On an industrial estate on the edge of central Birmingham, in a building nestled behind a car park and overlooking the city’s network of canals, I met a group of about 30 people who had come from all over the world but whose experiences of the UK’s immigration regime were remarkably similar. They formed a circle in the middle of the room and began talking about the problems they had faced. Overstretched lawyers and immigration specialists were on hand to offer advice.
Diana was there that night. She came from Zimbabwe and moved from a visitor visa to a student visa, before going on to marry an EU citizen. But her marriage quickly deteriorated: “I had to come out of the relationship because of domestic violence.” She says she left her partner to save her life. She knew nothing about the asylum process, but in 2013, she was told that because she feared persecution in Zimbabwe, she could apply for refugee status. Diana quickly learned how many people are “ready to mislead you”. One of her lawyers did not give her the right information about applying for asylum, which meant that, when she went to court, she did not present the relevant facts that might have helped her case. Other lawyers she paid barely gave her any time and did not go through her case properly. At each appeal, she was refused the right to stay in the country.
Some of the people in the room had struggled alone to navigate disorienting immigration rules, while others had to find a way through for their whole family. There were children of various ages – from curious babies to bored seven- or eight-year-olds. Some had been born in the country; others had migrated with their parents. What united these people was the time, effort and money – often money they did not have – they were spending to try to stay in the UK. They shared stories of being fleeced by lawyers, going into courtrooms where the people they had paid to represent them did not know even the most basic details of their case, and explained the desperation they felt when their claims were repeatedly rejected.
If considered at all, their experiences might be regarded by some as an unfortunate byproduct of the UK’s necessary system of immigration controls. But they are just some of the many who find themselves plunged into uncertainty for years; trying to make it through a dizzying maze of application forms, court dates and ever-changing discriminatory immigration rules.
Support for immigration and asylum cases is almost non-existent unless you have the money to pay for it. When you are not allowed to work – as is the case for people seeking asylum – funding legal representation can be an impossible task, in a country where legal aid has been decimated. In 2007, the government introduced a flat fee for legal-aid asylum cases, which meant lawyers were paid a fixed amount regardless of how long they worked on a case. “If you did go over a certain number [of hours] and if you could justify that …then you would get paid by the hour,” the former immigration barrister Frances Webber explains. But getting to that stage was very difficult. These changes incentivised a factory-style process; encouraging “rubbish firms who do no work or do very little work” and penalising those who took “great care”, Webber says. Firms were expected to subsidise work on asylum cases with money received from more straightforward legal aid cases. The coalition government further cut legal aid in 2013, including the money available for most immigration and asylum cases. New Labour had cracked down on fraudulent lawyers, but as costs spiralled and legal aid was hacked away, the chaos left people once again exposed to predatory lawyers. What this has essentially resulted in is a two-tier justice system.
Reliable help is now extremely hard to come by. Two of the biggest not-for-profit immigration and asylum centres, Refugee and Migrant Justice (RMJ) and the Immigration Advisory Service, closed in 2010 and 2011. Between them, they represented about 20,000 clients and employed hundreds of staff. The reason for their failure was financial; RMJ said this was brought on by changes to legal aid, which meant bills were not paid until a case was finished. When they went under, they were owed £2m by the Legal Services Commission, which ran the legal aid scheme in England and Wales from 2000 until 2013.
“You just don’t have the bodies helping people, so you are going to see more rejections,” explains Alison Moore, director of Refugee Women Connect, an asylum organisation in Liverpool. “It’s not an area where you shouldn’t have a legal representative with you.”
The immigration and asylum system is not only confusingly complex in how it is designed; the way it is implemented makes almost every step you have to go through outrageously expensive. In 2016-17, fees for settlement, residence and nationality increased by 25%. They are constantly changing, but at the time of writing, if you want to become a permanent resident of the UK, it will cost you £2,389. That is on top of £50 for a “Life in the UK” test, which you have to take when you apply to become a British citizen or for permanent residency and, if you are required to take one, £150 for an English exam. Anyone given discretionary leave to remain has to refresh their status every three years, which costs £900 each time. It has even got to the stage where the Home Office is charging £5.48 every time you require a response by email. This inevitably affects poorer migrants disproportionately, people who might not be able to pay to get the reply they need, which may subsequently prevent them from resolving their claim.
