The UK police and Home Office conducted thousands of immigration raids during the past two years – including at care homes – despite the pandemic, the New Statesman can reveal.
From May 2020 to June 2022, the police conducted 13,000 raids across the UK, with several hundred taking place amid Covid-19 lockdowns, according to data obtained by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) shared exclusively with the New Statesman.
The data reveals that dozens of raids took place at care homes, even during the Covid-19 lockdown, at a time when many facilities across the country were overrun with the virus and in a state of “complete breakdown”, as described by Amnesty International. Care homes in Wood Green in London and Hastings in Sussex were among those raided.
This is not a new phenomenon. After living in the UK for 13 years, Viola Guha* was subject to an immigration raid at the care home where she worked in 2016. She was told by the agency that employed her to come into work for some “training”, but when she arrived the police were waiting. She was handcuffed on the spot and taken into custody. She had a seven-year-old daughter waiting at home for her, who had just been diagnosed with diabetes. Since then, after the JCWI’s lawyers successfully fought their case, she and her daughter have been granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Illegal working in the care sector is one of the Home Office’s main illegal working concerns. Protecting vulnerable people is a key part of our responsibility and illegal working in this sector puts vulnerable people at risk by leaving them in the care of individuals whose identity may effectively be unknown.”
Most people who experience police immigration raids are neither deported nor detained, as revealed by the new data. Of the aforementioned 3,000 raids carried out in London, only 132 people were deported from the UK.
“Raids are not even effective when you measure them against the government’s own stated aims of removing people from the UK. They seem to be a needlessly cruel and traumatising way of sowing fear in racialised communities,” said Nadia Hasan of the JCWI.
“Every time I hear the ambulance or see the police, I feel terrified. I can’t put it into words, really. I don’t trust anyone. They made me feel like such a criminal,” said Grace Nguyen, who was subject to an immigration raid in 2016. She still has nightmares about the experience and feels anxious when people knock on her door, or when she hears loud noises.
Nguyen said that when the police forcibly broke down the door into her accommodation, she was already in a bad way, having fled the verbal and psychological abuse of her employer. She explained that she had arrived in the UK in 2013 legally, as a live-in maid, but her exploitative employer had taken away her documents in order to control her at work. At the time, legal changes to the visa process had left Nguyen (and many other foreign domestic workers) vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
“The police were questioning me like I was a criminal. They were very intimidating and told me I was undocumented, illegal. But I didn’t know what my legal status was. I didn’t know what my rights were. I had no idea. I was running away from my employer,” she said.
“It’s difficult to describe how vulnerable and isolated I felt. I didn’t know where to seek help to understand my situation. The raid changed my life in terms of trusting people. It took therapy to help with this.”
In recent months, the UK government has been warring over migration policy – specifically over the number of people to allow into the country. Yet there has been less focus on those who have already migrated here.
“Making it easier for people to regularise, work and live stable lives here would be the best and most practical, feasible option,” said Hasan. “We have the most expensive route to residency in Europe – it can cost a family of four more than £50,000 just to remain documented and settled over a ten-year period. Given these long, expensive and complex immigration rules, it’s no coincidence the UK has one of the largest undocumented populations in Europe.”
Lola Musa*, who came to the UK from Nigeria in 2013 to complete a masters in business administration, was raided in 2016 after she had moved into her sister’s home.
Musa was unable to renew her visa due to the UK’s stringent postgraduate visa rules, and was also unable to return to Nigeria for personal reasons. She was reading her three-year-old daughter a bedtime story when the police entered. It was a “terrifying, traumatising experience” that left Musa fearful of deportation or being removed from her daughter. Following the raid, she had to report to the immigration centre every week for three years. Every time she went, she was terrified of being taken away. Today, she has leave to remain and is working as a carer.
The number of undocumented people in the UK remains high, the figure is estimated between 800,000 to 1.2 million. “The obvious solution is to introduce simple, short pathways to residency and citizenship,” suggested Hasan, who noted the UK’s ongoing labour shortage.
Simon Wolfson, the chief executive of Next, has called for more migrant workers – recently saying the current situation wasn’t “the Brexit I voted for”. While Tony Danker, the director general of the Confederation of British Industry, said the UK should enable “economic migration” to areas where skilled workers cannot be found.
“If people had legal status, we could boost legal employment,” said Hasan. “Why doesn’t the government make regularisation easier for people – especially when we’re in such need of workers?”
The UK spends £400m each year on its Immigration Enforcement body, but to what end, asked a 2019-21 report by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee. “We are concerned that if the department does not make decisions based on evidence, it instead risks making them based on anecdote, assumption and prejudice”, it stated. “Worryingly, it has no idea of what impact it has achieved for the £400m spent each year by its Immigration Enforcement directorate.”
Meanwhile, the UK government has cut down resources for voluntary return (practical support for people with no legal right to live in the UK to return home). In 2015, the government did not renew its funding to the charity Refugee Action for its assisted voluntary returns programme; this prompted the end of the charity’s “delivery of impartial, non-directive advice to those considering returning”. Without these programmes, it is more difficult for people who want to leave the UK and return to their home country to do so without independent means.
Voluntary returns from the UK have fallen substantially since 2015, despite the UK government’s continued ambition to create a “hostile environment” – the umbrella term for a group of policies that are aimed to make life in the UK so difficult for people without immigration status that it would encourage them to leave.
It is unclear, however, what impact the hostile environment has had on voluntary returns at all. A 2020 report by the National Audit Office into the effectiveness of the policy states that the Home Office is “currently unable to measure whether these activities have the desired effect of encouraging people to leave voluntarily”.
The public’s resistance to immigration raids in the UK appears to have grown in recent years. In May 2021, two men were taken from their home and detained in a van by immigration officials on Kenmure Street, Glasgow. In response, hundreds of residents from the local community surrounded the van and remained there for eight hours, until the men were released.
If immigration raids are increasingly unpopular with the public, largely ineffective, cruel and clumsy, are they anything more than a photo opportunity for posturing ministers?
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity.