Anti-immigration parties gained support in the European elections, but politicians’ real challenge is to reform a system that treats undocumented migrants unfairly, argues Dr Claire Fox.
Despite the election rhetoric and growing support for anti-immigration politicians, the number of undocumented, ‘irregular’, migrants in the UK probably fell in recent years. Increasingly tough immigration policies and a programme to cut the asylum application backlog almost certainly reduced the numbers. So, too, has Romanian and Bulgarian nationals’ legal right of residence since 2007.
But it is hard to be sure of the number of irregular migrants living in the UK. In 2009 the London School of Economics estimated the figure at about 618,000. This number is frequently misrepresented and is less than 1% of the UK population – in line with the rest of the European Union.
The Centre for Criminology and Criminal Justice at The University of Manchester and the Migrant Rights Network held four events to explore the experiences of Manchester’s undocumented migrants, attended by migrant community organisations, their support workers, social workers and the Probation Service.
Undocumented migrants have arrived in Manchester and nationally by various routes. Some were dispersed in Manchester as asylum seekers and then overstayed; others arrived in the UK as migrant workers on false papers, moving around the UK in search of clandestine, low paid, employment. Others were born in Manchester without regular status. Many arrived in the UK with permission, but approval to stay had been lost.
The seminars heard that many undocumented migrants live in a constant state of insecurity, uncertainty and fear. This can lead to mental ill-health, low self-esteem, self-harm and even suicide.
Undocumented workers are vulnerable to exploitation through low pay, hazardous working conditions, confiscation of wages, sexual abuse and domestic slavery. Women who gain documented status through marriage can similarly risk exploitation. Undocumented migrants’ vulnerability is worsened by their fear of deportation if they report criminality to the police.
Access to essential services is difficult. Undocumented migrants across the city commonly live in poor quality housing – ‘beds in sheds’ – or rely on friends or relatives to house them.
These issues affect children, too. There are 120,000 to 140,000 children living in the UK without regular immigration status, of which perhaps 85,000 were born in the UK. Children of irregular migrants may have difficulty obtaining places at schools and, when older, universities. Some GPs refuse to see migrants, including children, without regular status.
Irregular migrants are often subjected to control over their daily lives and hostility from officials and the public. There is a widespread perception that migrants arrive to claim benefits, rather than to flee harassment or state abuse in their home country. Official bodies appear to have a default setting of disbelief and hostility.
Many undocumented migrants talk of moving from an ‘imprisonment’ in their home country to a punitive environment in the UK. Migrants who have been in Yarl’s Wood reported widespread problems, including mistreatment of women, lack of access to appropriate medical services, poor living conditions, lack of privacy and hostile staff attitudes.
There is a common perception that the system wants migrants to feel insecure and vulnerable. Many irregular migrants choose to exist away from the humiliations of the official system to improve their sense of independence.
For ‘irregular’ migrants living in the UK, seeking regularity is like playing a game of snakes and ladders. Just as many undocumented migrants seem about to achieve regularity, the rules change and they start again. There are various routes to regularity, but the system often lacks transparency, certainty and predictability.
Difficulties in regularising status can be worsened by system failures. Some official interpreters are alleged to have poor skills and may wrongly dispute a migrant’s knowledge of a language, or their statement of where they are from.
In applications to regularise status, the burden for ‘proving’ the right to remain in the UK is placed on the applicant. This is unusual in law, but is part of the current immigration environment that makes the gaining of documented status difficult.
Children born in the UK to parents with irregular status are deemed to share that status. A child who has been resident in the UK for seven years can be considered for a discretionary right of residency – and the term of required residency can be extended to a different, stipulated, number of years.
According to lawyers in Manchester, undocumented children face serious barriers to obtaining a right of residency. These include proof of funds to pay the necessary fees and that they have been sufficiently ‘embedded’ in UK society for seven or more years. This is difficult for parents who are undocumented as they must be visible to obtain this status for their child – placing themselves in jeopardy of deportation and a period at a detention centre. This aspect of the migration system is arguably in breach of article 8 of the Human Rights Convention, protecting the right to privacy and family life.
This system of arbitrary decision-making is absent from our criminal justice system, where offenders – regardless of the seriousness of their offence – know the date their case will be heard at court, when their prison sentence will end and when they will be considered for parole.
The current system of determining the rights of undocumented migrants appears Kafkaesque, with the undocumented migrant not knowing how the system will respond to them, or a change in their circumstances. The system has power and control over the undocumented individual – against the fundamental principles on which the British political and judicial systems are based.
There is no coherent system to deal with undocumented migrants, it uses a detention centre widely regarded as unfit for purpose and it rests of practices the legality of which are questionable. Politicians’ real challenge is not the size of undocumented migration, but the need to reform a deficient system for dealing with those undocumented migrants who are here.