of the way.
The Home Office later said she was only taken to hospital as a “precautionary measure” and was not injured.
Waiters, chefs and shop workers plan to down tools on July 24 in a walkout to protest against the recent incident as well as a growing number of raids.
“It’s a painful decision as each hour could be making money and as a small business, every hour is lost income, but there’s consensus about it,” Wu says.
The LCCA’s main complaints are that enforcement actions often take place without a warrant – an issue they have addressed with the Home Office – at peak hours of trading and are often heavy-handed and aggressive.
The Home Office says officers can enter business premises under a variety of lawful powers including when a warrant is issued, and also if the authority of an immigration enforcement assistant director is given.
A spokesperson said: “Immigration enforcement visits are all intelligence-led and conducted using lawful powers. Officers do not conduct ‘fishing exercises’.”
However, James Tsang from the LCCA says that a recent bakery raid resulted in no arrests.
“They came in and said they were looking for someone, stopped everyone … they stopped customers as well and at the end they didn’t find anyone.
“But damage was done in the way it was handled and it gave a bad impression to customers. It gave the image that Chinatown is a crime city.”
Constant raids are not the only concern for the restaurant owners.
Jerry Ho owns the Royal China restaurant chain. A big issue for him is the lack of staff for his restaurants, which recently prompted him to stop opening further premises.
“In Holland you can get a short-term visa for two years and then go back to your home country but it’s so much harder in Britain,” he says, adding that the rules have got tighter in the last decade.
He adds: “There are more and more restaurants closing, it’s a trend in London. Opening a restaurant you are faced with lots of expenses … we have decided not to expand – we can’t because of staff shortages.”
The issue with a chef shortage is not just limited to Chinese restaurants. However, in 2014, the UK introduced a new tier 2 immigration policy.
These new rules state that chefs from non-EU countries who work in the Britain have to make a minimum salary of £30,000 a year.
Wu says: “We need to recruit Chinese chefs over here … generally the direction of the government is moving toward the idea that you need to train up local people but it takes years to train someone to understand what Chinese food is, let alone give them the skills they need to cook it.”
He adds: “Chinese businesses are some of the most resilient … I remember during the first Gulf war, I came to Chinatown and it was quiet but then all the businesses survived. So we survived the war but we cannot survive immigration policy in this country.”