Political and media discourses around immigration tend to make a sharp distinction between desirable and undesirable migrants. Some people are more welcome than others, including on the basis of factors such as income level, savings, education, employment status and area of work. Foreign nationals with low incomes, who are out of work or deemed ‘low skilled’, tend to be portrayed as abusing the system, undercutting British workers and as a burden on the taxpayer.
Less known, are the many ways in which the immigration system itself forces unemployment upon people (whilst simultaneously draining people of savings through the huge sums required for immigration applications and appeals). Many migrants, including people claiming asylum or subject to Deportation Orders, rarely have the right to work or access public funds. The few asylum seekers who do get the right to work are only eligible to work in jobs on the Shortage Occupation List, which are graduate level or above and include civil engineers, archaeologists and chemical scientists. And those who do receive any financial support, only get a fraction of mainstream benefits.
People are therefore forced to rely upon friends, family and charity, or to work without permission, despite the risks of unsafe conditions, huge fines, undermined immigration cases, and even prison and detention. The impacts are severe and go to the heart of family life, for both foreign nationals and their loved ones.
Research being launched on 8 June looked at how unemployment produced by the immigration system impacts upon foreign nationals and their families. It draws on interviews conducted in 2014-17 as part of the Economic and Social Research Council-funded project ‘Deportability and the Family’; which examined the intersection of insecure immigration status and family life. Researchers followed 30 mixed-nationality families consisting of foreign national men and their British or EEA national partners or children, as was described in a previous COMPAS blog post. The men’s precarious or unlawful immigration status made them liable to immigration enforcement measures, prohibited them from employment and public funds, and created many other everyday restrictions.
Asylum, regularisation and deportation are long processes. People are often stuck in indefinite limbo for years whilst their claims are considered and appealed. The stress and anguish caused by these protected battles are exasperated by enforced worklessness, and associated feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness. The project found that forced unemployment (and unlawful work) brings major risks and vulnerabilities – not only to migrants but also their loved ones, including British citizens.
Humiliation, guilt and emasculation
The impact can be catastrophic. Families face debt, poverty, destitution and mental and physical health problems. Being prevented from working also affects people’s autonomy, wellbeing and relationships, and the security, health and happiness of all family members. The research found gendered dimensions to these processes. David (all names are changed), a father of three, described it as being “Locked in a room and you're screaming and no one hears you.” He spoke of deep guilt and shame borne from being dependent on ‘handouts’ and particularly of being unable to support his children and partner.
Mo, who has been fighting for the right to remain with his children in the UK for 16 years, spoke of feeling stuck outside mainstream society because of not being allowed to work. Over time, he has found himself withdrawing from friendships and unable to sustain relationships. He stopped feeling able to have ‘normal’ conversations or hope for the future. Mo’s anxiety and depression have escalated, he feels trapped in his head and full of self-loathing.
“Sometimes you don’t eat, sometimes you beg, walk around somewhere, and you feel lonely, you don’t get any good friends around you because you don’t have any money or anything around you, and just being everywhere, just sleeping at people’s houses. It’s so horrible.”
His partner tried to support him but unable to be the partner or father he wanted to be, Mo increasingly withdrew from his friends and family. As with the other men interviewed, Mo felt emasculated and worthless. He called himself a “nothing man”. Other interviewees described themselves as an “extra kid” or as no longer “wearing the trousers.”
Impact on British spouses
Many of the interviewees reported a “role reversal” in relationship dynamics. The foreign national men felt dependent, ashamed and infantilised by being unable to financially ‘provide’ for their families. The citizen partners reported feeling overburdened by money worries, responsibility and work. They lost savings, borrowed money, and took on additional jobs or debt. Some were forced out of work and onto welfare support, for example if made de facto ‘single parents’ by their partner’s detention or removal.
The family-life decisions and experiences of citizen women are also directly affected by their partners’ immigration status. This includes decisions around having children and parenting. Some of the women interviewed delayed starting families because of their partner’s worklessness. Others were unable to be the stay-at-home mums they wanted to be, or relinquished maternity leave in order to return to work quickly, with implications for breastfeeding and bonding. In many cases, citizen partners feel a conflict between resolving their partners’ immigration status and doing best by their children.
Report Launch: 8 June 2021
The Deportability and the Family project found that insecure immigration status leads to a range of (potentially extreme) impacts on people’s private lives, relationships and families, as well as physical and mental health, finances, housing, careers and identities. Being prevented from working was one of the key ways in which families are harmed. Those already socially or economically marginalised are hit hardest.
The report from this project is being launched at an online webinar at 4pm on 8 June 2021, in collaboration with the NGO Bail for Immigration Detainees. Please join us for this event and discussion with speakers including Sonali Naik QC and the actor Ace Ruele Aristotles, a London-born father at risk of deportation. For more details please visit the event page.