Immigration to the UK is one of the most fraught policy issues for the government. Our ability to control immigration is restricted by the free movement of workers throughout the EU, so the government’s attention has turned towards capping remaining legal immigration and tackling irregular immigration. Based on the findings of a new ippr report, Myriam Cherti argues that reducing irregular immigration and the number of irregular immigrants already in the UK will not be an easy task; a range of integrated and coherent policy options are needed.
Irregular migration is one of the most contentious and emotive issues in public and policy discourses around migration. This is particularly true of the UK debate, which tends to be dominated by demands for the government to take strong action. The recent Transatlantic Trends Immigration 2010 clearly reflects levels of public concern, with 71 per cent of UK respondents saying they are ‘worried’ by it, and 90 per cent of respondents agreeing with the need for stronger border measures and tougher penalties on employers to reduce irregular immigration. Yet if the public could be reassured, the government would be under less pressure to opt for ‘quick wins’ and would have more time and scope to invest in a wider range of measures to ensure a more comprehensive and sustainable approach to addressing irregular immigration.
The best recent estimate put the number of irregular immigrants in the UK at well over half a million, or just over 1 per cent of the total population. This is close to the estimated EU average, where the number of irregular migrants varies between 2.8 and 8 million, or between 0.6 per cent and 1.6 per cent of the total EU population of just under 500 million.
While the scale of the phenomenon explains why irregular migration receives so much attention, it is its negative effects which provide the compelling imperative to take action. Irregular immigration is harmful in the following ways:
- It severely damages the integrity and credibility of the immigration system, the good working of which is vital for maintaining public support for the migrant flows that this country needs.
- Despite their own agency in becoming irregular and the benefits they accrue from migration, irregular immigrants find themselves in situations of vulnerability and psychological uncertainty, and are prone to exploitation.
- While irregular immigrants are generally working, often pay taxes and have no access to welfare benefits, they impose significant economic and social costs on the UK, putting unplanned-for pressures on services and infrastructure.
Tolerating the existence of a substantial irregular migrant population – with the negative consequences this entails for both vulnerable migrants and wider society – does not seem to us to be a credible policy option. But neither is it feasible to reduce the problem to zero, as the government sometimes implies. What is needed instead is a more strategic approach towards tackling irregular migration, looking both at deterring future irregularity and dealing with current stocks of migrants.
Ippr has today published a major report, No Easy Options: Irregular Immigration in the UK, that takes a bold approach to the question of how to address irregular immigration. The report, which is based on extensive fieldwork with irregular migrants both in the UK and returnee irregulars overseas, identifies clear gaps in the current system and puts forward a roadmap of recommendations to address the issue.
The report acknowledges that no single policy can be effective in isolation and suggests instead that policymakers need to implement a range of options as a coherent package that balances the use of ‘upstream’ measures to tackle the causes of irregular migration with ‘downstream’ measures that can deal with irregular migrants once they are in the UK. Some of the upstream measures that are currently implemented by the UK government and various civil society actors with varied degrees of success include:
- Making irregularity less attractive
- Boosting legal channels for migration and work
- Tightening border controls
- Tackling migrant vulnerability and employment regulations
However, it is the downstream measures aimed at reducing stocks of irregular migration that spark the most controversy, with regularisation and forced return being the most contentious of these. ippr has long backed earned regularisation as an option for dealing with the issue of the large irregular stock built up in recent years, and believes that if properly managed, it could be a useful policy tool (though regularisations do create their own problems as has the case of Spain that has conducted its sixth amnesty in 15 years). There are strong moral and practical arguments in favour of regularisation, and excluding it as an option makes the task of reducing irregularity more difficult. However, the current political climate does not bode well for the prospect of a large scale regularisation programme in the UK.
Removing or deporting all irregular migrants is not a realistic goal either. The cost of removals is disproportionately high, even if it was possible to locate all irregular migrants living in the country. In the current context, strictly limited measures which will provide status and leave to remain for some irregular migrants therefore seem more realistic. The ‘case resolution’ process for refused asylum seekers which has been running for the last few years provides a model. There should also be some scope for ‘re-compliance’ – which would allow ‘low risk’ irregular immigrants to come back into compliance for a time-limited period before leaving the UK.
Enforced return has a part to play in any government response to irregular migration – this is an uncomfortable, but inevitable conclusion. However, enforced return of irregular migrants should not usually have to mean dawn raids, arbitrary detention, and being taken in handcuffs to the plane. Rather, it should involve impressing on irregular migrants that return is going to be enforced and that the process cannot be endlessly spun out, but that within certain limits the system will include scope for an individual to conclude their affairs in the UK and potentially take advantage of a package of financial help to aid reintegration in the home country. These schemes should not be seen as a silver bullet for clearing the stock of irregular immigrants, but should instead be used as part of a comprehensive package of policies that reflect a more progressive approach to dealing with the issue.
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