Having cash is not an automatic guarantor to frictionless movement, but money lubricates the whole system. As of 2010, if you have £2m or more to invest in the British economy, you can apply for an “investor” visa – and, if successful, come to the country for three years and four months and bring immediate family members.
For everyone else, the cost – in all senses of the word – can shape their whole lives. “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty,” wrote the essayist James Baldwin, “knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.”
It has become common sense to think that too much immigration of a certain kind is bad for the UK in all kinds of ways – for wages and public services, but also for “integration” and “cohesion” – and that controls are a solution. But look at what they do: leave people in limbo, separate them from friends and family or stop them from staying long enough to make local connections if they want to. Controls give the super-rich the chance to move, but treat this same freedom as dangerous in the hands of the poor. Controls are making people’s lives a misery; they are part of the problem.
The few organisations that exist to help people struggling to regularise their status are overstretched, underfunded and laden with more responsibilities than they can manage. But they are vital. “It’s become almost impossible for people with most kinds of immigration issues to get any advice,” says Benjamin, who gives assistance to destitute migrants (he did not want to give his full name). “And it’s become much more difficult for people who’ve got that legal advice to find routes to regularising their status.” As successive governments have talked and acted tough on immigration, migrants – documented and undocumented – feel able to trust very few people. “Just from the point of view of people who have jobs in the sector and get paid to do advice work, it’s really frightening. Caseworkers are burning out, services are just going to become more and more strained than they already are,” Benjamin explains.
He calls charities that hold regular drop-ins for migrants, asylum seekers and refugees “advice factories”; they are under immense pressure, people cannot stay in the line of work for long and, as they leave, knowledge goes with them. This slowly depletes the level of experience within organisations, which is necessary to help people navigate what is an intentionally onerous and complex set of rules.
“It’s hard not to feel like the government is doing it deliberately, not just to create a hostile environment for people who are here ‘illegally’ but [also] to make it more difficult for people supporting them … and I think everyone anticipates that at some point there will be legislation deliberately aimed at the organisations that support, for example, undocumented people, to make it more difficult for them to be accommodated and to make it more difficult for people to get advice.”
Without this advice, it is hard to navigate the UK’s labyrinthine network of ever-changing rules and regulations. Since the early 90s, there has been, on average, a piece of legislation on immigration every other year. Between 2010 and 2018, there were seven immigration bills, containing all kinds of changes.
An immigration enforcement operation in Slough in 2014. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty
“It’s actually designed to isolate you, to bring you down, to make you want to give up and pack your bags and just go,” Diana says. “People have to really own their situation, you can’t rely on somebody else. You have to know your rights and without that … you’re headed for downfall.”
Diana’s description seems to ring true no matter where you go in the country. In my hometown, Newcastle, Lindsay Cross was running the West End Refugee Service (WERS) when I met her. Like so many other immigration and asylum services, WERS struggles from year to year to make the money it needs to support everyone that comes in for help. It relies on volunteers giving their time and energy to stay in operation. As well as struggling to survive in a climate hostile to such organisations, WERS has also witnessed what this environment has meant for asylum seekers. Some have been left destitute and hopeless, and many others have suffered thanks to private companies who provide asylum housing.
People who have been given refugee status or who have indefinite leave to remain have very similar housing and welfare rights to British citizens. But over the past 30 years, people seeking asylum have had their rights stripped back via successive immigration and asylum acts, including the ability to choose where they live.
Under the “forced dispersal” policy introduced by New Labour, people seeking asylum are sent all over the country, usually to some of the poorest areas, regardless of whether they know anyone there or anything about the place. “It’s not easy to start a whole life again,” says Diana, who was sent from Nottingham, where she had friends, a job in the NHS and a rented flat, to Birmingham, a place she did not know at all. But the disorientation that comes with being shipped off to an area you do not know can be made even worse if you get to your new home only to find it damp, rotting or infested with insects, mice and rats.
