What if we were told that thousands of people from Africa we've seen arriving here are not, in fact, fleeing poverty at all? Or that, legally speaking, they're not even Africans, but rather nationals of such generous welfare utopias as Sweden, Denmark and Holland?
For BBC Radio 4, I've been searching for some idea of what the modern
"British Dream" could be, through a series of frank interviews with some
of the almost 3 million new arrivals to England and Wales since 2001
(the first of three programmes is broadcast at 8pm starting tonight).
Time and again, our team uncovered Africans who were not any longer from
Africa. They were EU citizens and actually giving up welfare rights in
places like Scandinavia to come to the UK.
Indeed, we met so many Nigerians from Germany, or Somalis from Denmark,
that we asked Oxford University's Migration Observatory to crunch the
numbers on how many EU migrants are not originally from Europe. They
found that 141,000 people, 7% of those who came to the UK under EU rules
were born outside the continent. Somalis are one of the biggest such
groups, with an estimated 20,000 coming to the UK from the Netherlands
alone. Studies show that between one third and a half of the entire
Dutch Somali community has moved to the UK.
But why abandon the good life in Sweden, or the Netherlands, to start again from scratch in Britain?
"It's great to have a decent house," I was told by Quman Akli, who was
three and a half when her family fled Somalia for Bergen, in North
Holland, in 1989. "But also you want more in life than a decent house.
You want to be able to progress."
Quman's family had been housed by the Dutch government. She grew up
there and spoke Dutch fluently. After finishing school, she would have
been entitled to a subsidised university education; even her bus passes
would have been paid for by the state.
Instead, in 2003, she told her father Jibril that she wanted to move to
Britain, where she would have to pay for university. He wasn't upset –
in fact he decided to quit his job in a printing firm and bring the
whole family to London.
"I think the UK is more open than other European countries," says
Jibril, who is now a London bus driver. He and many other Somalis told
me they admired the success of non-white people in Britain – which was
conspicuously absent, they felt, on the continent. Jibril mentions the
Asian community who came to the UK from Uganda. "They are landlords,
they are businessmen, lawyers," he enthuses. "It's amazing."
How should we feel about this admiration of Britain from non-white people across Europe? Some
may find it uncomfortable that Jibril and other Somalis I met were
partly attracted by the larger number of mosques in Britain. On the
other hand, for them, it's often about racism. Quman remembers how
well-meaning Dutch people constantly asked her when she was "going home"
"No one has asked me that in London," she says. She enthuses about Britain's education system and the number of minority MPs.
Others are even more direct in their praise. "London has become a place
where black people can live," says Kevin Obudako, who was born in
Nigeria but came to Britain from Germany. Having been racially taunted
when he first got to Germany, he says an awareness of British
post-colonial migration drew him here. "You had Nigerians, Jamaicans,"
he says. "Everyone was accommodated."