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What of our long-resident irregular immigrants?

Tim Finch and IPPR find “no easy options”.

As the government introduces increasingly restrictive measures to cut down on legal immigration, the problem of the large and long-resident illegal or irregular immigrant population remains largely unresolved.

This population built up in the late 1990s and first decade of this century when international migration boomed and the UK's immigration systems proved hopelessly inadequate to the task of managing inflows and outflows.

Anyone who has worked in the migration sector, as I have, will have heard frequent stories of people who have stayed in this country for many years with no legal status, who've been able to find work and accommodation, who've started relationships or even families, and who've put down roots. They shouldn't really be here, but they are – and removing them after so long is difficult, to say the least.

In a major new IPPR report called No Easy Options we set ourselves the task of trying to come up with new ideas to solve this thorny issue. As the title implies, we certainly did not find a magic solution. Rather, we concluded that this government will have to pursue a raft of policies over many years, starting in the countries of origin and following the whole migrant journey.

Public information campaigns, tighter visa regimes, greater co-operation with transit countries, more sophisticated border security, embarcation controls, enhanced enforcement measures and a suite of return and resolution initiatives – all will be needed if the scale of irregularity is to be reduced.

Scale on its own is an issue, as the irregular population almost certainly runs into the hundreds of thousands. However, perhaps more important, in our view, is the impact that widespread irregularity has on the public's tolerance of immigration. This country needs migrants and migrants make an important contribution, but it is clear that the public will be persuaded of that only if the government can demonstrate that it can keep control of who comes and who goes.

It is often the case, as many campaigners argue, that irregulars are not doing much or any harm, as well as making an economic contribution. In our extensive research, we found individual irregular immigrants to be generally hard-working, decent, nice people. Their dreams and aspirations of a better life are perfectly laudable. But that is not the point. There is a system of rules, and they are breaking them. If this is allowed to persist, the integrity of the immigration system is badly damaged – and with it public confidence in migration in general.

Flexible friends

Some on the progressive wing of the migration debate have favoured the idea of a mass regularisation programme – or amnesty – arguing that most irregulars are innocent victims of the injustices and inefficiencies of the immigration system. There is a lot in this claim and, indeed, IPPR in the past has supported it. But in this report, we come out against the idea.

Again the reasons are as much about political realism as they are about the merits or otherwise of amnesties (in truth, the pros and cons are pretty finely balanced). The most recent survey data suggests that fewer than one in four of the public backs regularisation and mainstream political support for it has evaporated since the issue played so badly for the Liberal Democrats in the 2010 general election.

Better in our mind is to increase the flexibility and generosity of the current system – which, despite its harsh rhetoric (see for example Damian Green's response to the report in the Guardian), actually already provides opportunities for "quiet" regularisation. We would favour extending and embedding these measures so that special cases, such as stateless people or those facing obvious danger on return, could be subject to "status resolution", at least temporarily.

We also argue that the many thousands of minor infringers (short-term overstayers, for instance) should be offered the opportunity of "recompliance", taking them out of irregularity.

At the same time, we think migrant-supporting organisations need to recognise that return will often be the only option for an irregular immigrant, and they can best serve the welfare of their clients if they work with the authorities to make the return process as painless and supportive as possible.

At present, it has become something of a badge of honour among some organisations to fight return in almost every instance – though it is interesting that since our report went to press one of the leading refugee charities, Refugee Action, has taken over the voluntary return schemes previously administered by the International Organisation for Migration. This is very positive step.

Eyes on the endgame

Meanwhile, this government needs to learn from the last that acting smart and playing it long is a better approach than acting tough and chasing quick wins.

Our evidence suggests that the "hostile environment" strategy of making life more difficult for irregulars and their employers, as well as increasing raids and crackdowns, is certainly having an impact on the lives of irregulars – but it isn't delivering the desired endgame of more return.

Figures in our report show that the level of return doubled between 1997 and 2002, but since then has plateaued at around the 60,000-65,000 per annum mark. If this number is to increase, then a greater range of actions, involving a great number of actors (and yes, greater investment) will be needed.

For this to happen, the government needs to lead the way in taking a more co-operative, less combative approach on the issue, reaching out to those who work in the field and enlisting them in the process of increasing the numbers who return.

It will also need to consider one other thing that is politically very difficult. Irregular immigrants are able to survive in this country because there is work for them do. Most of it is at the bottom end of the labour market.

If irregular immigration is to be squeezed out of the system, but the "pull factor" or demand side that drives it persists, ministers will have to face up to the need, over time, for some legal routes for low-skilled and no-skilled immigration from outside the EU to be opened up.

Tim Finch is director of communications at IPPR.