The hidden dangers of the migrant amnesty

Boris Johnson’s proposal of an ‘earned amnesty’ for illegal immigrants sounds progressive. Until you read the small print.

Nathalie Rothschild

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Farhan Zakaria, a 28-year-old Bengali and French teacher in an east London school, came to the UK with his family at the age of 16. In September last year, he was forced to leave his job when the authorities discovered that he and his family had lost their right to stay in Britain eight years ago, after Farhan’s father left his job at the High Commission for Bangladesh. Farhan claims the family was unaware that they were not allowed to live in Britain. They now face imminent deportation. Farhan is popular with his co-workers and his young students, who staged a protest in his support.

‘Maria’ (not her real name) is a Brazilian mother-of-two who has been living and working in Britain since 2002. She came here with the intention of overstaying her visitor’s visa. She earns £8 an hour cleaning people’s houses. She doesn’t let her five-year-old son go to school for fear of being discovered by the authorities. Her 22-year-old son came over three years ago on a student visa. He now works 60 hours a week as a restaurant dishwasher for less than the minimum wage. He is exploited by employers who know that he cannot complain to the authorities.

Farhan and Maria were two of the interviewees in last night’s BBC Panorama programme, Immigration: Time For An Amnesty?. They are amongst many who live in fear of deportation and who are not allowed to work legally in Britain. They are forced to take menial, low-paying jobs and are unable to contribute financially to society through tax and national insurance payments. They can’t travel abroad or visit their friends and family back home, as they would risk being refused re-entry into Britain.

The Panorama programme explored what the economic and social impact would be of granting an amnesty for illegal immigrants, or ‘irregular residents’. Aired last night, just hours after London mayor Boris Johnson renewed his call for an ‘earned’ amnesty for illegal immigrants, the Panorama programme presented the results of a study by the London School of Economics (LSE), commissioned by the mayor. The LSE estimates that the number of irregular migrants in Britain has increased by 295,000 in the past six years. It concluded that about 450,000 would qualify for an amnesty, which would carry a five-year residency qualification.

Johnson has presented his amnesty proposal as a practical, economic solution: by allowing those diligent foreigners who have been living in Britain for several years to work legally, we can increase tax and national insurance contributions. It would also be cheaper than kicking them out: deporting an illegal immigrant costs up to £11,000. The Panorama programme also said that an amnesty would be a humanitarian move for those individuals who are vulnerable to exploitation in the shadow economy, and who want to contribute to the British economy and society while also helping themselves and their families.

Granting an amnesty to the nearly half-a-million foreigners who are here illegally looks like a positive thing. But there are two problems with Johnson’s call for an amnesty. On the one hand, this is only a short-term solution, benefiting a small number of those foreigners who want to live and work in the UK. On the other hand, it is a stepping stone towards stricter border controls, a way of shutting out anyone who doesn’t comply with the narrow criteria for an ‘earned’ amnesty, and also towards tightening restrictions on anyone who tries to enter in the future.

Johnson’s main criticism of the New Labour government’s immigration policy is that it isn’t strict enough. In response to immigration minister Phil Woolas’s assertion that an amnesty would create a ‘pull factor’ for migrants into the UK, Johnson argued that it is the government’s weak border controls that provide the main ‘pull factor’. Johnson sees an amnesty as ‘an alternative to the policy of expulsion’. ‘It would take the authorities over 60 years to remove the current number of irregular migrants on current trends’, he told yesterday’s London Evening Standard. (The Panorama programme said it would actually take 34 years.)

Johnson and Woolas simply disagree on what is the best method for keeping foreigners out. They both look at free movement as something to be monitored, controlled, contained and restricted – in other words, made into unfree movement.

Woolas said: ‘What unfortunately would happen is that people traffickers and others would see [an amnesty] as a pull factor to get people to the UK illegally and we would end up with a bigger problem not just for our society, but for the people themselves involved.’ The speculation that Johnson’s proposal would benefit opportunistic people-smugglers is precisely that: unfounded speculation. After all, the amnesty would only benefit those who can prove that they have already been in Britain for a significant period of time. Woolas’s warning is simply another example of the fearmongering that is a persistent feature of immigration debates.

Yet it is true that an amnesty might potentially create a ‘pull factor’ – but not for the reasons Woolas believes. Since it represents an attempt to keep out anyone who has not ‘earned’ an amnesty, and since Johnson is also proposing tightened border controls alongside the amnesty, it is likely that many foreigners would try to rush in to Britain to beat the closing door.

In the past, when immigration requirements were tightened and borders closed up, foreigners were compelled to stay in their adopted country, even if they didn’t really want to. For example, most of the initial immigrants to postwar Britain were young and single and they planned to return home after working here for a short period of time. Once the 1962 Immigration Act was passed, imposing tight controls on the number of people who can come to Britain, migrant workers had no choice but to settle and to bring their families over here (1).

In the 1970s, when formal recruitment schemes ended in European countries, guest workers, rather than going home to visit their families and risk being denied re-entry, encouraged dependants to come and join them. Across Europe, family reunification, refugees and illegal entrants largely account for post-1970s migration (2).

Opening the borders is the far more sensible option, since it would allow people to be flexible and to move in and out of Britain according to their – and our – needs. The government often claims that tight immigration controls are in the interests, not only of upholding ‘social cohesion’ and economic stability in Britain, but also of preventing would-be migrants ‘over there’ from falling prey to exploitative people-smugglers. This turns the whole issue on its head: if the relative freedom of movement that Westerners enjoy was extended globally, migrants could avoid paying strangers to take them on long and risky journeys across the world. And once they got here, they wouldn’t have to hide from the authorities, risk exploitation from employers, or prevent their children from receiving education.

An amnesty would be beneficial to some migrants, but it would also lead to a clampdown on freedom of movement for vast numbers of would-be migrants. Foreigners should not need an official exoneration from Boris Johnson for having exercised their right to move freely across the world.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked.

(1) Myths of the stranger at the gate, Kenan Malik, The Times, 7 March 2005

(2) Migration and its Enemies: Global Capital, Migrant Labour and the Nation-State, Robin Cohen, Ashgate, 2006

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Topics Politics