Recently, buzzwords such as ‘Calais Crisis’ and ‘Net Migration Figures’ have dominated media coverage of immigration in the UK, and the government has faced considerable pressure to take decisive action on this issue.
The situation in Calais – the growing number of people living in makeshift camps around the port – became a media sensation over the summer, although two key themes are often missed. Firstly, coverage has fallen away significantly since the perceived height of the crisis, despite the fact that the camp itself has, according to some French officials, subsequently doubled in size. Secondly, despite tagging the situation as a crisis, it is important to stress that the very victims of this problem are the migrants themselves, 16 of whom have been killed in or near the Channel Tunnel since June of this year.
The government’s failure to achieve its much vaunted effort to reduce Net Migration figures to the ‘tens of thousands’ is another much publicised issue in the UK immigration debate. Latest figures now stand at around 330,000. The discussion of these figures should however take certain problematic factors into account. Firstly, it could be argued that the “tens of thousands” target was overly ambitious to begin with. Secondly, there is a troubling tendency to conflate migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented migrants – grouping them as a single homogenous ‘other’. Despite such concerns, the official net migration statistics fed into a narrative which called for the government to “do something” about the immigration figures.
The Immigration Bill 2015-16, which was announced in the Queen’s Speech of May 2015 and is currently making its way through Parliament, can be seen as a response to these pressures. The bill is designed to build upon the measures introduced in the Immigration Act of 2014. The self-professed aim of the Bill is to intensify the ‘hostile environment’ for illegal immigrants which the 2014 Act was intended to create. However, a cursory examination of the bill suggests that the bill, if it becomes law, will foster an atmosphere which goes beyond ‘hostile’ to directly threaten the well-being and safety of undocumented migrants due to its broad implications on work, accommodation, asylum claims and appeals against deportation.
Under the auspices of the Immigration Act 1971, migrants who have leave to remain in the UK, but who breach those conditions by working illegally, can be sentenced to up to six months in prison, or receive an unlimited fine, but these provisions do not presently apply to people who may have entered the country illegally or have overstayed a visa.
The new bill proposes a new criminal offence of ‘Illegal Working’, which will mean that undocumented migrants can be arrested, imprisoned for up to 12 months and have their wages seized as the proceeds of crime. On top of these measures, immigration officials will have the power to search and seize properties and close down businesses. These will build on existing provisions which allow immigration officials to deport those found guilty of working illegally. By compounding existing punitive powers, this bill could drive an already vulnerable and impoverished minority even further away from much-needed support and leave them more susceptible to exploitation by unscrupulous employers.
By lumping together labour market enforcement – designed to tackle exploitation – and immigration enforcement – designed to seek out and exclude certain people from the country – this bill could foster a culture of fear, allowing exploitative employers to hold even greater sway over undocumented workers who will face the constant threat of losing whatever meagre income they may have managed to amass from working in often appalling conditions.
Another feature of forced labour within the UK, and one which this legislation does not sufficiently address, is poor awareness. Many victims, often unbeknownst to them, actually have rights to work as EU nationals to work in the UK. According to the National Crime Agency (NCA) Strategic Assessment ‘The Nature and Scale of Human Trafficking in 2013 (published 30/09/2014),78% of potential victims exploited for labour are EEA nationals who are working legally in the UK. The hostile climate fostered by legislation like this will do little to encourage people like this to make enquiries into the exact nature of their legal status, thus inadvertently exacerbating the problem it may be seeking to tackle.
Another troubling measure included in the Bill is that which increases the punishment which can be imposed upon landlords who are found to have let property to undocumented migrants. Although the 2014 Act contained measures which meant that landlords who failed to check the status of their tenants could be fined, the new Bill goes further, and threatens landlord with imprisonment for up to 5 years.
Given the complexity of many immigration cases and the difficulty which even seasoned experts can face when asked to decide a person’s precise status, landlords might be led to take the path of least risk which could ultimately amount to racial profiling. The very fact that some responsibility for initiating such complex cases is now being passed on to members of the public without legal or law enforcement expertise, is in itself a matter of grave concern.
Asylum & Deportation
Under the Asylum Support measures automatic support for families who have been refused asylum will be withdrawn, leaving parents and their children facing the possibility of hunger and homelessness with, in most cases, no leave to appeal. Most of the grounds upon which people could appeal against deportation, meanwhile, were removed in the 2014 Act, leaving just human rights issues as a viable basis for such an appeal.
The current bill takes this process further, making it legal to deport people even if they’ve launched an appeal on the grounds that the refusal of asylum was a breach of their basic human rights. This means that families who may have a strong case on the grounds of Human Rights issues will be forced to wait for the Home Office wheels of justice to turn whilst residing in the country which they sought to leave by seeking asylum in the first place.
In light of the overarching aims of the UN Global Goals to promote human rights, tackle inequality and further global development efforts, it is unsettling to see a bill which has the potential to undermine all of these objectives. In particular, the bill could severely undermine the Global Goal of equal access to justice, by allowing human rights to be rationed and limited depending upon the nationality of the individuals in question.
These concepts must not only be upheld by the law in an abstract sense: the harsh reality of the bill’s implementation could increase exploitation and homelessness among an already marginalised section of society with a limited ability to fight back. It is therefore crucial for the legal community to lend its expertise to this debate. Without such commentary and active involvement, the government could very well be taking one step forward and two steps back by tackling public concerns about immigration with one hand, while fuelling human rights abuses with the other.
Yasmin is the CEO of A4ID. She has around two decades of experience in the charity sector, with particular involvement in the areas of drug and alcohol dependency, HIV/AIDS and crime. She is also the chair of WDP- a drug and alcohol treatment charity. She has previously undertaken work for the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime and was recently named Woman of Achievement 2014 in the Public Sector Category by Women in the City. She tweets at @Y_Batliwala.