Dawn is breaking over Heathrow airport and, nearby, it’s time to get up and look for work. Just above where everyone is sleeping, the traffic has already started to thunder along the M4, sending vibrations through to the ground underneath. It’s cold down here on the concrete slabs. There are empty cans of strong lager kicking around the floor, and the living areas, if you can call them such, are filthier than a third-world slum.
The M4 corridor: Sleeping bags of the Bridge Men of Heston lined up beneath the flyover
Squalid: The men who live under the M4 flyover sometimes try to find casual work, while others simply wander the streets
This is Little Punjab, a squalid community of illegal immigrants, the homeless, the jobless and the hopeless. They call them the Bridge Men of Heston, a community sleeping rough beneath a motorway flyover. More than 30 of them can often be found here, in full view of pedestrians and traffic on the road that passes under the bridge, and less than 20 yards from the nearest houses.
It’s a breathtaking snapshot of what happens when dreams of forging a better life in Britain turn sour. But perhaps more remarkable is the fact that many of those in Little Punjab have been here for nearly two years, without being compelled to leave, and relying mostly on charity and goodwill to stay
And although some do make the 5am trek to join a daily roadside lottery in the hope of being picked by passing tradesmen for casual work, most seem content to spend the day sleeping on sodden bedding or passing the time in cold, disgustingly dirty lethargy. With some irony, countless government ministers must have passed unknowingly within feet of the Bridge Men on their way to meetings and summits via Heathrow. Maybe one item on their agenda would have been to discuss sending more aid to India – when, here in Little Punjab, they would quite literally have been on top of the problems at home.
This pair sleep on undisturbed yards from thundering traffic, apparently unable or unwilling to find work or shelter
Yesterday I visited the encampment, where the M4 crosses a busy thoroughfare between Heston and Southall. By mid morning it looked as if only a few were still around – but beneath the damp sheets and sleeping bags I could occasionally see movement from those who had settled down the night before and not yet emerged. Mehtab (his name means ‘light of the moon’) told me these were the ‘drunks and drug men’ who simply stayed in Little Punjab all day, stirring only when kindly passers-by delivered food and water, or when yobs hurled missiles and abuse from cars.
He said he had gone to look for work in the morning but was not selected from the hopefuls who congregate in a car park near Southall’s landmark Sikh temple. He claims he was tricked into coming to Britain with the prospect of work two years ago – only to discover that his papers were as false as the promises that were made to him back home. Now he had no paperwork, passport or visa – and therefore no hope of work.
A young man in a bobble hat, who said he was a Sikh from Punjab, was in a similar plight. In between taking calls on his mobile phone, he told me he was ‘an un-legal’, not able to claim benefits or get legitimate employment.
Day breaks and the commuter traffic starts to stream beneath the motorway bridge
So why stay? ‘Because soon someone will have to do something for us,’ he told me. ‘If they don’t give us papers, we have no chance.’As he spoke, another Bridge Man urinated against the railings in full view of people waiting at a bus stop across the road.
The toilet area is a short trek away in some scrubland, but the ground is thick with excrement and rotting litter, so rank that even the foxes steer clear of it at night. Bathroom facilities beneath the bridge consist of a bottle of anti-bacterial hand-wash strung up on a fence. I accidentally trod on a hidden hand as I went to use it – with so little reaction from its owner that it could have belonged to a corpse.
The police, the UK Border Agency and local authorities have long been aware of the Bridge Men of Little Punjab, which takes its nickname from Southall, widely known as Britain’s Little India.
A community leader I spoke to yesterday said the UK government and Indian High Commission was ‘well aware of the problem’, but added: ‘Everyone seems to have gone to sleep. No one does anything about it. If they are here legally, help them. If they are not, then help them to get back.’
Sleeping city: Most of the Bridge Men of Heston are thought to be illegal immigrants, but some have come to Britain legally and been left homeless
Another said: ‘This is one of the most advanced countries in the world – yet people are left to live in inhuman conditions on its doorstep.’ Although most Bridge Men are thought to be illegal immigrants, some are known to have come to Britain legally with visas which have since expired.
One arrived more than a decade ago as a teenager but lost his job and fell out with his family. Now his home is a sleeping bag.
Some find food at the Sikh temple, which provides meals for up to 1,000 needy people a day. Others simply wander the streets.
One neighbour, who has lived in the area for more than half a century and can see the bridge from her window, complained to Heston Residents’ Association about piles of rubbish building up around the site, and regularly sees young men ‘moping around half drunk’, as she put it.
‘I sometimes wonder if there’s anywhere else in the civilised world where this would be allowed to happen,’ she said.
‘I asked the council what they were going to do about it. They said they had delivered a letter translated into Punjabi about a voluntary repatriation scheme. Surprise, surprise – it doesn’t seem to have done the trick.’