Author: Hilary Clarke
London’s Chinatown ground to a halt on Tuesday afternoon during a five-hour strike against what restaurant workers and bosses are calling heavy-handed “fishing raids” by UK immigration officers.
Chanting “justice for Chinatown” and “enough is enough” hundreds of restaurant owners, waiters and chefs and supporters marched through central London, past the Houses of Parliament to the Home Office.
The demonstration was prompted by an incident earlier this month, when an immigration raid on a Chinatown restaurant caused a fracas in the middle of the day.
A video that went viral shows a middle-aged woman push past officers and dash in front of an immigration enforcement van, before ending up spread-eagled on the road. The slow-rolling van then strikes her or comes close to doing so.
About 80 per cent of businesses in Chinatown closed for the afternoon during Tuesday’s strike, which attracted cross-party support from within the UK’s Chinese community.
“We want to voice the fact that we are against illegal immigration but we are totally against the hostile environment that has been created by the current government which has led to fear and anxiety in the Chinese community,” said Linda Chang, a former Liberal Democrat councillor in the posh London suburb of Hampstead.
“They turn up during popular dining hours and create the impression that we are a lot of criminals and this is not right.”
The Home Office denies its enforcement officers behaved improperly.
“During an intelligence-led Immigration Enforcement operation at Joy Luck Restaurant at 5pm on 5 July, five men who had no right to live or work in the UK were arrested, including the subject of the intelligence,” a spokesman for the Home Office said in an email.
Four men had overstayed their visas and one had entered the UK illegally. The protest which followed saw attempts to prevent Immigration enforcement officers from leaving the area with the arrested men.”
The woman in the video was taken to hospital but the Home Office said she was not injured, although one of its immigration officers was.
“No members of the public were harmed during the [July 5] incident,” the spokesman said. “An immigration officer was found to have a fractured ankle during a hospital check-up in the week following the protest,” the spokesman said.
The Home Office said immigration enforcement officers had visited businesses in Chinatown seven times in the first six months of 2018.
“On five of those seven occasions, offenders were encountered, 19 individuals in total,” the spokesman said.
Under current UK immigration laws, employers of undocumented migrants can be fined up to £20,000 (US$26,000) for each illegal worker.
The protest organisers do not deny there are some illegal workers, but say their numbers have declined drastically as China’s economy booms providing home-grown opportunities.
“No one wants to be an illegal immigrant” said Chang. “The point is we need to treat them humanely.”
Joseph Wu, chief executive of the London Chinatown Chinese Association, said the main reason for the anger was that restaurateurs had met with the Home Office just a few days earlier to discuss immigration enforcement.
“They responded in an aggressive manner. This has no place in a modern society like Britain.” He said.
The Home Office said it had dedicated Chinese community engagement and that immigration enforcement has previously altered times of visits in response to community feedback.
But the malaise in Europe’s oldest and largest Chinese district goes beyond immigration “fishing raids.”
The very existence of Chinatown is under threat” said Steven Saxby, Labour’s parliamentary candidate for London and Westminster in 2016. “We have seen the introduction of huge conglomerates like the betting shop Paddy Power. Next door, the district of Soho has been decimated by the failure of the Conservatives to protect local characteristics. They can do it in St James with the Gentleman’s Clubs, so why not here,” he said referring to the district that was traditionally the home of the British aristocracy.
“We the Chinese are going to have a lot of weight after Brexit so it is hard to understand when we should be making friends. Why are we making enemies?” said Samantha Harvey, an ethnically Chinese Conservative councillor for Rural Wakefield in Yorkshire, who attended the protest.
Some Chinese tourists also joined Tuesday’s march.
Community organisers said they were disappointed that no senior official greeted them at the Home Office to accept their complaints.
“With no disrespect to the lady who came for the letter, she was a junior officer. We would have expected someone senior to come out and shake our hands like a gentleman,” said Edmond Yeo, Chair of the Chinese Information and Advice Centre and a former Conservative councillor for the London Borough of Ealing.