Should the UK introduce an amnesty for illegal immigrants?

Whether the UK should introduce an amnesty for illegal immigrants remains the subject of continued debate.

An online petition for the amnesty for illegal immigrants is currently live, calling for illegal immigrants who have been in the UK for 10 years or more to be given amnesty and the legal right to stay in the UK. If the petition receives 100,000 signatures by November 2018, the matter can be passed to Parliament for debate.

Government policy however remains focused on reducing net migration, creating what many are calling an increasingly hostile environment for migrants. Successive policies have been implemented to tighten immigration enforcement – reducing the ability of illegal immigrants to access work, housing and healthcare.

In response to the petition, the government has confirmed its position: “There are no plans to grant an amnesty to illegal migrants. Our immigration policies are based on principles of fairness to legal migrants and not rewarding those who do not abide by the Rules”.

Anyone who is in the UK without valid permission is deemed an illegal immigrant, regardless of the reasons why they may be in the UK without papers, such as overstayers (expired visa) and failed asylum seekers.

Illegal immigration is cited as the cause of a number of issues. That it places an additional and unpredictable burden on public resources. As you might expect, there are no clear figures as to how many illegal immigrants are currently in the UK. This makes it extremely difficult to gauge how many would respond to an amnesty on illegal immigration. Estimates put the number of illegal immigrants anywhere between 300,000 and 1 million, perhaps more.

Those against the amnesty have expressed concerns that the measure sends out the ‘wrong message’ by undermining the Immigration Rules and risks encouraging more illegal migrants who believe the amnesty could at some point apply to them. Some critics have gone so far as to say the amnesty is the equivalent of rewarding those who have not followed the rules, and as such would be unfair to those individuals who have followed the correct processes yet failed in their application due to eligibility or other circumstances.

On the other side of the argument, there is strong concern that those who are under the radar are often vulnerable to exploitation and that organised crime groups profit significantly from illegal migration. This in turn leads to problems with below minimum wage labour and illegal working practices that do not meet UK employment law standards.

Some believe an amnesty could be used to bring such vulnerable individuals into the real economy, ensuring their safety and rights and integrating them fully into mainstream society and contributing accordingly through taxation.

Practically speaking, it is generally acknowledged that a criminal check would be expected to be mandatory, and one proposal is that the process of granting an amnesty would require some form of fee by the individual to self-fund the process.

How likely is it there will be an amnesty for illegal immigrants?

The current government has taken an overtly anti-immigration stance in line with its manifesto and its stated target to reduce net migration. It has made clear its position against introducing a blanket amnesty for illegal migrants wishing to regularise their immigration status.

At the frontline, the Home Office continues to assert a position of authority, deploying its full powers in the prevention of illegal immigration and deterring breaches and violations of the immigration rules.

While the debate continues, one certainty remains; a significant proportion of immigration prevention responsibility sits squarely on the shoulders of UK employers. Recruitment and onboarding processes must be comply with right to work duties. The Home Office relies on the HR systems and processes of UK employers to help identify and bring to their attention individuals who are in the UK unlawfully. Failure to meet these duties can result in a civil penalty for illegal working.

Recent policy announcements have suggested a more pragmatic approach to immigration policy. The Windrush scandal for example brought to the fore a specific issue of people arriving in the UK many years ago but who do not have documentation confirming their immigration status. This is being addressed under a specific Home Office scheme, but whether the government will go as far as resurrecting a Lib Dem policy from the last Coalition government remains to be seen.