There were 433,150 Chinese people (0.7 per cent of the total UK population) recorded in the 2011 census. According to official data, Chinese now make up the largest group of immigrants from any country into the UK. However, there are an increasing number of undocumented Chinese immigrants, who face exploitation, poor living conditions and invisibility. In London, for instance, some estimates suggest that the Chinese population is twice as large as official figures would suggest due to the large undocumented population residing there.

There are three main linguistic groups. The largest is Cantonese, followed by Hakka and Mandarin. Many versions of Cantonese are spoken. Hokien, Teow Cheow and Hainannese are also spoken. The community comes from Hong Kong, mainland China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore. However, the demographics of the Chinese population is evolving as increasing numbers now originate from mainland China.

The Chinese community is widely dispersed throughout the UK, but the main concentration, around half, is in London. There are established Chinatowns in large cities, such as London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle upon Tyne. There are significant Chinese communities in other major cities and towns, such as Edinburgh, Belfast, Cardiff, Bristol, Sheffield, Cambridge and Milton Keynes. There are also Chinese families living in suburban areas and small towns around the UK.

Undocumented Chinese immigrants work mostly in food processing, catering, agriculture and construction. Some are rejected asylum seekers.

Historical context

Chinese seamen were employed on British ships from the 1800s onwards. There were settled Chinese communities in London and Liverpool from the early nineteenth century. The demand for seamen in the Second World War increased the Chinese population, but most were subsequently repatriated. The first permanent large-scale settlement of Chinese occurred in the 1950s, when Britain's economic boom and labour shortages led to a relaxation of immigration laws to encourage immigrants from overseas British and Commonwealth countries.

Poor rural Chinese migrants came from Hong Kong's New Territories and set up restaurants. Educated wealthy Chinese came from Malaysia and Singapore to take up professional jobs and set up businesses. In the 1970s Chinese boat people from Vietnam were granted asylum. In the 1990s a second wave of immigrants from Hong Kong came to Britain following the British handover of Hong Kong to China. These migrants were well educated and went into business or professions. They were followed by immigrants from mainland China, many of whom paid 'snakehead' traffickers for illegal travel from China and entry to Britain, and who took up low-paid, exploitative jobs through Chinese networks.

The problems of illegal Chinese immigrants were tragically highlighted when 23 Chinese cockle pickers were cut off and drowned by the tide in Morecambe Bay in 2004.

Current issues

Chinese children learn in English at school and tend to have above-average achievements. A higher proportion than the national average attend university. There are some Chinese schools teaching in Cantonese and Mandarin. However, there is little provision at British state schools for those who do not speak English.

For the less educated, the self-contained Chinese society has resulted in a lack of knowledge of English and isolation from the mainstream Britain. Many Chinese, particularly the elderly and women who live and work at home, are not aware of their rights to social services, housing, health and welfare from local authorities and the wider community. The Chinese gangmaster of this incident was convicted of manslaughter and jailed, but the English buyers of the cockles were acquitted.

Restaurant work often involves tied accommodation, so that workers who retire also lose their homes. Gambling has become a problem among men working long hours in restaurants and other catering establishments. Depression is also a problem among those who are isolated.

Undocumented Chinese migrants often live in cramped substandard housing, in debt to and under the control of the 'snakeheads' whom they have paid to bring them to Britain. Because they are in the UK illegally and many do not speak English, they are afraid or unable to seek help from the wider community. Although the Gangmaster Licensing Act came into effect in 2006 in the wake of the Morecambe Bay tragedy, to try and prevent such an event happening again, exploitative practices continue.

At the same time, the Chinese community's composition is changing. The number of undocumented Chinese immigrants is decreasing, due to stricter controls, including on employers, by the UK authorities as well as greater economic opportunities at home. A community spokesperson estimates that there may be 100,000 undocumented Chinese in the UK, but that new illegal arrivals are about a tenth of what they were in 2004. Meanwhile, the number of mainland Chinese coming to the UK to study at university - at 90,000 - is more than double what it was a decade ago, and many stay on to seek work in the UK. The issues confronting the community are shifting as well. There are worries that soaring rents will displace London's Chinatown from its increasingly desirable central location. In July 2018, there were street protests in Chinatown against immigration officers who were seen to be deliberately targeting the area in search of undocumented restaurant workers.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.