Ghosts in the immigration machine

Nick Broomfield’s film about the Morecambe Bay tragedy is emotive, but it fails to ask any probing questions.

Nathalie Rothschild

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Three years have passed since the horrific deaths of 21 Chinese illegal immigrants working as cocklers in Morecambe Bay. The incident has put this part of north-west England on the map and raised public awareness about cockle picking and the fate of Chinese illegal workers.

Now, Nick Broomfield, the veteran documentary filmmaker, has made a heart-wrenching feature film about the Morecambe Bay tragedy. Ghosts (which is what the Chinese workers call white people) is an ambitious film, which has received a lot of media attention. So it is unfortunate that the narrow focus of Broomfield’s film means there is no discussion of the real cause of the tragedy: inhumane immigration policies which force migrants into the shadow economy and into the hands of dodgy moneylenders and ‘people smugglers’.

Broomfield is best known as a documentarian whose films are personality-led, focusing as much on the process of making the film as the subject itself. Ghosts is an exception – Broomfield is not in it (which is a relief) and it’s a drama made in a documentary style. Sometimes facts and figures come up on the screen giving context to the images, the subtitles are intermittent and certain scenes look more like interviews in a fly-on-the-wall documentary than scenes from a scripted feature drama.

It would be wrong to say that Broomfield’s film leaves many questions unanswered, because, in fact, it doesn’t raise many questions at all. It simply shows us that the Morecambe Bay victims suffered. Ghosts tells the story of Ai Qin, a single mother in rural China who pays $25,000 to moneylenders to be smuggled into the UK. After a six-month journey, she arrives in the UK only to be given fake documents, squalid accommodation and a string of backbreaking jobs. Things do not go as well as Ai Qin expected; in fact, her life in the UK goes from very bad to even worse. Yet, Ai Qin is ‘lucky’. While cockling in the middle of the night in Morecambe Bay, most of Ai Qin’s co-workers are drowned as the tides come in and sweep their minivan away. In the end, she returns to China and is re-united with her family.

There are no professional actors – Ai Qin is played by a woman who herself entered Britain illegally and her real-life parents play the parents of her character. From a cinematic point-of-view it is interesting. From a political point-of-view, it is very weak. Of course, films do not have to be used as political instruments, but it is clear that Broomfield is concerned with the subject and therefore, the effectiveness with which he deals with it has to be assessed, too.

According to Broomfield, ‘immigration is a very emotional thing’; ‘it’s about people leaving something they love and know, and coming to a very strange place.’ (1) But emoting about the cruelties of the so-called ‘informal economy’ does no favours to the large number of illegal migrant workers (three million in the UK alone, according to Broomfield) who have no legal documents, no rights and hardly any income. It would be better to show why this situation exists, why it is not inevitable and what would be required to change it. Broomfield says that the British government refuses to help the bereaved families, who are still being harassed by moneylenders in China, and he has set up a fund to cover their debts. That’s no bad thing, but unfortunately this charitable initiative renders Ghosts little more than an artistic fundraising film.

Chinese civil rights activist Jabez Lam tells me that Ghosts describes how Chinese illegal workers suffer and live in fear. But he is also adamant that the Morecambe Bay tragedy can be seen as the result of government policies on immigration. ‘They push workers such as the cockle pickers to the fringe of society, making them go underground and leaving them more vulnerable to exploitation’, he says. ‘The government should allow immigrants to work.’

A year after the Morecambe Bay tragedy, the BBC reported that the harvesting area had become subject to a permit system. A gangmaster watchdog, with powers to investigate and bring to court those who break the law, had been instituted to license the industry. There had been a drop in undocumented Chinese people coming into the north-west (2). In other words, even more stringent laws have made it harder for Chinese immigrants to find work and have reduced their chances of being protected from exploitation. As Lam tells me, the situation has only gotten worse for Chinese workers in Britain.

Broomfield wanted to make a film about ‘modern slavery’ and he feels ‘it’s ironic that, 200 years since the abolition of slavery, there are more slaves than there ever have been, just in a different form’ (3). But today, people are not rounded up and chained by slave masters in the developing world and sold as cattle on open, state-endorsed markets. Such a parallel explains little about what is happening today and denies agency on the part of those who choose to leave their home countries in search of a better life.

In Ghosts, Ai Qin takes a conscious, though immensely difficult, decision to leave her home in order to improve her son’s life. Of course she is naïve and she is used by money-hungry thugs, but if the opportunity existed to come and work in the UK, safely and with at least a minimum wage, people like Ai Qin would not need to live in such dire conditions when they got here – and they would be free to leave as and when they like instead of hiding from the authorities.

Critics of the current system point out that Britain is a long way from being overwhelmed by foreigners. As Philippe Legrain, author of Immigrants: Your country needs them, writes: ‘…contrary to tabloid hysteria, we are not being swamped with immigrants – nor are they a threat. Fewer than 10 per cent of people in Britain were born abroad. Asylum applications were a mere 25,710 in 2005, while 15,685 failed asylum seekers were deported; the refusal rate exceeds 80 per cent.’ (4)

But even pointing out the relatively small numbers involved, and the economic benefits to Britain of immigration, misses the point. What we need is an open door policy where everyone is treated equally. People should be free to travel and settle abroad without having to justify their economic worth or prove that they meet stringent criteria of political and social oppression in their home countries.

While Ghosts tugs at our heartstrings, made with a sincere intent to draw attention to the struggles of illegal workers, it would have been a much stronger film if it placed its subject into the wider context of Britain’s laws.

Nathalie Rothschild works on the editorial team at spiked.

Read on:

After Morecambe Bay, by Josie Appleton

(1) The Stowaway’s Story, Guardian, 6 January 2007

(2) Morecambe Bay: One year on, Dominic Casciani, BBC News, 5 February 2005

(3) The cockles of his heart, Sunday Times, 7 January 2007

(4) Don’t believe this claptrap. Migrants are no threat to us, by Philippe Legrain

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