This blog series by Franck Düvell, Myriam Cherti and other project staff provides news and comment on the Does Immigration Enforcement Matter (DIEM) project. Further posts and publications can be found on the project page.
The most recent estimate of irregular migrants in the UK is already seven years old. In 2010, Migration Watch argued that a “plausible estimate for illegal immigrants in the UK would be 1.1 million”, 1.75 per cent of the total population. A previous report by Gordon et al. (2009) suggested a “central estimate …of 618,000, with a range of 417,000-863,000 at the end of 2007”, which would be 1 per cent of the total population. The earliest evidence, provided by Woodbridge (2005), estimated “a range of between 310,000 and 570,000 with a central estimate of 430,000, as at census day 2001”, 0.7 per cent of the total population.
This implies that the absolute number of irregular immigrants in the UK had risen from 430,000 in 2001 to 618,000 in 2007 to 1.1 million in 2010. However, there is a key problem with this calculation – it is based on the initial 2001 census data and is more or less simply an extrapolation.
The existing estimates of the irregular migrant population of the UK are outdated. These estimates are either based directly on 2001 Census data or are extrapolations from such data. As such, any extrapolation from the 2001 figures is unreliable (Carlos Vargas-Silva from the Migration Observatory, to the researchers)
The main problem with these extrapolations is that they largely neglect the impact of the de facto regularisation of previously irregular immigrants due to the EU accession of eight eastern European countries in 2004 (amongst them major sending countries like Poland, Hungary and Lithuania), another two in 2008 (Romania and Bulgaria) and the end of the transition period in 2014. Also, the economic crisis of 2008 is supposed to have had a diminishing effect on the attraction of the UK as a destination country for irregular immigrants. In addition, some case-by-case regularisation, certain legal changes or backlog clearance affecting the number of asylum seekers considered irregular reduced this population. And finally, possible effects of the more recent implementation of a ‘hostile environment’ (see forthcoming blog), and generally of immigration enforcement, like continuously high levels of around 40,000 returns/removals annually (Migration Observatory 2016), are not taken into account. On the other hand, recent interpretation of homeless EU migrants as misusing treaty rights and thus being removable has constructed these as another category of irregular migrants; this has also increased their numbers (Home Office 2017). All these factors render the 2010 estimate a lot less plausible than claimed.
So far, nobody has dared to come up with a new estimate on the basis of the 2011 population census. Researches at COMPAS also argue that the key method applied (residual method based on deducting the total regular immigrant population from the total population to calculate the irregular population) contains too many unknowns (uncertainty over the regular immigrant population, notably birth, mortality and emigration rates which all need to be estimated too). The ONS (2015) too concluded that “the methodology behind this work requires huge assumptions thus making the estimates largely uncertain”.
To conclude, it would be adventurous to make a claim with regards to the level of irregular immigrants in the UK, and even more so to suggest a general upward or downward trend. This has implications for our project as we will not be able to show the quantitative impact of immigration enforcement on irregular immigrants – as we would have liked – hence whether or not it results in any decrease of the numbers.
In the UK ‘illegal migration’ is high on the list of public and policy concerns. In the British media, ‘illegal’ has been the top most often used term when reporting about immigrants (30%, trend decreasing) (Migration Observatory 2016). ‘Illegal migrants’ are usually associated with ‘the other’ and thought of, for instance, as Indians, Brazilians or Albanians. The media would typically report matters like “the nation with the highest number of [detected] illegal workers in Britain was Bangladesh, at 3,574. There were 3,568 illegal workers from Pakistan; 2,782 from India; 1,310 Chinese; and 458 Nigerians. Other nationalities working illegally in large numbers include Albanians, Turks and Ukrainians” (e.g. The Times 2016).
Meanwhile, it is usually overlooked that in other countries it is actually British nationals who also violate immigration law and stay as ‘illegal immigrants’. In the United States, British nationals were found to be the sixth largest nationality of visa overstayers, 18,950 in 2015, whilst Indians came only ninth (Department for Homeland Security 2016). In Australia, the media identified Brits as the fourth largest nationality of visa overstayers, ranking after Chinese, Malaysians and Americans, and just ahead of Indians (Sydney Morning Herald 2014). They represented 3,786 or 6% of the total. The media reported, ‘There are enough illegal immigrants living in Australia to populate a large regional city. [They are] hiding illegally in the community. …[T]he biggest groups of illegals are Chinese, American, Malaysian, British and South Korean’ (The Courier Mail 2011). And in New Zealand, British nationals are recognised as the fifth largest group of visa overstayers – 495 in January 2016 (New Zealand Immigration 2016) – ranking before China or Brazil. No figures could be found for Canada, another popular destination for British migrants. And in Turkey, British nationals have for long resided in an irregular fashion in significant numbers, exploiting an inconsistency in the migration legislation that allowed them to leave and re-enter the country in order to obtain a fresh visa (own observation) (the law changed in 2014 so that this practice is now longer possible).
This demonstrates that violating immigration legislation is not limited to certain nationalities; instead, Brits abroad may do more or less the same. It also illustrates some element of reciprocity as some of the countries of origin of irregular migration in the UK themselves host irregular Brits.