The stalled lives of young migrants

Young migrants to London are keen to start their lives in the metropolis, but find that they are blocked by the toxic migration debate that is producing policies that are ungenerous and unimaginative.

Ben Gidley
1 May 2012
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Katrin was born in Bolivia. She came to the UK in 2006, originally on a tourist visa, but then applied successfully for a student visa. The application process has become very demanding – ‘we have to write our life’, she says. Her hearing for renewal, scheduled months after the process began, then shifted later, by which time her original visa had lapsed. Once her renewal was granted, it took her many more months to receive her new paperwork, during which time she felt as though she was in limbo.

Katrin’s story is taken from new research by sociologists Les Black and Shamser Sinha in the report A door to the Future? , part of the European project EUMargins, that documented young migrant lives in European cities. The UK sample was fairly small – thirty biographical interviews with young migrants in London – but produced a richly textured, intimate account of their experiences. The research methodology attempted to make them observers in their own lives too, and drew on photographic and diary records they themselves produced.

The overwhelming majority of migrants in the UK have regular status; only a small number live in partial compliance or non-compliance with the immigration rules. Some are illegal entrants, smuggled or trafficked into the UK and remaining undocumented; many more have fallen out of legal status, or exist at the blurry edges of regularity. By definition, counting the irregular is impossible, and their stories should never be taken to represent the migrant story as a whole.

But in a period of generalised austerity, as absolute and relative child poverty rises dramatically and is forecast to rise further, the precariousness of the lives of these migrants on the margins seems less unique. They become emblematic of the corrosion of character Richard Sennett describes in his study of those whose fragmented working lives in contemporary capitalism prevent them from planning a secure future; they carry the ‘weight of the world’, as described by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, since their individual agency is constantly thwarted by structural forces and external contingencies.

And yet, like everyone else, migrants living on the margins are first and foremost people, ordinary people, and their stories are often, like mine and yours, mundane, belying the spectacular narratives on the UK Border Agency website, but also belying some of the romanticism of migrants’ activist champions.

The overwhelming sense from Sinha and Back’s research is of lives in limbo, ‘imprisoned in the present’, cut off from their pasts but unable to plan for their futures, and locked out of participation in the formal labour market and civil society. This finding, of lives in limbo, is echoed in research by Nando Sigona and Vanessa Hughes in research on irregular migrant children in which they document the predicament of UK-born stateless children: born in Britain to undocumented parents, never having known any other country yet unable to claim the nationality of their birth country. These youngsters grow up in the UK barely aware of their irregular status, living normal teenage lives until they reach the end of compulsory education and hit a brick wall: considered overseas students and thus eligible for inconceivably high fees, their long-term plans crumble before them.

The dominant theme in public debates about migrant integration in the UK under both the current and last governments has been the refusal or failure of some migrants to integrate. Under the Labour government, home secretaries spoke of the children of migrants living ‘schizophrenic’ lives between two cultures, parents failing to learn English, generations locked into parallel lives outside the mainstream. David Cameron has spoken of migrants ‘not really wanting or even willing to integrate’.

Looking at these lives in limbo suggests the need to turn away from this narrow debate, and instead seek to understand the barriers to integration. One compelling story from the research, that of Ali, gives a sense of what’s at stake:

Ali lives in East London. It took him two years to travel from Afghanistan to London but only twenty minutes for the UK Border Agency to turn down his claim for asylum. In the six years it has taken for his case to be processed he has become involved in his local community. Unable to work, he helps elderly neighbours with their gardens on a voluntary basis and he approached the local council with a proposal to rebuild and refurnish unused council property. Recently he encountered a bed that had been dumped illegally in the street. He dismantled it, re-used the wood and made a bench for the street that his elderly neighbours could sit on.

Ali in many ways exemplifies the current British government’s notion of a Big Society: ordinary people voluntarily taking up mutual self-help in their neighbourhoods. Vaughan Jones argues that Britain's migrants might be the Big Society in microcosm; existing at an angle to the regular state, many are forced to be resourceful and entrepreneurial in finding solutions at grassroots level. However, there is a strong case that the participation of some kinds of migrants in the Big Society is blocked by the web of restrictions to entitlements that governs their lives.

Similarly, some migrants are locked out of participation in the labour market by immigration restrictions, as Sinha and Back report:

Dorothy is from Ghana. Living under the constant risk of being detained and deported back to the country her child has never known, Dorothy has taken steps towards a career as a midwife. Having always been told by her grandmother how amazing it is to deliver someone’s baby, she has been a birth partner and started a Level 2 National Diploma in Health Sciences. The course would cost home students £30, but Dorothy is classified as an overseas student and charged £850. The Level 3 course will cost her £1200. It may take six years for her claim to be processed.

Like Ali, Dorothy is committed to making a contribution, in her case through regular employment, through taxation and by participating in the wonder of birthing. Britain is chronically short of midwives, and more generally relies on migrant workers for the emotional labour that sustains our hospitals and other caring institutions. Dorothy’s stalled life means blocked integration and opportunities lost.

Political discourse in the UK on migration has become fixated on the numbers game, which has in turn led to a rhetoric of toughness from both sides of the party divide, as politicians attempt to demonstrate that they can get a grip on the numbers. In October 2011, the Prime Minister took this to new heights by calling on citizens to shop illegal immigrants by calling Crimestoppers. Politicians’ pronouncements on the scale of the problem can feed the fears that generate a public desire for tougher controls. This vicious circle has created the situation where the Coalition government has made itself hostage to an almost certainly unattainable goal of reducing net migration ‘to the tens of thousands’.

The failure of the numbers game approach to migration policy should give us cause to re-think the rationales for policy-making. As Sarah Spencer argues, we need a debate on what immigration policy is for. David Cameron hinted that he understood this need, when he said that ‘immigration is a hugely emotive subject and it's a debate too often in the past shaped by assertions rather than substantive arguments’.

Sinha and Back recommend an amnesty for overstayers in London, which may seem politically unrealistic. However, the idea of an amnesty was official manifesto policy of the Liberal Democrats before the last general election, and it continues to be endorsed by Boris Johnson as mayor of London. Johnson’s administration published research by the London School of Economics which made the case that regularising London’s irregular migrant workforce would unlock a significant fiscal contribution, underlining the argument that the humane solution might also be the pragmatic solution.

The numbers game, and the punitive discourse of many politicians, are confounded by the messy contingencies of migrants’ lives. Boris Johnson has spoken eloquently of the experiences of irregular migrants, whom he describes as existing in the shadows. This sort of eloquence, like the voices of the young migrants whose lives are documented in A Door to the Future?, undoes the reduction of migrant lives to abstract statistics. Most importantly, it opens the door to a de-toxified debate on migration in the UK, something necessary if we are to move from hollow promises to rational, honest and evidence-based policy.

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