The government’s crackdown on undocumented migration: a look at the facts

The public want tough action on undocumented migrants but there is little understanding that this costs a great deal of money


With little sign of crisis at Calais abating, yesterday the government announced measures to crack down on undocumented migration. From this autumn, there will be a ‘new approach’ to employers who take on undocumented migrants, with a focus on the cleaning, care and construction sectors.

While dealing with undocumented migration should be a part of immigration policy, without extra resourcing this proposal risks diverting staff from other aspects of immigration control.

Undocumented or irregular migrants are a diverse group, who include clandestine entrants, those who have arrived in the UK using false documents and those who entered the UK legally, but over-stayed their visas. Estimates about the size of this population vary considerably. A study using 2007 population data suggested between 420,000 and 860,000 undocumented migrants in the UK.

Other experts draw from administrative data – police arrest data, for example – and believe this figure is lower.

Whatever the statistics, undocumented migrants need to find work to survive. Research on this group of migrants suggests they may be employed in the informal ‘cash-in-hand’ economy, or in the formal sector by borrowing documents from others. My own research in London suggests that undocumented migrants commonly find employment as domestic workers, in catering, cleaning and the construction sector.

The proposals announced today are hardly new, as raids on employers have always been part of policy responses to address undocumented migration. They sit alongside other measures including interventions in the country of origin and countries of transit, border controls and regularisation programmes.

Policy that aims to reduce the employment options for undocumented migrants includes fines of up to £20,000 if employers give work to an undocumented migrant. Home Office statistics show the numbers of civil penalties issued peaked to 2,339 in 2009-2010 and stood at 2,149 in 2013/14. Since 2006 it has been a criminal offence to knowingly employ an irregular migrant and in 2014, 19 people were charged with this offence.

Since 2008 the government has prioritised enforcement actions at workplaces; undocumented migrants are usually easier to apprehend there than in private homes. Raids also disrupt the informal economy and send clear messages to other undocumented migrants, to businesses and the public about the government’s intention to be tough on undocumented migration.

But the numbers of those caught and removed after immigration raids has always been small. The government does not regularly publish detailed enforcement data – arguably it should – but in the first six months of 2014 there were 2,698 enforcement visits by immigration officers, leading to 605 people removed from the UK.

There is a simple explanation for such a low number: enforcement activities are very expensive, costing an average of £25,000 to apprehend, detain and remove one person from the UK.

This cost of immigration raids is mostly born by the Home Office, a government department that saw a 27 per cent spending cut in real terms between 2010 and 2015, and a £30 million cut this financial year.

Given these financial constraints, the government’s promise of more enforcement can only be achieved by diverting resources from elsewhere in the borders and immigration budget. (An account of how resources are channelled around the borders and immigration system is given in the Home Affairs Select Committee examination of the Brodie Clark affair, where a senior civil servant was forced to resign after relaxing checks on EU nationals entering the UK).

Diverting resources will potentially mean less intelligence gathering outside the UK, less visa and border control, less action against smuggling contraband substances, less bio-security at borders, fewer foreign offenders removed, fewer inspections of colleges receiving overseas students and slower asylum processing.

Diverting resources from elsewhere in the borders and immigration budget has the potential to do more harm than good. Extra Home Office funding is needed if workplace raids are to reduce on undocumented migration, without causing other undesirable impacts.

The public want tough action on undocumented migrants but there is little comprehension that this costs a great deal of money. Nor is there debate about how much taxpayers are willing to pay for immigration control and how much might be raised through visa fees. It is this open debate and analysis that is needed, not empty posturing made without committing financial resources.

Jill Rutter is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward

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