A Hostile Environment
The UK has one of the highest populations of irregular migrants, those without documents or leave to remain, of any European country. The exact number is not known, as the last research on the subject was a report from London School of Economics in 2007. They estimated the population was around 618,000, give or take 200,000.
Of these, most enter the country legally.
"The image of the sort of clandestine man on the back of a lorry coming through Calais, that is a minority," said Saira Grant, chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI).
The largest group is likely people who have applied for asylum in the UK and have been refused. The Home Office, which handles asylum and immigration issues, encourages people to leave and tries to remove them if they refuse. But many remain anyway.
"[Asylum seekers say] if I have to choose between going back to my own country and sleeping on the street and living in this country and sleeping on the street, I'm going to stay here," said Kate Smart, director of Asylum Welcome, an organization that helps asylum seekers in Oxford.
The high number of irregular migrants remains a popular political topic. The stated policy of the current government is to create a "hostile environment" for irregular migrants to discourage those who might over-stay.
To facilitate this, the government passed the Immigration Act 2014, and another one, the Immigration Act 2016 came into law on May 12. Among other provisions, the 2014 Act created new civil sanctions for employers and landlords who hire or rent to irregular migrants, while the 2015-2016 Bill added criminal penalties for new offenses, such as driving a car as an irregular migrant.
You Don't Even Like Brown Envelopes: The Asylum Process
"We have a proud history of granting asylum to those who need our protection," wrote an unnamed spokesperson in an email from the Home Office. "All asylum claims are considered on their individual merits and in line with the rules—if someone is found not to need the UK's protection, we expect them to leave the country voluntarily and will enforce their departure where they do not."
Grant, however, alleges there is a "culture of disbelief" in the Home Office that focuses on reasons to refuse asylum more than reasons to allow people to stay.
While this is hard to prove, it is true that between 2011 and 2013, only 32 percent of asylum applications were approved during the initial hearing with the Home Office. Of those refused, 28 percent were subsequently granted on appeal. Cases can drag on for months or years and easily run into the thousands of pounds.
For example, John Bosco fled Uganda at the age of 21, after it was announced on the radio that he was gay. He left a banking job to come to the UK with just £600 on him. Bosco received temporary leave to stay in the UK and applied for asylum in 2004, which was turned down. He appealed to a High Court.
The court told Bosco he could file a fresh claim, which he did. The Home Office turned him down. He worked back up to the High Court, which ruled he could file a fresh application. He did, and was refused again.
"You reach a point that you don't even like brown envelopes," said Bosco. "I go to court, the next thing you see is a brown envelope—you think this is a rejection. You know? And then you read it and see it's a refusal, and you have to do another [application]."
As Bosco's case continued to bounce from the High Court to the Home Office for the next four years, he lost his legal aid from the government to pay for a lawyer. "I think from 2003 to 2008 I had to spend over £20,000 [$30,000] on lawyers," said Bosco. Eventually, he missed a deadline to apply for asylum, and he was detained and deported, although he later received leave to come back to the UK.
Earlier this year Bosco obtained British citizenship, and he now volunteers as the treasurer of Friends Without Borders, one of the organizations that advocated for him while he was in detention.
A Fearful Consequence: Life as an Irregular Migrant
When an asylum claim is turned down and all appeal routes are exhausted, migrants are encouraged to leave on their own. Those who do not may be deported, but many are not.
In 2014, around 20 percent of asylum seekers had been refused and not removed, while deportations and voluntary departures together accounted for only 19 percent.
Not all people who lose their right to remain can be legally removed, because of medical conditions, or because their country will not take them back, but they are not granted legal status.
"So they're here, they can't work, they can't access any benefits, now, under the new act , they can't rent, they can't drive, they can't open a bank account," said Grant. "But they are in your country and you can't remove them."
Asylum seekers in this situation receive limited assistance from the government, called Section 4 support. This support, only available to those who can prove they are destitute, includes lodging and a card with £35.39 per week, or roughly $50. In 2013, fewer than 5,000 people received this support.
Section 4 recipients have to move wherever they are placed, even if it is outside a community where they have been living. Rather than leaving a place where they may have developed friendships and perhaps even some odd jobs, many choose instead to stay where they are and go underground.
"[What does life as an irregular migrant look like?] It looks like people living for long periods on very small amounts of money, fearing arrest, having to sofa-surf or sleep outside," said Michael Woolley, chairman of Friends Without Borders, which helps migrants with legal advice and practical aid in Portsmouth.
Some find work from employers willing to risk the sanctions, often through contacts in their ethnic community. They may be able to sublet housing, or stay with a family. But the pay may be less than minimum wage, and the constant fear of deportation makes everyday activities that bring migrants into contact with the police, such as taking the underground, stressful.
"If you're an undocumented migrant who fears persecution then deportation is an extremely fearful consequence," said Professor Alice Bloch from Manchester University, who has recently completed research on irregular migrants. "If you're an undocumented migrant whose come for economic reasons, then the framework of that deportation is a lot less scary."
Mistakes, Inaccuracies and Delays: The Effect of The New Legislation
"Our new immigration bill will ensure people who genuinely need support are able to get it, but send out a very clear message to those who seek to exploit the system that Britain is not a soft touch on asylum," said the Home Office spokesperson.
Some agree that the new bill does fill important gaps, such as criminalizing illegal working.
"Now that's a very important thing to do, and that is because it sends a signal out that the UK is not a place where you can work illegally," said Alanna Thomas, senior researcher for Migration Watch, an organization that advocates for reduced net immigration to the UK.
Outside the issue of working, however, the activities targeted tenancy agreements, driving licenses, bank accounts are not ones that most irregular migrants engage in. "A lot of it is also immigration theater, it's about looking tough, appeasing those who say it's out of control by demonstrating your failure to control it, because that's somehow supposed to make them feel better," said Alison Harvey, legal director of the Immigration Law Practitioners Association, an organization of lawyers who try and insure a just immigration system. "An immigration bill is not, for the most part, about the issues it's addressing."
Based partly on evidence from the JCWI that the 2014 Act did little to control immigration and, in fact, caused discrimination against legal immigrants looking to rent, opposition parties refused to support the bill.
"The hostile environment does nothing to reduce net migration," said Andrew Smith, Labour Party MP for Oxford East, in an email interview. "I see Home Office mistakes, inaccuracies and delays every single day—it is this area which should be targeted for improvement and reduction." Other Labour, SNP and Conservative MP's did not respond to requests for an interview.
Given that the Home Office is already unable to remove a large number of people, some are skeptical that any legislation will be helpful without increasing enforcement resources.
"The government is committed to public spending cuts and the government is committed to improving immigration border control," said Franck Duvell, a researcher with Oxford University's Centre on Migration, Policy and Society. "So how can they achieve more with less money and less staff?"
In the meantime, it is unlikely that numbers of irregular migrants will be reduced substantially, or that other migrants will be discouraged from attempting to come to the UK.
"People who is in Calais, now, if you go to them and say, 'Ok, the Home Office will allow you to cross to the UK, but you're not allowed to drive for five years, you're not allowed have a bank account for five years, and you're going to live in a hostel for five years,' they're going to say, 'Ok, we'll accept it, we just need to cross,'" said Tony, a Syrian asylum seeker who asked that his real name not be used for reasons of privacy. "So when you are in this situation, you won't think about these kind of things."