As the coalition government in the UK begins to deliver on some of its promises, it looks as if the approach towards irregular migrants, that is people who do not have official permission from the authorities to live in the country or who are in breach of their conditions of stay, will continue to be one of restricting their ability to make a living in the hope that they will proceed to leave.
The recent announcement of a cap on economic migrants puts the government on the path of toughening up on immigration as set out in the Conservative party manifesto. Putting these policies into practice has significant implications for a city like London. Already business groups have expressed their dissatisfaction with the cap and have won concessions in terms of being able to recruit highly skilled migrants. On the other hand, the reluctance to find a solution to the estimated 450,000 irregular migrants residing in London will bring about serious challenges to the capital’s local authorities, service providers and employers.
A new report Migrant Capital by Migrants' Rights Network, illustrates the way in which London is a special case when it comes to migration. In the past few decades the fortunes of the city have been transformed by an unprecedented movement of people. The city’s post war reconstruction and, more recently, its post-industrial resurgence have relied heavily on migrant labour.
Since the 1980s, London’s economy has grown tremendously through global networks of commerce and finance. The central position of London within the global economy relies heavily on a skilled pool of workers with links to and knowledge of different parts of the world. On the other hand, low skilled migrants have filled a growing proportion of jobs necessary to service London’s expanding infrastructure and population. And while the city’s economy has benefited from immigration, recent research suggests that contrary to some popular perceptions, this has not had a negative effect on unemployment, although it has affected wages at the bottom of the labour market.
The continuous experience of immigration, together with the city’s economic vitality, has rendered London’s people more comfortable with immigration than elsewhere in the UK. This was evident in a recent report by the Institute for Public Policy Research which found that local unease with immigration tends to be linked to wider socio-economic stagnation, rather than to actual levels of immigration in that area.
While immigration policy is set out at the national level, local areas are generally in charge of the integration and welfare of newcomers in their areas. But what happens when a significant population of irregular migrants is excluded by national policy from employment and most locally-based services, as is the case in London? Two thirds of all irregular migrants in the UK are believed to live in London. In some cases local service providers have to provide certain services such as infrastructure, education, and emergency health to a population that is not reflected in their budgets. In other cases the exclusion of migrants from mainstream service provision raises key questions of how to respond to unemployment, homelessness, destitution and health issues amongst a population which lacks many of the entitlements that most UK residents can count on.
Irregular migrants also present a challenge to employers who have been forced to check the entitlement of their employees to work in the UK. Establishing whether someone is entitled to work can be difficult, with different entitlements afforded to people with different immigration statuses. Furthermore, there have been allegations, documented in MRN’s report Papers Please, that some employers try to play it safe when recruiting foreign born workers by refusing to accept less common - but valid - documents as proof of the right to work. Thus, some migrants with the right to work have found their chances of employment jeopardised by employers who do not want to take risks. There is also evidence that unscrupulous employers have used document checks as a tool to intimidate and exploit workers, for example by dismissing undocumented workers and retaining wages.
Determining the right to work of employees poses big challenges for large employers, but even more so for small employers who do not have dedicated human resources departments. There is evidence that raids and fines on employers for hiring irregular migrants have fallen disproportionately on small ethnic businesses that often do not have the capacity to detect forged documents.
Demanding that service providers and employers check immigration documents adds a layer of bureaucracy to their work and creates further exclusion for those without the 'right' documents, exposing them to destitution and health problems. Asking non-specialists to ascertain immigration status can lead to unfair treatment of some groups of people who do comply with immigration rules. There is no evidence that current enforcement policy will provide a solution to irregularity in the foreseeable future, and it may well affect and alienate certain ethnic minority populations.
The situation created by a large irregular population and complex and constantly changing immigration rules in the UK is a particularly serious issue for London. It is no coincidence that the call for a pathway into citizenship for irregular migrants made by Strangers into Citizens has had the strongest support in London, including that of several local authorities and of the city’s mayor, Boris Johnson. At the same time, this support has not translated into a political backlash against London politicians who have spoken in favour of the idea. On the contrary, the recent local and general elections showed that it is extreme positions on immigration which have little support in the capital. National public concern about immigration is not mirrored in London, which tends to harbour a more cosmopolitan attitude towards migrants. The defeat of the British National Party in East London indicates that Londoners are capable of roundly rejecting extremist positions on immigration.
So what chance is there of addressing these issues in London? London’s business sector has been effective at getting concessions from national government on highly skilled migrants, based on the negative impact that policy changes could have in the capital. The campaign for an earned citizenship has brought attention to the issue of irregular migrants but, despite support of diverse sectors in London, there has been little appetite from the coalition government to take the idea on board.
A mechanism for irregular migrants to move into a legal status would bring this population out of the grey area in which they live their lives. Such a mechanism exists at present with the long residence rule by which, if they fulfil certain requirements, after 14 years of continuous residence migrants can settle in the UK. Changes to this mechanism to make the period of residence shorter seem unlikely at present.
That leaves the question of whether there are ways to give more dignity to the lives of those who find themselves in London without the proper authorisation to be here, and whether doing so could in turn be more beneficial to the whole of society than adopting an approach of multiple exclusions. As more and more actors are asked to verify the immigration status of the people they work with, it is vital to ask whether it would be better for our society to leave immigration enforcement to the border authorities, and allow employers and service providers to focus on their main roles.
The humanitarian argument for a change of approach to irregular migrants is an important one. Irregular migrants are part of our society, often facing hardship arising from their status, and they would be able to contribute much more if they had a legal status. However, there is little hope for a humanitarian approach towards irregular migrants gaining traction on its own at present. Any change in approach will need the support of powerful actors who have a stake in the issue, and of those who find their lives and work are being compromised by the current enforcement strategy. In other words, if local authorities, other service providers and employers become convinced that acting as immigration enforcement agents compromises their ability to deliver their core functions, they may see the value in challenging the current approach and lobbying for change.
The risk of maintaining the current approach is that it will increase the vulnerability and exclusion of a large part of what is already a very unequal city, missing the opportunity to take advantage of a great resource for the capital - the work and experience of its migrants.