by Mike Sole
In the week that 20 illegal immigrants arrived in a lorry at the depot of fruit importer Gomez near Bridge, local social media is again filled with “send them back” and worries of gangs of young men roaming the countryside intent on committing criminal offences and terrorising local residents.
I might be dismissed as typical middle class, Guardian reading liberal, but I would like to offer a different perspective.
We all have different views on many things. These are shaped by our upbringing and experiences.
Three years ago I wanted to find out more about the illegal immigrants/asylum seekers arriving in UK so I visited the Jungle in Calais.
With two friends we took two car loads of tents and clothing for distribution to those in need.
The only judgement that I made before going was that there were fellow human beings facing winter in squalid conditions with inadequate clothing and shelter.
While there we walked freely around and spoke to many people who explained their situation to us.
Yes, many, were economic migrants seeking a better life. Many nationalities were present.
There were those fleeing war, but also those just so desperate and without hope that they had risked their lives to get to Calais.
Why did they want to come to England? Was it because they had been told they would be given a house and money? No, it wasn’t. I was told by everyone that I met that they want to get educated and find work.
But why England? Why not stay in France or one of the many other countries they have travelled through?
The answer was quite simply that because of the wide reach of UK influence across the world, the one language that these, mainly young men, could speak, was English.
They were seeking to make a new life for themselves in a country where they could communicate. Is that really that surprising?
For the last year I have been a volunteer Grand Mentor with the charity Volunteering Matters.
I meet up regularly with a young man who somehow made his way to the UK from Afghanistan as a teenager. This young man, the same age as my son, left his home country after family members were killed by the Taliban.
The two of us chat over coffee and I try to bring some normality into his life. He is attending college, trying to make a life for himself, but his status in this country after about three years, is still uncertain.
If the final stage of his asylum appeal is unsuccessful, he will be put back on a plane and sent back to a country where he knows no one – a country where his family were murdered.
Now, we clearly cannot accept everyone into this country. We need to have border controls as much as we need to show compassion.
The young men who recently got out of a lorry at Gomez did not risk their lives getting here if they could have had a successful life at home.
In many cases it is the foreign policies pursued by successive UK governments that have created the issues in their own countries that lead them to leave.
These men deserve to be treated with compassion and their cases quickly processed. Government must act faster. The current system takes far too long.
If they have no right to claim asylum, then quite rightly they cannot stay. But while they are here, remember that they are often just young men who fled their own countries to try to find, not a better life, but just a life. In another world they could be our sons.
Mike Sole is a community campaigner who lives in Kingston and is a former Liberal Democrat Canterbury city councillor