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“An Emergency of Livelihood”: Why We Need Status For All

MEDUSA are fundraising for Help Refugees this Christmas, a charity that supports grassroots refugee aid projects across Europe. While there are legal distinctions between refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented migrants (read more from Amnesty International), no person should be ‘illegal’. Ellie’s article has strong links to refugee rights, touching on hostile border policies and the lack of provision that pushes desperate people into entering the UK via dangerous underground routes. Please donate to Help Refugees if you can.

There are approximately 800,000 to 1.2 million undocumented migrants living in the UK. Providing these members of our society, who often work in key sectors, with legal status to remain in the UK would be an effective way to tackle destitution, exploitation and protect public health. 

This vast number of ‘undocumented migrants’ incorporates people who have overstayed their visas, those who have been refused asylum status yet remain, or children who have been born to undocumented migrants. It includes individuals who have entered the UK via dangerous underground routes (we all remember the Essex 39). Many people who have entered the UK clandestinely are victims of trafficking and subject to exploitation of their labour, including sexual exploitation.

The reasons people live in the UK without the correct documentation are compelling and complex. Many are fleeing abject poverty, persecution, violence, political and economic crises, or natural disasters like severe droughts. The existing legal routes to gain leave to remain in the UK are financially impossible for a lot of undocumented migrants, whose precarious positions mean they often live in relative poverty. 

In the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, an urgent call has arisen from multiple front-line organisations mobilised in the ‘Status Now For All Network’, and the campaign group ‘Regularize’, to grant leave to remain for all people in the UK who have been living here for over five years, and grant temporary leave to remain for those who have been here for less. The Pew Research Centre indicates 57% of undocumented migrants have been here for at least 5 years and the five-year proposal is inspired by the EU Settlement scheme that will allow EU migrants who have lived in the UK for five years plus to settle. The EU scheme demonstrates the viability of such an immigration policy.

Illustration by Eden Szymura

The recent reductions in economic and social activity have been stressful for everyone, but for the estimated million undocumented migrants, who have no recourse to public funds, it has been devastating. Migrant Voice reports that some members have been living on one tin of beans a day.

In the words of immigration barrister Paul Turner, the options facing undocumented workers during this infectious disease pandemic have been stark: ‘they risk starving [from total lack of income] or they risk spreading the virus’. The director of Coventry Asylum and Refugee Action Group (CARAG), Loraine Mponela also describes the extra risks this population faces: many live in overcrowded accommodation and work in the food, care and cleaning sectors, meaning they are acutely vulnerable to contracting the virus and passing it on.

Filippo Grandi, chief of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees captured the reality that alongside the Covid-19 emergency, we are facing:

[A]n emergency of livelihood. Refugees, displaced people, migrants depend on fragile incomes which are the first ones to disappear in situations of lockdown. […] Migrants in particularly vulnerable situations are among the most exposed people in the world.

Filippo Grandi

The clear solution to this humanitarian and public health emergency is to implement a regularisation scheme, which would give legal status to undocumented people. It would prevent those without the correct papers from falling through the cracks in the sixth richest country in the world. It would dramatically improve workers’ rights, by taking power away from exploitative ‘black market’ labour practices. It would protect public health by enabling undocumented people to self-isolate if necessary.

Portugal offered a powerful precedent when it announced in March that all foreigners, including asylum-seekers, with pending immigration status applications would temporarily be granted full citizenship rights. People should not be deprived of their rights to health and public service’; Claudia Veleso, spokeswoman of the Ministry of Internal Affairs explained, further stating: ‘in these exceptional times, the rights of migrants must be guaranteed’. 

Illustration by Emily Walters

Britain also has precedence in offering substantial, sweeping citizenship rights to people with insecure immigration status. From 2007 to 2011, the UK government ran a programme to deal with the legacy of unresolved asylum cases. The programme granted tens of thousands of asylum seekers with previously unresolved cases permanent residency. 141,000 people were granted indefinite leave to remain and it was widely called an ‘amnesty’. Jonathon Ellis, director of the Refugee Council commented at the time it was ‘the fairest, most humane thing to do’.

Providing legal status to the undocumented would improve the economy by boosting tax contribution and spending power. Research from the Greater London Authority, published in 2009, estimated that regularisation of undocumented migrants could feasibly boost undocumented workers’ earnings by 25% ‘imply[ing] an addition of £3 billion per annum (or about 0.2 per cent) to national GDP’.

Mass regularisation is the sensible option. The only other choices are to ignore undocumented people or purport to deport them all. Deportations are grotesquely cruel and also absolutely delusional as a policy response. It is patently not possible to send every undocumented person away.

The Home Office deported 7,381 people in 2019, meaning it would take 100 years to deport all those without the appropriate legal leave to remain.

From January to March in 2019, the cost of Home Office charter flights for the deportation of just 327 people was £2,465,579.61. Thus, the average cost for forced removals was around £7,540 per person. Evidently deportation is not desirable, feasible and is an unsustainably large, shameful drain on public money. I sincerely hope one day we will look at the policy of deportation: the forced uprooting of a person against their will; severing them from family, friends, economic livelihood, and view it with same disdainful shake of the head we reserve for other illogical cruelties of the past, such as the criminalization of homosexuality.

Boris Johnson, as London mayor, asserted: ‘if an immigrant has been here a very long time and there is no realistic prospect of returning them, then I do think that that person’s position should be regularised so they can pay taxes and join the rest of society like the rest of us.’

In our current political climate such a scheme may seem hard to imagine. But this pandemic has shown just how important radical imaginations and radical solutions are.  

We are constantly, condescendingly, told ‘There is No Alternative’ yet the last nine months have blatantly revealed this is a lie and that things can and must change.

Street Homelessness, previously seen as regrettable but intractable, was effectively remedied due to the government’s ‘Everyone In Policy’ providing hotel accommodation. We have seen an outbreak of empathy and solidarity for all. The work of the Black Lives Matter movement and anti-racist organising has fomented greater consciousness and outrage at racial injustice.

Consider it. Look up the Status Now For All Network and Regularize. Listen to ‘Still We Rise’, a podcast sharing the first-hand experiences of asylum seekers and undocumented migrants. Write to your MP expressing support for the Early Day Motion #658 Leave to Remain Status – which has received backing from a cross section of parties. It is urgent we provide #HealthandSafetyforAll. 

Ellie is not a big social media user so the best way to get in touch is probably by throwing a bottle in the ocean, or sending an email (seriously though link up, especially about migrant rights).

Cover image by Melanie Cervantes, a wonderful Xicana artist based in LA. Make sure you check out her website.

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