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Marco Werman: Here’s another immigration story about Paddington Bear, the beloved children’s book character. Paddington, you may recall, was from Peru but ended up in England. Now he’s starring in a new movie that’s just out in the UK, and in the audience recently was this British immigration lawyer.
Colin Yeo: I’m a big fan of Paddington, as a lot of immigration lawyers are. He’s a sort of a walking, talking pinup for humanizing our work. But I do have two children and I drag them along even though they’re a little bit young probably for the film.
Werman: That’s Colin Yeo. The lawyer in him couldn’t help but think about what would happen to Paddington and the family that takes him in if this were a modern day, real life immigration story.
Yeo: By entering illegally as he has, he’s basically skipped three immigration authorities, he’s committed a criminal offense to start with, and that’s punishable with six months here in the UK. The Brown family are potentially in big trouble for assisting unlawful immigration for which the maximum sentence in this country is 14 years.
Werman: In real life today in 2014, what’s the likelihood that the Brown family would take in an immigrant?
Yeo: There are families in this country who are still very welcoming. I work with a lot of voluntary groups and charities and see some really impressive, amazing generosity, and I’ve known people who have taken people in like in the way that the Browns have taken in Paddington. But if the authorities were to come across and get their hands on him, or paws one might say, then he certainly would be a high risk of detention because looking at his -- this is obviously a bit of an artificial exercise -- but looking at his case as a lawyer, he doesn’t have much of a basis for being here. He’s basically a visitor, he’s entered illegally, he hasn’t got a leg to stand on in terms of making out a case to be a refugee sadly, because it was a natural disaster that caused him to leave and that’s not a good basis for refugee status under the refugee convention. The rules on human rights -- it’s a bit of a stretch to apply that to Paddington who is, after all, a bear but human rights rules in this country are very tight these days and it’s very hard to make out a basis to stay in that way either. So, if the authorities were to encounter him, they’d want to detain him probably in order to remove him, although they would struggle to send him back to Peru without any proof that he was Peruvian.
Werman: Poor old Paddington. Socially, what has changed in the UK since the 1950s when the Paddington books first came out?
Yeo: It’s traditional for any politician talking about immigration today to preface it with a remark about how welcoming Britain used to be. One gets the feeling that that’s a past tense and that those welcoming days are over now. I’m not sure how welcoming we really used to be. If one looks at newspaper headlines from the 1930s or from the 1950s and “˜60s, there’s some hugely controversial language being used at that time and it’s a sort of national myth that the UK is a welcoming host society -- I’m not sure that’s necessarily true. But the big change has been that there’s a lot more movement around the globe. From the 1990s onwards, it’s an increasingly globalized world. You’ve got lots of cross-border families, you’ve got businesses recruiting from all over the place, and the rules have toughened up.
Werman: Paddington the movie does feature an openly xenophobic character. Is that the role played by actor Peter Capaldi?
Yeo: Yes, the Mr. Curry character, who does use some of the language that dates to the 1960s. He talks about once you’ve got one bear as a neighbor, then more will follow and that kind of thing.
Werman: Kind of the “There goes the neighborhood” attitude.
Werman: Do you think this film is going to raise similar parallels and questions from most audiences in the UK, or do you think, as an immigration attorney, you’re a special case?
Yeo: Yeah, I think I have to admit that I’m particularly conscious of these issues, as somebody whose career is based on dealing with immigration law issues. I often wonder how far, as a child, I would have been able to read these issues into Paddington, but there is a strong subtext in the original books and it’s certainly a very strong subtext in the film about the difference between Paddington and his neighbors, and the idea of a stranger being welcomed, and there are these migration themes that I think are quite clearly there in the film.
Werman: Colin Yeo, a British immigration lawyer, thanks very much for speaking to us -- a very interesting take on the Paddington film.
Yeo: Thank you.