Britain's Illegal Immigrants & An Illegal Migrant's Tale

The Observer 10-10-1992

Special Report: Christopher Long.
It's far easier for, say, a Russian to enter on a one-way ticket without adequate funds than for a Kurdish torture victim.

The Government is turning a blind eye to up to 600,000 illegal economic migrants who have 'lost themselves' in Britain.

The Home Office admits there 'may be thousands or even hundreds of thousands'. But it keeps no records of what visitors do after they arrive, or when and if, they leave. A spokesman said: 'No one can even estimate how many are here illegally'.

Meanwhile, 60,000 asylum seekers wait, often for more than a year, to hear whether their claims are deemed genuine. Amnesty International has records of 6,625 applicants in the first four months of this year.

Dr Nick Zafiris, head of Westminster University's school of economic and business studies, said he would not be surprised if the total of illegal workers and over-stayers had reached 600,000.

The anomaly between refugees and economic migrants arises from the fact that while visitors from countries such as Poland, the former Yugoslavia and Australia require no visas, citizens of many others do. Torture victims from these countries are often too afraid to apply for political asylum at British embassies in their own countries and usually cannot even get a tourist visa.

The pool of illegal workers appears to be growing rapidly and immigration policy appears, at best, to be to turn a blind eye.

Chris Pond, director of the Low Pay Unit, says: 'Many employers are prepared to use the vulnerability of illegal workers. They commit a criminal offence by employing illegal workers but the authorities are colluding in this'.

Privately, immigration officials say they are aware that thousands are using a range of scams to abuse the system and remain here illegally, with little chance of detection. Their suspicions that the problem is increasing are supported by the number of people expelled for working illegally, known to have over-stayed their visas or made fraudulent claims for social benefits. These figures increased by 30 per cent from 1990 to 1991 and doubled from 1987 to 5,600 last year.

With only 193 full-time immigration enforcement officers, the most likely reason for a culprit coming to Home Office attention is a tip-off.

One way immigrants work illegally is to acquire a national insurance number – some DHS offices reportedly do not check on whether non-EC nationals have a work permit. Others invent a DHS number, knowing that it will be many years before the department catches up with them. Others pay a British or EC citizen to marry them, which entitles them to work here.

It appears far easier for a Russian to enter the country for six months on a one-way ticket – without adequate funds and with every opportunity to overstay, work illegally, make a spurious claim for political asylum and receive social and housing benefits – than it would be for a Kurdish victim of torture or a Tiananmen Square dissident faced with jail in China.

Some illegal workers say Home Office entry procedures in effect encourage thousands of tourist 'visitors' to work illegally and over-stay when they cannot afford a ticket home.

Where tourist visas are granted by British embassies abroad, Heathrow seldom has power to over-rule the decision – although the embassy cannot know whether the applicant will buy a return ticket or will carry enough money to survive in Britain without having to work.

The Home Office said: 'We cannot do a second check here if an interview has already taken place at a British embassy abroad, All that the immigration officials here can do is assure themselves that there has been no substantive change of circumstances or evidence of deception when they arrive'.

While thousands of asylum-seekers languish in limbo waiting to see whether they will be given permanent admission to Britain, economic migrants are working in low-paid jobs that represent small fortunes compared with their equivalent in Serbian dinars, Russian roubles or Polish zlotys.

However, Dr Zafiris said the numbers were fewer than in the United States and probably less than in Germany, France and Italy.

He argued that illegal migrants could be beneficial. 'Our view would be that such a pool of labour could be useful to both migrants and employers, while sitting well with certain government attitudes. The curtailing of wages councils and encouraging cheap labour leads to a low-cost labour economy such as in South East Asia. In Britain's case, colonial and Commonwealth links have traditionally supplied such a labour pool.'

'Economists would take the view that anything that happens has a good reason for happening. Migrants will encourage lower wages, and while it may create short-term hardship for the indigenous labour force, it may have benefits longer term. They may gravitate to areas where there is a housing glut. But we would agree that if the growth is sudden, over a shorter time it could be a bad thing.'

Dr Zafiris said there could be a North-South divide. Small family businesses among ethnic minority communities in the North were more likely to invite family and friends to work in restaurants, shops and small businesses when 'visiting' Britain, while London might be more attractive to younger independent migrants intending to lose themselves here long-term.

