European Task Force on Irregular Migrations - Country Report: United Kingdom Paris: Ifri, 2011, 49 p. (Coll. Les études Ifri)
Irregularity of status, or „illegal‟ migration, has become a significant issue of public interest over the last 10 years. It is argued that the numbers game and moral panic shifted from black communities in the early 1980s to „bogus‟ asylum seekers in the early 1990s, and to irregular migrants in the late 1990s (Clandestino 2008: 18). We argue that public concern over irregular migration results from the tension between the needs of the UK economy for labour migration and the attempts of successive governments to convince voters that they are in control of immigration, and that they only allow inflows beneficial to the country. This situation generates loud and tough discourses on asylum and irregular migration, which remain closely related issues in Britain today.
Regularity and irregularity are social constructions. Immigration policies determine who is and who is not a regular migrant through arbitrarily determined statuses and entitlements, which evolve over time and according to changes in the regulations. It is estimated that over two-thirds of irregular migrants in the UK are failed asylum seekers alongside overstayers (20 per cent) and others who enter illegally (10 per cent) (Gordon et al 2009: 43). This results from Britain’s geographical position, which makes cross-border entry more difficult, from policies which historically have enforced strict entry control with limited opportunities for the regularisation of those without legal status, and from high rates of failed asylum applications. Migrants fall in and out of regularity according to changes in legislation and policies. For instance, the Workers Registration Scheme for East Europeans created some degree of regularity, offering legal immigration and employment status to some previously irregular migrants workers (Farrant et al 2006: 8). However, the current trend is that of heightened irregularity in terms of both immigration and integration (access to work and services) statuses. For instance, the points-based system, which proposes comprehensive management of immigration, will generate more irregularity because of the narrow opportunities afforded to unskilled workers (Farrant et al 2006: 8). Strict control on entry also means that the UK is less likely to provide a route as opposed to a destination for irregular migration (MRN 2009: 9).
The irregularity factor is multiplied by the fact that the law does not distinguish between „illegal‟ entrants, „illegal‟ residents and „illegal‟ workers. All are considered irregular migrants (Vollmer 2008: 9). There is a de facto criminalisation of irregular migrants for two broad reasons. In the first place, a substantial number of immigration offences are considered criminal offences rather than administrative offences, and this constitutes a growing trend (Ibid: 10). Secondly, the lack of opportunities for regularisation and legal status, further restricted at present, leads migrants onto the path of illegality: to take up work when they are not allowed, to access services to which they are not entitled, and to fall foul of the many immigration rules and restrictions.
Traditionally, UK policy focuses on external control, perhaps on the assumption that it can do so effectively. For instance, it insists on controlling its own borders and has kept out of the Schengen Convention. Increasingly tight and restrictive measures have bolstered this approach. In the last few years, however, a new emphasis has been placed on internal controls (Farrant et al 2006: 17) and on measures to restrict access to benefits and local services. In addition, both areas of restrictions are combined for the sharper detection of irregular migrants and their exclusion from services. To this end, government departments responsible for the control of immigration place pressure and a duty on service deliverers, employers and other agencies to monitor, identify and report on irregular migrants. They are asked to act as de facto immigration officers through internal controls in the same way as transport companies in terms of control on entry. A partial transfer of responsibilities is being operated between the national to the local level. This is linked to the myth spread by politicians and media that irregular migrants and asylum seekers are „benefit tourists‟ aiming to profit from Britain’s health and social security systems. A related consequential trend is that of more difficult paths to regularisations.