Migrant workers and refugees were joined by trade unionists, community groups and others fighting exploitation and deportations, in a demonstration of more than 25,000 people through central London on Monday.
Despite the rain, they kept up chants and singing all along the route of the march, which stretched right along the length of Whitehall as it made its way to a rally in Trafalgar Square – where speakers demanded citizenship for an estimated 500,000 ‘undocumented’ people.
The TGWU (now ‘UNITE’) and UNISON trade unions had banners and flags on the march.
The marchers were in high spirits as they assembled in Victoria, outside Westminster Cathedral.
Some gave out leaflets saying: ‘Regularisation for all! No one is illegal! Abolish all racist immigration controls!’
Adeline Duenas, chair of the United Workers Assembly, said: ‘We joined the rally because of the forthcoming changes to the immigration rules against the domestic migrant workers.
‘What they want to do now is cut off the concession, which means domestic workers brought here by their employers, if they are unhappy and they want to change their employer, they won’t be able to do it now.
‘Most domestic workers have been living here for three to four years.
‘If the government goes ahead with these changes, it means a lot of workers will be in a real dilemma and again we’ll be going underground and it affects the British economy.
‘We want to air our grievances to the government.
‘We don’t want them to stop the concession because I think the migrant domestic workers are a great help and we also don’t like to be considered as low-skilled workers.’
Nana, a migrant worker, said: ‘The British government should see the plight of the migrants and the contribution they make to the British economy.
‘They work 24-7 without taking a penny from the British government.
‘I have worked almost six years in this country.
‘I have never taken anything and I have got virtually nothing at all.’
Nana said migrant workers who are denied documentation can’t do the jobs they are qualified for, adding: ‘Some want to go and visit their family home, but they can’t do that. They are virtually in limbo in this country.
‘The British government should listen to the message Strangers into Citizens is putting across – to grant unconditional amnesty to the migrant workers, so that the British economy will have their full potential and they can come out of the darkness and work well.
‘And they should remember what contribution the Commonwealth nations have made to the wealth of Britain. I’m from a Commonwealth country, Ghana.’
Juan-Carlos Piedra, from the Ecuadorian Movement, said: ‘We are marching because we think we have rights. We are workers, not animals.’
He added: ‘We support this country with our hands. We want to say to the government we are not terrorists, we are people who need work.’
Dan, from the Ethiopian Refugee Support Organisation, said: ‘We are from Ethiopia and there is a big problem for Ethiopian refugees and asylum seekers.
‘The problem is most of them are desperate to live in this country, and if they are refused leave to stay in this country they are forced to work illegally and they are undermined and exploited.
‘The other major thing is at first they are destituted, then detained and lastly they are going to be deported from this country.
‘This is a huge problem, if they are sent back to Ethiopia. The government is going to beat them again and some of them are ending up in prison.’
He reiterated that these people were ‘genuine refugees, but the system in this country does not admit genuine refugees and I don’t know why, to be honest. I hope this situation is going to be changed soon.’
Florence, another migrant worker, said: ‘Papers are not easy to get. I know a lot of people who are working here for a long time and they don’t have their papers.
‘The work they are doing is very hard. But they need papers.’
Sarah, from London, said: ‘We all support people who are working here, have been staying here and came here as immigrants.
‘We want them to be able to work, have houses and rights to the NHS the same as anybody else.’
Alex Beard, a temp worker from Norwich, agreed that the trade unions should ‘take up a serious fight for immigrants to have the same wages and rights as everyone else.’
Elizabeth Ramos said: ‘Migrants are being treated badly. Many of them are being exploited.
‘I have two children to support and they were born here and they love this country.
‘There are lots of workers paying tax but they are not getting anything from the government.
‘There are probably employers who are not paying taxes into the Inland Revenue because they know their workers are “illegal’’.
‘Migrant workers should not be treated as criminals.’
Ali, from London, said: ‘I have been here for 12 years. I am still waiting for a decision about my case.
‘I am a refugee. I fled persecution in my country, Algeria, and it is not safe for me to go back.
‘I’m here to support this organisation.’
Speakers at the rally in Trafalgar Square included the UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis and TGWU deputy-leader Jack Dromey, as well as speakers from the Strangers into Citizens campaign and the Citizens Organising Foundation.
They backed the call for an ‘Amnesty’ that would grant citizenship to an estimated 500,000 marginalised workers and refused asylum seekers currently left exposed to exploitation by unscrupulous employers and landlords.
Helen Bamber, from the Helen Bamber Foundation, highlighted the plight of one woman who had seen her family killed in front of her, in circumstances too harrowing to describe.
‘She’s been refused asylum and is presently living in a climate of fear and terrible anxiety,’ Bamber told the crowd.
‘She has made it clear to me she would prefer to kill herself than return to her country of origin. I believe her.
‘It is not just or humane. Many asylum seekers we see are destitute, hungry or sleeping in parks.
‘Why do they prefer such deprivation rather than return to their countries of origin: it is their overwhelming fear of more torture, and possibly death, and we have to understand it.
‘There is a battle to be won,’ she said, urging everyone to fight ‘for compassion in the face of indifference and adversity’.