In 2012, six contracts worth £620m shifted housing provision into the hands of three private companies, G4S, Serco and Clearel. Only Clearel had any experience of providing housing. When the new housing providers were announced, security firm G4S was probably best known for having been involved in the death of 46-year-old Jimmy Mubenga in 2010. After 17 years in the UK, Mubenga was being deported to Angola, which meant he would be separated from his wife and five children. Before takeoff, three of the G4S guards restrained him. Passengers nearby claimed they heard him cry: “Let me up, you’re killing me. I cannot breathe.” He died on the plane as it sat on the asphalt at Heathrow.
A year later, an inquest concluded that Mubenga had been unlawfully killed; a subsequent trial ended with the jury finding the three guards not guilty of manslaughter. Racist texts found on two of the guards’ phones were not shown to the jury; defence lawyers argued they would “release an unpredictable cloud of prejudice”. But a coroner’s report written three years after Mubenga’s death said the texts seemed to “evidence a more pervasive racism within G4S”. By the time the report was released, G4S had already been given the asylum housing contract.
Before the switch went ahead, a mix of local authorities, housing associations and private contractors had been responsible for the accommodation of asylum seekers. Cross says the shift away from local authorities was “very obvious” and the private sector offered much lower cost contracts, but that came with “absolute paring down in the contracts”.
In 2016, G4S was fined £5.6m for the low standard of the asylum housing it provided in 2013/14. In Middlesbrough, when G4S inspected housing provided by Jomast – a company G4S subcontracts to – it found urgent defects in 14% of properties. Later, Home Office inspections found urgent defects in 91% of properties. Jomast was reported to be taking £8m from the taxpayer. As asylum seekers were being sent to live in squalid conditions, the government was still handing millions of pounds’ worth of contracts to the private housing providers.
To find an example of the inhumanity of migration policy in the UK, look no further than “immigration removal centres”. Andy knows this all too well. Originally from Ghana, Andy’s family – made up of his father and his younger siblings (two brothers and two sisters) – moved around before they settled into life in the UK in 1997, when Andy was 12 years old. Andy never knew the specifics of his father’s job, just that he was often away on business. “I remember my dad always travelled, no matter where we lived he always travelled.” One day, the woman who was looking after Andy and his siblings while his father was away with work packed up and left: at the age of 15, Andy had to become the adult of the household. Without any means to contact their father, he dropped out of school, got a job in a nearby market and looked after the family. His father never returned. To this day, Andy still doesn’t know what happened to him.
Before long, the circumstances of their makeshift family were discovered. With Andy still under the age of 18 and trying to support his siblings singlehandedly, his brothers and sisters were taken into care and social services told him he could go into accommodation provided by the council, but that he needed ID.
“Lo and behold, I get there and they say – first time in my life – ‘Where’s your passport or birth certificate, where’s your ID?’ What? What’s an ID? I don’t know. They say: ‘Well unless you’ve got one of these things we can’t help you.’ So, I went back to social services and they said go and search the house. I turned the house upside down. Nothing.”
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Andy was left homeless. To survive, he left London and bought an ID from someone who specialised in identity fraud. Desperate to get a job and without any form of documentation – not even a birth certificate – he felt he had no choice. He did get a job, but his fake ID was eventually found out, and he went to prison for identity theft. His sentence was supposed to be 10 months, but then, out of the blue, the day before he was due to be released, he was told he was being put in immigration detention. But even that did not happen straight away. “I was supposed to be released from prison on 21 May 2010. That was the day. That was my release date. I stayed in prison until 13 June 2011, over a year.” No one ever explained why. After a year in Morton Hall detention centre in Lincolnshire, Andy was moved to Brook House, next to Gatwick airport. When he arrived, he realised he was going to be quietly put on a plane and deported to Ghana, a country he had not been to since he was a child; a place where he knew no one.