The Low Pay Unit said illegal workers might force wages down in the catering, textile and retail trades.

The Home Office faces a massive enforcement problem with an estimated 8.1 million non-EC arrivals last year. All but 18,000 (most of whom had not been vetted by British embassies) were cleared by 2,000 immigration officials and in most cases issued a standard six-month entry permit.

In theory, assuming that 500 officers are on duty in any six-hour shift, they have, on average, 11 minutes to assess arrivals. In practice, flight arrival surges can drastically reduce the time available.

The preliminary 1991 Census report makes no specific reference to the fact that the 'missing million' may include large numbers of fearful economic migrants who chose not to be 'on record'. A Home Office spokesman said: 'We wish we knew how many illegals there are here. If we did, we'd know how many enforcement officers we need'.

The system turned me into a criminal, says waitress Tanja

Tanja, a shy, dark-haired 23 year-old, says she committed the first crime of her life within an hour of arriving in Britain, writes Christopher Long.

She arrived at Heathrow from Yugoslavia in June 1990, the first time she had been abroad. In her bag was 95 pounds Sterling and in her passport a six-month immigration stamp permitting her to work as an au pair for a Mrs Collins in Dollis Hill, north London, but forbidding her to work anywhere else.

'I felt terrible,' she says. 'The system made me a liar before I had even collected my luggage because I knew I would never go to Mrs Collins.'

'I was terrified. My suitcase was too big and I didn't know how far I would have to carry it to the hotel. I just wanted to cry. I was crying; but with no tears.'

Policemen terrified her. She was sure they knew she was an illegal immigrant. She paid 40 pounds deposit for three nights at the hotel. By the end of the day she had spent 60 pounds of the precious hard currency given to her by her mother and brother.

A year later her country was at war. She spent months watching television, when she wasn't exhausted from waitressing in three restaurants. She was sure her brother would be called-up, killed and their house destroyed.

'I pray that my mother will never know how I was feeling then. When I rang them they said I should stay away. You can't imagine what it feels like. If they had known how hard it was for me here, they would never have said that... well, perhaps... I don't know... '

Over many months, Tanja, who read economics (Marxist version) at university, learnt the harsh realities of a consumer society. She says she worked very hard for little reward by British standards and that she was exploited by employers who knew she was an illegal worker.

Tips were split between the manager and staff, leaving her little. What depressed her is that waiters, waitresses and shop assistants are treated 'like rubbish' in Britain. Employers and customers seldom realise that many economic migrants from Eastern Europe are lawyers, architects, journalists and economists. 'Ask the next foreign waitress you meet what her qualification is. You might be surprised.'

But why did she come to the UK?

'People always ask that. I love my country, but if you haven't lived there you'll never know how restricting it is. Getting a job is very, very difficult. Without a job you have to live at home and even if you are married you often still have to live with your family, or his. Our money is worth very little in our country and it's nothing at all in the West. Even if it is hard here at least there is freedom and excitement. Yugoslavia isn't what the tourists see.'

But, as an illegal worker, is she 'exploiting' or 'exploited'?

'Have you ever seen an East European begging or sleeping on the streets? We find work even if it's badly paid. We go into shops and restaurants and ask for work. We tell our friends when we are leaving a job so they can have it.'

'I think we get work because we work hard. We look smart and we can't afford to be ill. I was always surprised that people were begging in the streets. You can't see that in my country. Even when I had only three or four pounds in my pocket I never thought I would live on the streets – never!'

'At the beginning I was always frightened the police would catch me and I heard that the immigration were searching in restaurants to find illegal workers. Nobody ever asked me what I was doing.'

'Sometimes, when things were bad, I wanted to ring Mrs Collins and go there, but I thought she must be very angry and that she would report me.'

At a small shop in King's Road, Chelsea, she was making 145 pounds Sterling for a 60-hour week with no holiday or sickness entitlement. She was not sure whether the deductions made against her illegally acquired social security number were passed on to the authorities.

She has now returned to Yugoslavia. But it will be difficult to get back to London. No-one queried why she had over-stayed when she left through Heathrow.

© (1992) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
The text and graphical content of this and linked documents are the copyright of their author and or creator and site designer, Christopher Long, unless otherwise stated. No publication, reproduction or exploitation of this material may be made in any form prior to clear written agreement of terms with the author or his agents.

Christopher Long

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