An Amnesty For Illegal Immigrants Would Risk Lives


1. The PM said of his asylum policy on 18 March 2021: “The objective here is to save life.” That same day he spoke in favour of his long-standing proposal for an amnesty for long-term illegal immigrants. If the aim is to save life, why would you offer an amnesty that would only spur more people to risk their lives in needless trips from safe countries? Almost 300 asylum seekers including 36 children have died trying to cross the Channel to the UK in the past two decades. An amnesty would vastly increase the risk of more tragedy in the Channel. This is reason enough to reject the proposal. Yet there are a host of other persuasive arguments against it. Illegal immigration is a serious problem (there are up to 1.2 million people here illegally already, with that number likely growing by tens or hundreds of thousands per year) and an amnesty for a large segment of that population won’t ease that but make the problem worse. It would seriously undermine the rule of law and be a grave insult to legal migrants who play by the rules, fill in forms, pay exorbitant fees and wait patiently in line as well to law-abiding citizens. An amnesty would be hugely divisive and very expensive. See below what experts and public figures here and elsewhere have said about amnesties:

  • [If recurrent amnesties are put in place] new illegal migrants may be encouraged to enter’ –Home Office report: ‘Sizing the illegally resident population in the UK’, 2nd edition by Charles Pinkerton, Gail McLaughlin and John Salt (58/04), p.39.
  • A former French government minister said, ‘previous mass amnesties have encouraged further waves of illegal immigration.
  • Germany’s former Interior Minister said: “Wide ranging campaigns to legalise immigrants such as in Spain mean more illegal immigrants are drawn to Europe. In the long term, immigration and refugee problems cannot be solved with unilateral action, but only with European and international co-operation.”
  • The House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee., then chaired by a Labour MP, concluded that amnesties for failed asylum seekers ‘set up a vicious circle which should be broken by discouragement of unfounded claims, fast and efficient processing of those claims when made, and rapid removals when claims have failed’.
  • Another former Labour Home Affairs Committee Chair described an amnesty as a ‘considerable cost to the taxpayer’.

Illegal immigration is a serious problem and an amnesty will not deal with it

2. For years, we at Migration Watch UK have been pointing to the fact that there is a significant number of illegal immigrants in the UK:

3. In June 2005, the Home Office published a Report which they had commissioned and which arrived at a central estimate of 430,000 illegal migrants in the UK. Our estimate in 2010 was of an illegal population of 1.1 million. Research subsequently published in 2019 by Pew estimated that the number of illegal migrants in the UK in 2017 was between 800,000 and 1.2million – the largest number of any EU country. Similar such estimates (of about a million) have been echoed by former senior Home Office officials.

4. The problem has likely worsened recently – two million people have crossed illegally into Europe from Asia and Africa since the start of 2014.  And enforcement efforts by the Home Office have become much less effective.

5. 30,000 people have been recorded as illegally entering the UK via the Channel (either in small boats or in the back of lorries) since the start of 2018 (see our Channel Tracking Station).

6. A report co-authored by former Head of Immigration Enforcement David Wood and former Home Office speechwriter Alasdair Palmer stated in mid-2017 that the HO had estimated that each year 150,000-250,000 foreign nationals either enter the UK illegally or overstay permission to be here. Separately, we have estimated that the illegal migrant population is growing by a net figure of at least 70,000 per year – most of these are overstayers and the number of potential overstayers is 90,000, if not much higher (see our paper). It is necessary to add clandestine entrants and failed asylum seekers who refuse to leave to this number.

7. Polling by Project28 suggests that 77% of the public support tougher action to deal with illegal immigration. An amnesty would be going in the other direction.

Amnesties risk lives by encouraging people to take dangerous journeys

8. The evidence from other countries suggests that amnesties only encourage people to risk their lives by casting their lot in with ruthless people traffickers.

9. Italy granted five amnesties in recent decades, yet saw the number of applications for regularisation more than double, from 119,000 to 308,000 between 1987 and 1998.

10. Spain also granted multiple such amnesties. Similarly, the number of applications for regularisation there more than doubled between 1991 and 2001, from 135,000 to 314,000.

11. In 2005, the French Interior Minister said that further amnesties were out of the question. His German counterpart said that ‘wide-ranging campaigns to legalise illegal immigrants such as in Spain mean more illegal immigrants are drawn to Europe’.

