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I Went Undercover to See What Life Is Like for Migrants Entering the UK

For a new vice.com documentary, author Ben Judah met migrants coming off coaches, slept on the streets of London, visited illegal labour exchanges and stayed in doss houses packed full of people.

by Ben Judah
22 November 2016, 12:46pm

The author with two Roma migrants on the streets of London (Photo: Grant Armour)

Author Ben Judah is the host of a new vice.com documentary, Undercover Migrant, in which he walks the footsteps of migrants arriving in the UK to find out what newcomers are up against in post-Brexit Britain. Here, he writes about his experience making the film.

Racist attacks in the UK have spiked since the EU referendum. Romanian shops have been attacked. Polish men have been beaten up. One was even killed. But away from the headlines, what is life really like for the latecomers, the Eastern European migrants still arriving in Britain today?

To find out, I went undercover, fast-forwarding through the lives of the most hard up, the people who arrive with nothing. The entry points are hiding in plain sight: Victoria Coach Station is our miserable Ellis Island. Every week, stats say, thousands of migrants arrive here – but nobody really knows how many. Bus tickets are cheap, so this is invariably the first place the most disadvantaged incomers reach.

Outside is street sleeper city. It's so easy to cross the EU to London on a night bus from Poland or Romania – in fact, it's often cheaper than a train from Newcastle to the capital – that the migrant world is also a runaway world. A new life in Britain, it attracts the ambitious, the crazy, the heartbroken and the desperate – which is why so many migrants' first night is on the streets.

Rough sleepers have doubled in London over the five years, and a third of them are now Eastern Europeans. Right by the coach station is one of the most popular spots for those from Romania, and I quickly learnt – come nightfall – that nobody wants to bed down alone. Minutes from the coaches I met Ionut and Lucian, two Roma guys who'd just arrived from Romania and were looking for a place to sleep.

(Photo: Ben Judah)

After scavenging for cardboard, we bedded down in the tunnels that run under Hyde Park Corner. Without these ripped up old boxes, I was told, you're done for – one night on the concrete and you get sick. As we got ready to sleep, the boys told me what they had come here to do: Ionut and Lucian bounce from city to city, begging. After a couple of hours of broken sleep, Ionut and Lucian were off to beg and, for me, it was time to move on.

My next step: phone a friend. I spent much of my childhood in the Balkans, and luckily I know Matei, a Romanian interpreter. Places are entry points, and so are people. Hospitals, building sites, police stations – an interpreter is always there. Nobody gets the migrant city like them. Matei had simple instructions for me: sleep on the bus to Ilford in deep east London – loads of rough sleepers do – and to meet him at an illegal labour exchange. That's what someone, arriving straight from Romania with nothing, would do in my situation.

There are dozens of illegal labour exchanges around London, where labourers come to tout for work. Here, hard up migrants look for cash-in-hand jobs. Those fresh off the bus have no other choice. Without a fixed address, they can't get a National Insurance ID, and thus a legit job.

With a hidden camera, we went to see how it worked. As soon as we arrived, we saw a recruiter haggling for cheap labour. This is completely illegal. You can't pull someone off the roadside and through him onto a building site without any insurance. This is a London where the rules and regulations don't apply. Health and safety? Minimum wage? Forget it. Fall off the scaffolds? You're on your own. No contract? You might never see the money. This is how thousands of luckless migrants end up crippled and on the street.

Touting spots play a huge, hidden role in our everyday London construction. Eastern European building bosses are the regulars here, while many British-born building bosses often don't source their own labour. They contact a "labour agent", usually Eastern European, who – if he needs some men fast – will head to a spot like this.

The lowest wage Matei and I ever saw here was one box of chicken 'n' chips. It was clear that there is simply no way these guys make enough money for their own rooms by touting. So where are these people sleeping?

It didn't take us long to find out. Crooked landlords are cramming in as many migrants as they can into filthy doss houses. They are mushrooming all over outer London. Illegal, overcrowded and, if you're going to understand the migrant journey, where you have to sleep. Digging around online and asking in Romanian shops, Matei and I got our hands on the details of half a dozen doss houses around Ilford, but London easily has hundreds of them.