Andy had already been encouraged by a volunteer in Morton Hall to apply for asylum: he is bisexual, and would face persecution if he went back to Ghana. He pointed out that he was waiting for the asylum decision, so he could not be deported until he heard the outcome. This gave him more time. After applying for bail 14 times, he was finally successful and, in October 2016, he was granted asylum by the courts. But the Home Office decided to appeal the decision. This punitive system of detention with the prospect of deportation is something the government often relies on as a way to “control” immigration.
Between 2009 and 2016, 2,500-3,500 migrants were in detention at any given time. It is thought the longest someone has been detained was for 1,156 days. In 2015, the then chief inspector of prisons noted in a report that high numbers of women put in Yarl’s Wood detention centre were released, which, he wrote, “raises questions about the validity of their detention in the first place”.
When I met Andy, he was still in limbo, forced to carry around a biometric ID card, his only official piece of identification. “I’ve been out three years,” he said. “I’m not allowed to work paid or unpaid, I can’t work but they expect me to survive … I get nothing.”
In 2005, while New Labour prime minister Tony Blair was claiming that the government was “dealing appropriately with the issues in asylum and immigration”, Nora was sleeping rough. Arriving in the UK at the age of 17 with her younger cousin, Nora had come from north-east Africa to try to get an education and to escape violence in the region. Her first asylum rejection was followed by another four, and when her final appeal failed, she did not know what to do. Worried about disappointing her family and with no one to turn to, she was now 18 and so no longer eligible for state support.
“I started hiding. Social services couldn’t look after me any more because I was an adult, so I was kicked out of the hostel we were living in,” she explains. “I started staying with friends, sometimes on a bus. I was jobless so I couldn’t work because I didn’t have a work permit and no forms of identification. So it was pretty tough. For 10 years I lived that way, sleeping on streets and [in] tube stations.” Things got so bad that after nearly five years of being homeless Nora decided to go back home. She went to the embassy of her home country, only to be told that with no proof she had come from there, they would not let her go back. Nora was left in limbo.
Many might have regarded Nora as a “bogus asylum seeker” or an “economic migrant” posing as a refugee, coming to take all she could from the UK. But her experience shows that people’s lives are more complex than these reductive and stigmatising terms allow. There has never been any proof that significant numbers of people are coming to the UK to cheat the system or claim benefits. Almost everyone I talked to who has experienced immigration rules first-hand was confused by the maze they entered into. “I had no idea what the laws were about different forms of entitlement. I was just scared that I would be rejected, so I had to hide in case I got caught,” Nora tells me.
Controls compel people to take risks; they can create illegality. “I sort of fell through the system,” Nora explains. “You hear the sirens and you’re scared they’re going to catch you and deport you because you don’t have any form of documentation … you shouldn’t feel like that at 18. You live in fear.”
For all the talk of immigration, there is no universally agreed-upon definition of who constitutes an immigrant. The United Nations describes a long-term international migrant as someone who moves to another country, which essentially becomes their residence, for at least 12 months. But even this explanation has its problems. “The time frame of one year is arbitrary,” the academic Bridget Anderson points out. “Change that and you can drastically alter how we understand and measure immigration. If, for example, one chooses to define a ‘migrant’ as a person intending to stay [away] for four years or more … Britain has been experiencing negative net migration for many years.”
An immigration stamp on a UK passport. Photograph: PA
And despite such definitions, movement is complicated and the distinction between refugees and migrants is not always a straightforward one. Someone might flee war in their home country, arrive in another as an asylum seeker and be granted refugee status. But after months or years of trying to and work or survive in this new country, they might decide to move somewhere in Europe, where they are told there is a chance of work, or where their family lives. Then they might be seen as what politicians like to call an “economic migrant”.
Ake, who came to the UK from the Ivory Coast via France 10 years ago, points out that this term is applied selectively. People from Africa or developing countries are “economic migrants”, but if someone leaves the UK and goes to Germany, they’re more likely to be called an “expat” – these terms, just like the immigration debate itself, are racialised. “They are people and we [are] less than human,” he says.