12. It is a simple matter of logic that, if there is already a considerable draw at a time when the prospects of regularisation are limited, an offer of amnesty after a period of years can only increase that draw; it cannot possibly decrease it.

13. If we want to avoid the situation we saw a few months ago where dozens of poor people tragically died at the hands of vile people smugglers then offering an amnesty is not the way to go.

14. Another example is Germany – which sent out a clear message in 2015 that those making their way illegally to Europe would be considered for asylum. This had the effect of encouraging a very high number of sea arrivals from Turkey which only special bilateral action was able to stem.

15. Mixed messages are not an effective way of dealing with illegal immigration – Boris Johnson has in the past sent out these. In July 2019, he was maintaining his stance that an amnesty for illegal immigrants could be a good idea. A month later he declared that if you were found to have come here illegally then “we will send you back . . . you are an illegal immigrant and I’m afraid the law will treat you as such”. Any hint of grey areas, of amnesties and soft borders, and those considering paying the people smugglers their life savings will be emboldened to press on.

16. Indeed, the Home Secretary said she was going to take action to make clandestine channel crossings an ‘infrequent phenomenon’ by the spring of 2020. However, only about one in forty of those who arrived by this clandestine method from safe countries in Northern Europe have been returned. Over 400 people arrived via this route in one day in September 2020 – the worst month for such crossings that the UK has ever seen. Why not tackle follow through on this promise rather than touting counterproductive and half-baked proposals such as a mass pardon for lawbreaking?

17. It seems an amnesty is being considered in place of what would be a much better alternative – resourcing our borders effectively and delivering efficient enforcement. Instead, enforced returns of those with no right to be here have plummeted, from 15,000 in 2012 to just 5,000; voluntary returns have fallen from 30,000 in 2016 to just 5,000 and returns of foreign criminals were virtually cut in half, falling from 6,100 in 2016 to 3,400 in year ending September 2020 (see latest statistics and our brief). Also damningly, the head of the Immigration Services Union says it is unlikely illegal immigrants will be caught given the dearth of investment.

18. An amnesty would be expensive, very unpopular and would be an insult to legal migrants and law-abiding Brits

19. We already know that immigration is an annual net fiscal cost to the country (£4.3billion in 2016/17). In 2011, the Home Affairs Select Committee said that an amnesty involved ‘considerable cost to the taxpayer’. 

20. Those benefiting from an amnesty would not just be granted the right to stay here, they would be granted full access to the welfare state – such as the health service as well as to social housing and social security – and the right to bring dependants. Would this not be rewarding illegality?

21. Many who came here legally from overseas will find the prospect of an amnesty for illegal behaviour deeply unwelcome and damaging to the reputation of immigrants generally.

22. What kind of message about the authorities’ regard for the rule of law would it send to the vast majority of those who take the time and care to play by the rules and go through the correct channels? 

23. An amnesty would further increase the gap between the public and politicians and their backers. The majority of the public are opposed to an amnesty, by a margin of 13% points, with a majority (or 51% of respondents) telling Deltapoll they rejected such an idea in late 2019.

24. Some might say this would be a ‘one off’. That is not the case. Between 1993-2011 the government undertook four large-scale amnesties by stealth (euphemistically referred to as ‘clearance exercises’) which saw the granting of Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR) to over a quarter of a million failed asylum seekers. The most recent of these, which involved clearance of a ‘legacy caseload’ (2006-2011), involved 160,000 people and was described by the Home Affairs Select Committee as, ‘in practice an amnesty… at considerable cost to the taxpayer’.

25. To quote the Home Office again: “Usually a regularisation programme is intended to be a one-off measure in order to deal with a perceived problem of a large number of irregular migrants or migrant workers. However, such programmes have a tendency to become recurrent. If this happens new illegal migrants may be encouraged to enter, hoping they will be able to benefit from the next round of legalisation. For this reason, governments usually state that they do not intend to repeat the exercise. In reality, amnesties breed: most countries that have had one go on to have another.


26. Granting an illegal immigration amnesty would be a grave insult to the huge number of legal migrants who play by the rules, fill in forms, pay exorbitant fees and wait patiently in line as well to tens of millions of law-abiding citizens in the UK. An amnesty would also be hugely divisive and very expensive. Proposing an amnesty for illegal immigration is deeply irresponsible. The Prime Minister should reconsider.

19th March 2021 - Amnesty, Legal Matters, Migration Trends, Policy

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