By Henry Austin
Described as “a swarm” by Prime Minister David Cameron, images and stories about migrants attempting to gain access to the Eurotunnel have saturated British media this summer.
But as Emily Dugan points out in the prologue of her new book “Finding Home, Real Stories of Migrants in Britain,” it is easy to forget we are talking about a collection of disparate people from across the globe.
Focusing on 10, The Independent newspaper’s Social Affairs Editor succeeds in transforming immigrants into individuals, humanizing them as they struggle to build new lives in the UK.
Their experiences range from a chaotic Mediterranean crossing by an elderly Syrian mother to the attempted deportation of an Australian therapist who had served the NHS for 10-years.
Dugan begins aboard a bus in Bucharest, the first travelling from the Romanian capital to the UK after European Union work restrictions were loosened.
Despite excitable newspaper headlines predicting a wave of benefit claimants, interviews with her fellow passengers reveal that all but one of the 40 or so completing the grueling 52-hour journey had lived in UK before.
Most like Mihai, were simply happy they would be able to get a National Insurance Number, allowing them to work legally and pay taxes.
By sensibly taking herself out of the stories and allowing her subjects to speak about their experiences, Dugan avoids making judgments about them which is wise as some of her subjects admit ethically dubious and illegal behaviour by themselves or their fellow countrymen.
Most however, are simply frustrated at those who do cheat the system or claim benefits because they get tarred with the same brush.
While their backgrounds are diverse, some have suffered but all have sacrificed to make a new home in the UK.
Among those to have experienced true hardship are Emad and his mother Nawal. From a well to do Syrian family, although his father was a political prisoner he originally arrived in the UK to study.
His elderly mother’s journey, documented excellently by Dugan, was considerably more traumatic. Beginning in Jordan, her remarkable and often terrifying journey saw her travel through Jordan, Turkey, cross the Mediterranean before coming to the UK through Europe.
Most of those featured however, arrived by more traditional routes. Some were forced to flee persecution but most arrived in the hope of finding a better life. Some came and simply ended up staying.
While their stories are perhaps less dramatic, they are no less poignant.
From the mother who spent so much time away from her young son that he didn’t recognize her, or the skilled geneticist who ended up working in a kebab shop, all tell tales of sacrifice, loss and hope, which Dugan without overdramatizing, has crafted into highly readable stories.
Their perspectives on British life are often amusing and insightful, but few have kind words for the country’s unforgiving immigration process.
Be it the expensive phone lines, confusing housing arrangements which leave people destitute or on the street, or a system which can suddenly decide after over a decade in the country, that a highly skilled home owning tax payer is no longer welcome, many have been exhausted and exasperated by the experience.
Yet this is no procession of praise in favour of migration as Dugan devotes almost one sixth of her book to Boston, the small town in Lincolnshire, which thanks to an abundance of agricultural and factory work has attracted migrants in droves.
Speaking to the recent and not so recent arrivals, mainly Poles and eastern Europeans, as well as “British” residents, she explores the tensions that can arise when mass migration goes unchecked.
Examining how people try and hold onto the culture they’ve left behind, she speaks to among others, the leader of a school that is teaching children Polish so they can learn their parents mother tongue.
Like the rest of the book, it is excellently observed, well judged and highly readable, making it well worth a look.
Finding Home is available from Amazon.