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How many illegal immigrants are in the UK?

Migration statistics are notoriously hard to calculate - so how do we work our the figures for illegal immigrants in Britain?  

How many illegal immigrants are in Britain? It's a hot political question, and one of the reasons why is that the total is so hard to calculate.

Here's what we know. The Office for National Statistics puts the estimated net migration to the UK for the year ending June 2016 at 650,000. Whilst immigration from the EU was highest on record, immigration from non-EU countries was largely similar to the previous years. However, that doesn't tell us much about illegal immigration.

Can we even calculate the number of illegal immigrants?

There’s a difficulty in working out the number of illegal immigrants in the UK for obvious reasons. They exist largely as an unregistered collective, and if there was some way to universally register them, well, they’d all get deported. The Office for National Statistics does not collect estimates on the number of illegal immigrants, stating in response to a FOI request last year that “[b]y its very nature it is impossible to quantify accurately the number of people who are in the country illegally.” Although the ONS could use the Annual Population Survey or the Census, these methods would leave large holes considering the  ‘hidden’ population of illegal immigrants. Although GPs, landlords, schools and charities are increasingly expected to monitor immigration, there are still no hard figures.

What estimates have been made?

The most recent number comes from 2005. That year, the Government assessed methods other countries used to estimate their level of illegal immigration, and applied those techniques to the UK. Creating an estimate for 2001, they predicted the number at 430,000. In 2007, the London School of Economics produced a report estimating the number of ‘irregular’ migrants at 533,000. 

The government does, however, collect “Immigration Enforcement Data”  including information such as number of visits based on tip-offs, number of people refused entry and number of offenders deported. For example, the number of enforcement visit arrests from information in Q2 of 2016 was 941. The The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford put the number of deported immigrants at 40,896 in 2015, but it also does not make an estimation of number of ‘irregular’ immigrants. The Observatory states that "irregular migration is by definition not recorded and eludes statistical coverage" and told the New Statesman that its inability to produce more up-to-date reports is due to there being “no useful data at all about this subject.” The Observatory concluded, “working out who is breaking the rules and who isn’t involves knowing what all [people who enter the UK] are doing, which isn’t recorded in a systematic way.”

What is the government doing?

Leaving the EU, mainly. Theresa May, during her time as Home Secretary was harsh on immigration, deporting 48,000 international students at one point due to suspicion over a fraudulent English language test which later proved to be legal. There are ample controversial initiatives that exist, such as Prevent and legislation making it illegal for landlords to rent properties to illegal immigrants. 

Right now, the sheer difficulty at estimating the number of illegal immigrants gives ample opportunity for fake news. From the Daily Mail to ‘Migration Watch’ (a suspiciously defensive anti-immigration website), concerns about illegal immigrants are often more influenced by ideology than evidence.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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