Illegal migrants are often flagged up by the media and politicians as one of the main immigration problems facing Britain. Yet it’s the plight of migrants who have no recourse to public funds that is the real scandal. No one knows the exact number of ‘irregular’ migrants in the UK. The Institute for Public Policy Research estimated they numbered about 725,000 in 2009, while others have put the figure as high as a million. In addition, there are many thousands of failed asylum seekers, perhaps in hiding, too frightened to return to their country of origin, or known to the authorities but unable to return home because they lack documentation or their country will not re-admit them. Some of these migrants have some kind of papers and are employed and self-supporting. Others are destitute as Natasha Walter describes in Unheard and unseen in Britain, living in appalling conditions, hidden from view and with no recourse to public funds. While both men and women can be irregular and destitute, their experiences, and their ability to negotiate the hazards of irregularity, differ markedly. Research in the West Midlands by myself and others, looking at how destitute migrants manage life in hiding, published in Vulnerable new communities, has revealed some of the different strategies men and women adopt in order to survive.
Most ‘irregulars’ enter the UK legally, as asylum seekers, students, economic migrants, or even just visitors, and have some level of entitlement to welfare services. They become irregular if they deliberately or accidentally overstay or contravene their visa conditions. A far smaller number of migrants are smuggled into the country.
All irregular migrants experience some degree of vulnerability, living in fear of being arrested and deported, even if they have been in the UK for decades. But women are particularly at risk of exploitation. The first, more well-known, group, are women trafficked into the UK to work in the sex industry. Traffickers sometimes imprison them, keep their passports and threaten violence to the women or their families if they try to escape. The second group consists of women like Ranjit who arrive legitimately on spousal visas that tie them to a husband who turns out to be abusive. If they separate from their husband within two years they are not entitled to remain in the UK unless they get a special dispensation, which requires the services of a solicitor as well as evidence of abuse.
Ranjit arrived in 2007 and was regularly beaten by her husband. After several months, the neighbours heard her screams and called the police. Because she had no recourse to public funds she was unable to stay in a refuge. Instead she lived in hiding with a distant relative and worked illegally in a sewing factory to cover her upkeep. Like many women in her position, Ranjit is too frightened to access services: ‘I don’t know anything about accessing services. I have to be careful who I talk to just in case they start asking too many questions’; and too scared to tackle her employer: ‘The boss pays me less than the other women working there. He knows he can get away with it. I’m illegal; what am I going to do? He’s already threatened to report me to the authorities if I don’t do what he wants’.
Women like Ranjit are often reluctant to return home for fear they will shame their family or be subject to abuse by their husband’s family. Both trafficked women and spousal migrants live in the shadows, relying on their wits or the generosity of friends, family or civil society. The situation is particularly difficult for pregnant destitute women who are too pre-occupied with day to day survival, and too fearful of being found, to attend regular ante-natal services. While most of the women in our study, and in later one called Delivering in an age of superdiversity ,had given birth in a hospital, they were discharged hours after the birth, despite being homeless and lacking any basic equipment for their babies.
Men and women who are destitute of course experience a wide range of common problems: they lack food, shelter and medication; ‘I was moving around living with different people who sometimes didn’t like me and I had to move again. No money, no house, and I couldn’t go to college’ (Suzanna, trafficked to the UK to work as a prostitute, but who managed to escape). When they are sick, destitute migrants often seek help via unconventional therapy networks that use alternative medicines, accessed through friends, or via ‘underground’ doctors who are not registered in the UK. Others borrow a friend’s identity in order to see a GP without revealing their irregular status.
Irregular migrants are not legally permitted to work to support themselves. Asylum seekers are made to quit their ESOL or college courses once their case for asylum is rejected by the UK Border Agency, even if there is no prospect of deportation in the short-term. Many of the irregular migrants we spoke to felt they had no future either in the UK or their country of origin: ‘I feel excluded, rejected, helpless and with possibly no future in this country. My well-being is also affected as I am living a life without purpose, because I can’t plan even for the short term. Sometimes I feel depressed’ (Fred, failed asylum seeker). They focus on keeping a low profile, and their inability to make friends outside a tight group of supporters limits their access to accurate information about their rights and entitlements and restricts opportunities to improve their position.
Men who were failed asylum seekers talked particularly about feeling depressed because their inability to conform with traditional roles and support their family affected their status and self-esteem: ‘It has impacted a lot because you can’t help yourself, your family or friends at home. Here, you are not useful. You feel hopeless and useless and you can’t actually do anything worth doing in the society’ (Benba, failed asylum seeker). However we did encounter some over-stayers who felt quite secure and were getting on with their lives: ‘People assume that I’m legal. Why wouldn’t they?’ Both men and women experienced racist harassment, but rarely took action for fear of involving the authorities.
But male undocumented migrants are more likely than women to be able to locate some kind of employment to support themselves and their family, and to accumulate enough funds to seek legal advice. Men are more likely to possess wider social networks that enable them to remain in touch with relatives from their country of origin. Women ‘irregulars’ are more vulnerable to abuse, as Irina (failed asylum seeker) explains: ‘We get bought and sold, betrayed. They (men) sell us and buy us, when they want to. They sell our bodies. They take advantage of us’. While men are seen as strong enough to protect themselves, women were sometimes expected to exchange sex for essentials such as food or shelter. We found that women tended to get involved in a faith group, or volunteer to help others. Those migrants who were part of a faith or ethnic group, or had the support of an NGO such as the Red Cross, benefited from material and psychological support that was critical to their ability to survive: ‘I have a lot of friends, especially people from voluntary organisations, like the Red Cross. Through their services I am gaining some peace of mind’ (Marci, failed asylum seeker).
Those who gained help tended to have some kind of existing connection to the church or NGO, perhaps through a shared faith. Through these organisations the luckier destitute migrants were offered a bed and sustenance. Some pregnant women were offered a volunteer midwife service by one of the churches.
While the state knowingly condones the destitution of men, women, their children and even newborn babies in the name of immigration control, faith organisations and other NGOs do their best to provide for destitute migrants. Yet given the scale of destitution they cannot help everyone needing support. There is a strong humanitarian case to prioritise those who are in hiding because of domestic violence or trafficking and those who are pregnant or have families. Projects such as the Eaves Poppy Project are few and far between, and in March last year lost much of its funding from the government. In the current political and financial climate it’s more unlikely than ever that Government will do anything to address the needs of irregular migrants or failed asylum seekers. But without action, women and children in particular will continue to suffer.