Illegal Immigration


Illegal Immigration: MW 434

The Definition of an Illegal Immigrant

Illegal immigrants are non-EU nationals who do not have the right to remain in the UK. They may have entered legally but have failed to return home when they were required to do so or they may have entered illegally in the first place.

Entry to the UK

There are four main ways in which a person can become an illegal immigrant in the UK (sometimes also referred to as an irregular migrant):

  • By entering the country undetected in a clandestine/illegal way, such as being smuggled in on a lorry from Calais.
  • By entering the country legally, either for a short visit or for work, study or family reasons, and then subsequently remaining after his or her visa has expired.
  • By failing to leave the country after a claim, and often also an appeal, for asylum has been rejected..
  • Technically, a child has no right to remain in the UK if both parents are illegal immigrants.

The ongoing migrant crisis in the EU has had a significant impact on the UK in recent years. Until its closure last year there were as many as 10,000 illegal immigrants camped out in the Calais region with the intention of making it to the UK, despite being in France, which is obviously a safe country. The so called ‘Jungle’ camp has now been closed although reports suggests that around 500 may remain in the area.

In 2015 the then Head of Border Force told MPs on the Home Affairs Committee that in the ten months to January 2015 as many as 30,000 illegal immigrants had been detected attempting to enter the country through Calais and other Channel ports.

In a 2016 report the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration reported that, in the six months to September 2015, 6,400 migrants had been found entering the UK as stowaways, more than double the previous year. There are concerns that enforcement staff are being diverted from other activities to address the issue of ‘lorry drops’ (where a migrant stows away in a lorry and disembarks when they reach the UK) leaving gaps in other parts of the system.

The Size of the Illegal Immigrant Population in the UK

By its nature, illegal immigration is very difficult to measure. First, the Census does not record the immigration status of respondents and, in any case, most illegal immigrants would be very unlikely to respond. Moreover, in 1998 the then Labour government ended the system of exit checks on non-EU migrants which meant that for nearly 20 years, until their reinstatement in April 2015, it has been impossible to determine who is still in the country.

The Government has long shied away from attempting to estimate the illegal immigrant population of the UK. In 2005 however, the Home Office commissioned a report which estimated that in 2001 the population of illegal immigrants in the UK was approximately 430,000, excluding the UK born children of illegal immigrants.

In 2009, the London School of Economics produced an estimate of the illegal immigrant population in 2007; they suggested a central figure of 670,000 using a similar methodology to the 2005 estimate. They suggested that three factors would have affected the size of the illegal immigrant population between 2005 and 2007:

  • Some of the continued inflow of asylum seekers would have been refused asylum and therefore became illegal immigrants
  • More immigrants would have overstayed their visas. These two factors would have increased the size of the illegal population.
  • Meanwhile the regularisation of some previously illegal immigrants would have reduced the total.

In 2010 Migration Watch UK estimated the illegal immigrant population at 1.1million (see here). In 2017 a former Head of Immigration Enforcement, David Wood, and a former speechwriter to the then Home Secretary (Theresa May) Alisdair Palmer claimed that the Home Office were of the opinion that each year as many as 150,000-250,000 foreign nationals fail to return home when they should or enter illegally, thus adding still further to the illegal migrant populaiton. (To read Wood and Palmer's full report click here) This is not the annual increase in the number of illegal immigrants in the country as some may later decide to go home or go on to regularise their stay.

In April 2015 the government reintroduced exit checks allowing the authorities to know, from hereon, who has left the country and who remains.This should, in theory, provide the Border Force with information about those individuals who have overstayed a visa.

How can an illegal immigrant obtain the right to remain in the UK?

Some people have had their immigration status “regularised”, meaning that they go from being an illegal immigrant with no right to remain to being a legal migrant with either temporary or indefinite leave to remain. There were 21,000 extensions of stay under the ‘Family life’ (10 year route) in 2016 and a further 3,000 under the ‘Private life’ route. In addition to these routes the Home Office also issued around 2,000 grants of leave to remain on a discretionary basis as well as 5,500 labelled as ‘Other’, some of whom may have been illegal migrants being granted leave to remain. These routes, which totalled nearly 30,000 in one year, have all added to our population growth.

Obstacles to Enforcement

The number of illegal immigrants removed from the UK is very low in comparison to the size of the illegal population. In 2016 the Home Office removed 2,400 immigration offenders, 6,200 Foreign National Offenders and 2,400 failed asylum cases.

There is a great deal of public support for removing people that are in the UK illegally: a 2013 poll found that 82% want to see stronger action taken to remove illegal immigrants. One of the major obstacles is the underfunding of immigration enforcement. In 2015/16 just £463 million was spent on immigration enforcement, or less than half a percent of total government spending in the same year.

Another major impediment is the size of the detention estate. At present only around 3,500 can be held in detention at any one time. This is clearly inadequate compared to the size of the task.

The lack of return agreements between the UK and source countries is a further obstacle. Unfortunately, it is often those countries that are a major source of illegal immigrants with which the UK does not have an agreement. A returns agreement is one whereby two countries agree to return their nationals to each other when they are found illegally in each other’s territory.

At present the UK does not have an agreement with either Brazil or India, both of which are thought to be significant sources of illegal migration to the UK.

Another factor that further complicates the returns process is a lack of documentation. Some illegal immigrants will not have had documents i.e. a passport, when they arrived while others will have purposely destroyed their documents in order to frustrate the returns process. Some countries refuse to re-document their own citizens.

An effective system to remove those who have no right to remain in the country is essential to the credibility of the whole immigration system. That credibility is at risk.

The government should therefore significantly increase the resources available for removal. They should also encourage source countries to re-document their citizens who are illegally present in the UK without documentation and accept their return to their own country. If necessary they should link the provision of overseas aid or our own visa requirements to their cooperation on this issue.

18 December, 2017



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