The problem with large numbers is that sometimes they hide more than they reveal.
Whether it’s the daily Covid figures or the quarterly net migration stats, behind each number there’s a person, a family, a set of hopes and fears and a story that will probably never be told or heard.
Last week, a report from the National Audit Office revealed that it’s been at least 15 years since the government last bothered to measure or estimate the number of people living in the UK without secure immigration status.
It has no measure of how many families are living under the threat of the hostile environment or the amount of parents unable to reassure their children that they will not be thrown out of the only home they’ve ever known.
And though we may not know the figures(researchers estimate that between 400,000 and a million people living in the UK don’t yet have the right paperwork), we know what it will hide.
We know that most people who live here without the right papers probably had them at some point. People like Adam, 38, who has worked here as a carer for nearly 12 years but has been documented for less than five.
After saving to pay skyrocketing Home Office fees, Adam’s application to renew his visa was rejected on a technicality (he had gone home to Malaysia to bury his father and breached his residency requirements as a result).
Sadly, it’s not an unusual case. Instead of encouraging people to remain documented and making this process efficient and accessible, the Home Office so often seems geared towards the goal of kicking people off the ladder, like some sort of blood sport in which nobody wins.
We can all agree that life is complicated and messy and doesn’t fit neatly into boxes, wherever you’re from. And if you’ve made a life somewhere, it’s unnatural for anyone to expect that you’ll just give it up the moment you receive a pro forma letter telling you to go away.
Adam couldn’t afford to apply again or to pay a lawyer to challenge the decision. With no family left in Malaysia, and a baby on the way here in the UK, he became an overstayer.
If you’re a government official caught breaking rules, I hear it’s now an accepted defence to say that you did ‘what any father would do’. I think if any of us were in Adam’s shoes, we would have done the same thing.
We know also that the pathway back to regular status is unnecessarily long and appears to be designed to keep people from staying on it. If you are undocumented or an overstayer, you need to wait 20 years before you’re eligible to start regularising your status, a process that will take you at least another decade.
Today’s immigration rules (the product of successive governments of both major parties) require you to then re-apply, pay thousands of pounds in fees and submit yourself to the Home Office’s error-prone decisionmakers every two and a half years for 10 years until you are eligible for indefinite leave to remain.
And like a PE teacher who hides your shoes and then punishes you for not running fast enough, if you fall off the ladder at any point, the Home Office restarts the decade-long clock and you begin again.
The whole process serves no purpose except to keep the money coming in at the Home Office and to keep people undocumented. And with no recourse to public funds, no right to housing, to healthcare or to credit, we know that the undocumented population must choose between exploitation and destitution.
With no right to work or to rent in the formal economy, the work available will inevitably be exploitative and the housing conditions dangerous.
Adam has worked for the last four years providing in-home care to elderly patients. A father, approaching 40 and with 15 years’ experience, he’s paid the minimum wage, given minimal protection and worries that if he calls the authorities to complain about the agency he works for, he’ll be visited at home by immigration enforcement and thrown in a detention facility.
He’s not been given proper PPE and he’s worried that if he contracts Covid-19 he won’t be able to go to the doctor in case his data gets shared with the Home Office.
He says he stands four meters away when he visits his son on weekends.
All I can think when I hear stories like this is ‘who benefits when we treat people like this?’
Who honestly can say that they feel safer, more cared for or more proud of their country knowing that we treat people like this every day?
Exploitative employers, rogue landlords and traffickers will rub their hands with glee every time we make it harder for people to stay documented and work safely.
For the rest of us, there is precisely nothing to gain from the war of attrition that’s been fought by successive governments against people who, just like you and me, want to get on with their lives, work hard and be good parents, friends and neighbours.
As a nation, we are collectively grateful to the millions of workers who have toiled at minimum wage and maximum risk to keep these islands afloat over the last three months.
Hundreds of thousands of them will have been just like Adam. They are more than numbers. They deserve to be more than numbers.
They deserve better, permanent pathways back to regular status, and they deserve the right to work and live safely. We owe it to them.
You can find out more about the JCWI here.
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