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Is illegal immigration really "getting worse"?

Contrary to Yvette Cooper, the evidence suggests that the problem is less severe than commonly thought.

Contrary to Yvette Cooper, the evidence suggests that the problem is less severe than commonly thought.
Immigration and border control signs at Edinburgh Airport. Photograph: Getty Images.

The shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, recently made a major speech on "Labour’s approach to immigration". This blog isn’t about the speech as a whole (much was fairly sensible on the benefits of migration and the damage being done by government policy in some areas, but it lacked substantive policy proposals to improve matters). Instead I want to focus on one specific paragraph, because it exemplifies the sort of alarmist, yet evidence-free, rhetoric that is increasingly common from politicians of all parties on this topic:

"At the same time illegal immigration – which isn’t included in the target – is getting worse. More people are absconding at the border, fewer are being caught and sent home, and the number of people here illegally is growing."

What does she mean by this? It appears to be true that more people are "absconding at the border" and removals are down. But so what? Only a very small proportion of those not legally present in the UK enter illegally - the vast majority are asylum seekers whose claims (and appeals) have been denied, and those overstaying their visas. Are there more of those? The fact that (slightly) fewer such people are being deported could indeed mean that there are more who aren't. But it could equally, and just as plausibly, mean exactly the opposite, if the reason is actually simply that there are fewer out there.  

So what does the evidence say? Is it correct that "illegal immigration..is getting worse..and the number of people here illegally is growing"? The last serious estimate of the number of those illegally resident in the UK was made in 2009, with data to the end of 2007; the estimate then was for a range of 420,000 to 860,000, with a central estimate of 620,000; this is the number most commonly quoted, although Migration Watch, assert the number is more likely to be about a million, by adding an arbitrary half a million overstayers and illegal entrants.

But what has happened since 2007? The 2009 report, itself based on an earlier Home Office study, found that the most important group of illegal residents was failed asylum-seekers, resulting from the period of very high flows in the early 2000s, and the resulting breakdown in the administration of the asylum system. Since then, however, while the flow of asylum seekers has remained fairly stable at much lower levels, a major regularisation programme, beginning in 2007 – amnesty in all but name for well over 100,000 applicants, especially those with children – has dealt with much of this issue. Indeed, as a result of this programme (begun by the previous government but mostly implemented by this one), in 2010 more immigrants were granted permanent residence in the UK than ever before.  

Although it is almost impossible to make sense of Home Office data on this topic, this Home Affairs Committee report suggests that of about half a million unresolved cases (in some cases, people whose claims had been denied; in many other cases, people who'd been lost in the system) more than 70 percent have been resolved (either by giving the applicants leave to remain; or because they had already left the country; or because the files were errors or duplicates). In any case, these cases no longer represent people who are here without legal residency. It is impossible to say how that affects the numbers  - but it does seem probable, therefore, that the number of failed asylum seekers is now considerably lower than in 2007.

This effect also shows up in aggregate immigration data. In the period 2001-07 inclusive, net non-EU migration to the UK was more than 1.5 million; during the same period, about 1 million people were granted settlement (indefinite leave to remain or similar). While the discrepancy is not in any sense a measure of irregular migration (there are lots of reasons why someone might immigrate here and not show up in contemporaneous settlement data) it is indicative of the overall balance between the number of people moving here and those given legal residency. By contrast, in the period 2008-12 inclusive, the two figures were not far apart, at somewhat over and just under 900,000 respectively. This does not look obviously consistent with a growing irregular population in the latter period.

Similar confirmation that there is not a large illegally resident population that has somehow been missed is provided by a comparison between the immigration data from the International Passenger Survey (IPS) and the 2011 Census. The fact that the immigration data "missed" a lot of EU migrants has attracted a lot of attention; what has been less well publicised is that the IPS-based estimates for non-EU migration turned out to be surprisingly accurate, with hardly any discrepancy with the Census. If Migration Watch was right about the extra half million  (who would not have been counted by the IPS) then where exactly are these people now?

Finally, although it is not probative, another piece of evidence suggests that the number of illegal residents may actually be rather lower than we thought. Data from the Metropolitan Police continue to show, as I first noted here, that even when immigration officers are directly involved in the processing of all those arrested in London, immigration action is taken against a remarkably small proportion: slightly under 1 per cent. More detail in my article, but unless we believe that irregular migrants are remarkably law-abiding compared both to natives and legal immigrants (who offend at approximately the same rate as natives) then it may be that levels of irregular migration are considerably lower than previously thought. Again, Migration Watch's "estimate" that the illegally resident population of London is about half a million (more than 6 percent) looks implausible in this light.

To conclude: for obvious reasons, it is very difficult to be definitive about the number of people illegally resident in the UK, let alone whether the problem is getting "worse" or "better". Given that illegal and irregular immigration is, quite rightly, a sensitive issue among both native Britons and legally resident immigrants, this alone should have given Yvette pause before making a definitive statement on the topic.

Moreover, the balance of the evidence and data that we do have suggests that, if anything, the problem is perhaps rather less severe than commonly thought. Politicians, Yvette no exception, often say that "politicians didn’t talk enough about immigration" – to the intense irritation of those of us who’ve been talking about little else for the last 15 years.  But feeling that you need to talk about something is not an excuse for getting it wrong.