People classed as economic migrants are thought to choose to move for better wages or a better standard of life. Not necessarily in the country “illegally”, they are still considered illegitimate. But overlooked in the mix of hostility and hysteria about “economic immigration” is an understanding of why people migrate to begin with.
If all movement were just a case of following the money, academic Arun Kundnani writes, “everyone in Greece would have moved to Luxembourg, where they could instantly double their wages”. Many people cannot scrape together enough money to move, and many others might not want to move in the first place. The frenzied discussion about “mass migration” ignores the fact that the vast majority of people stay where they are, or move within countries. In 2016, estimates suggested only 3.3% of the world’s population were international migrants; in 1960 it was 3%. The world’s population has grown substantially in this period, so although this amounts to more people moving, it is not a significantly higher proportion than in the past. What has also changed over this almost 60-year period is that the countries people leave are more diverse, and the numbers of destinations are far smaller. The EU, one of the richest parts of the world, is one of the most popular destinations. Even then, only a small proportion of the population of Europe are immigrants.
But as long as 4.2 billion people live in poverty and the income gap between the global north and south is still growing, people will have to move. Many migrants, even if they only move temporarily, are merely trying to make a life for themselves in a global economy that is deeply unequal and that is destroying the places they call home. Climate breakdown is increasingly going to make it impossible for people to stay where they are born, and it is likely people of colour will be disproportionately impacted. But under the legal definition of the refugee, written in the 1951 Refugee Convention, these people are not protected: as yet, there are no internationally recognised rights for those who have to leave their home because of the changes wrought by climate breakdown.
Just like those who have to move to find work, the people we might call climate refugees will not be seen as responding to an unfairly structured and extractive economic system that benefits a small number of people at the expense of most. If the tune continues as it is, they will likely be treated as burdens or threats.
“What they’ve managed to do is create this idea that people are simply moving for economic reasons,” says Asad Rehman, director of the global justice charity War on Want, when describing the term “economic migrant”. “And in people’s minds that means you’re moving from one wage to another, you’re simply moving for a higher salary, rather than actually saying that people are survival migrants. What people are surviving is global inequality.”
Originally from the Philippines, Marissa Begonia ended up in the UK when she could not find a job that would give her and her three children a decent standard of living at home. “It was the most difficult and painful decision to leave my family behind in search for a decent job in a foreign land, but this was the only way I could think of.”
As a last-ditch option, Marissa became a domestic worker at the age of 24. Trying to find decent employment, she shuttled back and forth between countries. First, she worked in Singapore, where her wages were so low it was not worth it. Then she went to Hong Kong, where an abusive employer made her life unbearable. When she quit, she was so scared of what her employer might do that when she went to hand in her resignation, she did so holding a knife behind her back. She returned home to the Philippines, but nothing had changed; any work she could find paid so little she could barely afford to look after her children. And so she decided to try again. She went back to Hong Kong, and from there, her employers moved her to London, where she still lives, and where she is chair of the Voice of Domestic Workers, an organisation established in 2009 to help migrant domestic workers stand up to discrimination, inequality and abuse.
Evidence shows that migrants are far more likely to be employed in lower-paid, monotonous and dangerous jobs, with little or no trade union influence – yet they tend to be educationally and experientially overqualified for the work they do. “There are reasons why people are moving from their home land to Europe,” explains Ake. “Like anybody else, we have dreams for ourselves and our families, and rights we are entitled to. And when you are denied these basic rights, your instincts switch to survival mode.”
We like to tell ourselves a very particular version of the UK’s past – one in which we have held the door open to people fleeing conflict and persecution, and welcomed others from all over the world. Whenever the brutal realities of this country’s asylum system make newspaper headlines, the Home Office response almost always includes some variation of “The UK has a proud history of granting asylum to those who need it.” But while there are tales of a warm reception for some, and people have made a life for themselves in this country, there are at least as many – if not more – stories of doors slammed shut in people’s faces and faceless walls of bureaucracy confronting those who arrive. This has been the case for decades.
Diana adds: “I’m not really a bad person. You’ve [Britain] treated me so bad for just wanting to have a life to live.”