My Russian is better than my Romanian, so I posed as a Ukrainian looking for work, with Matei my Romanian mate. Eastern European doss houses never accept someone English-born for fear of the scam being ratted to the police. Nor do they often accept immigrants from non-EU countries, like Ukraine, for fear of them attracting police attention.

Even small talk could have blown our cover. The vibe in the house was desperate, sad. These migrants had come to the golden city, but nobody was working. Instead, they were hauling themselves off to the touting spot every day hoping for some work to turn up. In the scrum – the survival of the fittest – they rarely got the job. I noticed, on the face of one of the migrants there, injuries from some serious work accidents.

WATCH: The trailer for 'Undercover Migrant' here.

The longer we spent in this impoverished underworld the more I began to realise that the tabloids are peddling a myth. Matei and I were not finding a Britain of lay-about migrant benefit scroungers; we were finding a Britain where migrants were being exploited, and didn't know their rights. The doss house throbbed with dull, low but ever-present fear. Britain's hardest up migrants were living frightened of police, crooks, spivs and hate crimes. The little they had was all so precarious; they knew they could end up back on the streets with just one false move.

Soon, we left London. Across Britain, minimum wage is minimum wage, but London is where you get Britain's maximum rents, which is why only a third of Eastern European migrants have settled in the capital. The highest concentration of Romanian and Polish workers is out in light industrial towns in the Midlands and the farming hubs in Lincolnshire. Here, you can get the most out of low pay.

Luton is another entry point – the gateway to those running away from the price of London – but for many it becomes a trap. Homelessness is on the up here, so to find out why we went to an EU-funded soup kitchen. Almost everyone there was Romanian, or Polish – like Radek. He told us he got caught in the migrant trap. No legal address meant no benefits. No legal work meant no insurance. And that meant, when he had an accident, that he ran out of money fast.

Radek had fallen into exactly the worst-case scenario every migrant was facing at the touting spot on the edge of London. Like most of the men in the soup kitchen, he was homeless and spiralling into addiction. He also told us that post-Brexit hatred is making the lives of men like him worse; that he keeps being attacked. There were more than 3,000 racist incidents reported in just two weeks following the referendum. Brexiteers may deny this is happening, but even Matei was yelled at for looking foreign.

The Labour Club squat (Photo: Ben Judah)

Radek told us that he wasn't at rock bottom, and that to see that we had to visit the old Labour Club, now a squat for homeless migrants. Right in the centre of Luton, rough sleepers joke this is "The Five Star Hotel". Dozens of people are living here, in a wreck carpeted thick with litter, rats, needles and hundreds of bottles of cider. The "Five Star Hotel" has been this way for years. And the "Five Star" guests? Left to fend for themselves; shooting up, smoking rock, drinking themselves to death.

After Brexit, even the squat was fraught with ethnic tension. Squats often divide into English and Eastern European turf. In the "Polish Zone", they told us the English keep attacking them. In the "English Zone", they told us tensions were flaring and that fights had broken out since Brexit.

We had to get out of Luton. "Get to the farms," migrants in town told us. That's where Romanians can make it. Luckily, Matei had heard about a farm that hired Romanians not too far from Luton. There are good farms and bad farms; some are legit, some are slave labour. But if you get lucky, this is a way out of the trap.

Driving down country lanes, it felt like we were in the England that never changes. But it had. They are Romanians and Poles in so many fields. Migration is not only something that happens to the cities any more. Every harvest, some 80,000 people come to work on British farms, mainly from Eastern Europe. Out in the fields, over 65 percent are EU workers.

We knew the moment we reached the farm that we were in in luck. Here, it seemed like everyone could work and save for back home. Or save for a new life here. When we told the workers about what we'd seen in London and Luton, they shrugged. Many of them had fled London to get away from the begging, doss houses and touting spots, too. As a deep and quiet country night fell, we fell asleep relieved, knowing that if we really had just arrived from Romania we would be able to survive.

There is a conspiracy theory, peddled at the highest level in the UK, that migrants are jumping on buses in Warsaw and Bucharest, coming to live the life of Riley in benefits Britain. From what we saw, and the people we spoke to, this could not be further from the truth. It's never been harder to be a migrant. And it's going to get worse. All over the West the populists are winning. It's a revolt against globalisation and immigration, and these are the people who are going to suffer.

@b_judah

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