News analysis

No stopping illegals from trying to enter Britain

Migrants climbing into the back of a lorry on a highway leading to the Eurotunnel, which connects France to Britain. Britain's reputation as a "soft spot" for migrants remains undiminished.
Migrants climbing into the back of a lorry on a highway leading to the Eurotunnel, which connects France to Britain. Britain's reputation as a "soft spot" for migrants remains undiminished.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

No evidence tougher rules to curb influx of illegal migrants will deter them from trying

Struggling to reduce an influx of migrants, the British government has announced that landlords who rent their properties to illegal immigrants could be jailed for up to five years.

Landlords will also be able to evict illegal immigrants without a court order, in a move that the government says will make it easier to push out migrants whose visas have expired.

Yet, there is no evidence that such measures will deter the estimated 5,000 would-be migrants currently trying to force their way through British border controls in the tunnel connecting Britain and France.

For, as former French employment minister Xavier Bertrand, who is running for mayor in France's Calais region near the tunnel, points out, "all immigrants want to come to England because they believe they can get a job".

 

Britain's reputation as a "soft spot" for migrants remains undiminished, to the evident frustration of politicians in London.

Foreigners who succeed in breaching Britain's immigration controls or who enter legally as tourists and overstay without a permit face two fundamental choices: either go underground, or hand themselves over to the authorities and claim asylum.

Joining the "black" economy is no paradise. Illegal immigrants are likely to be paid far less than the £6.50 (S$14) an hour minimum wage, and have to perform the most menial and dangerous occupations, since jobs traditionally reserved for newly arrived migrants, such as washing dishes in restaurants or cleaning toilets, are already taken by East Europeans, who have a legal right to be in Britain.

Still, illegal immigrants in Britain enjoy one advantage: Unlike the rest of continental Europe, Britain has no identity cards, so those who stay without permits are unlikely to be caught. Employers have a duty to check whether people they hire have a right to work.

But very often, they have no idea how to do so. Illegal immigrants give potential employers fake national security numbers, and it may be six months before the tax authorities identify the number as bogus, by which time the illegal immigrant would have moved on. The longer illegal workers stay, the more entrenched they become - they acquire permanent addresses and generate all the utility bills used in Britain to establish identity.

Illegal immigrants can also get on the electoral roll, which serves as the ultimate proof of residence - all it takes is a declaration, and it could be years before it is spotted as false.

In theory, illegal immigrants are never able to legalise their status. Successive British governments have resisted offering amnesties, as the United States does every decade or so.

Still, for the hundreds of thousands who do it, living on the margins of British society is preferable to eking out a living in a parched village in Africa.

Giving oneself up to the authorities by asking for asylum is the other available route. It has its disadvantages: Asylum-seekers are not allowed to work, and can't choose where to live. But they do get guaranteed free accommodation, a weekly allowance of £37 for each adult, and free healthcare services, including dental treatment.

For a single asylum-seeker, such conditions are tough, but for a couple with two children, for instance, the allowances amount to a more respectable £180 a week, plus free education and school meals.

Last year, only 4,000, or just over a third of the 12,750 people who applied for asylum in Britain, were granted the status. However, the process of examining applications can take a year, and those rejected often appeal against the ruling.

Judges are also expanding the grounds for granting asylum. Fear of discrimination, on account of sexual preferences or fear of female genital mutilation, are now also considered grounds for asylum.

So the number of successful asylum applications in Britain is double that in France.

But even if all the applications fail, only a handful of migrants are ever deported; the majority stay, and usually end up getting the "exceptional leave to remain" status which, far from being exceptional, has been granted to hundreds of thousands of people.

Britain is not the most generous or welcoming country to migrants. Germany each year receives four times the number of asylum seekers coming to Britain, and treats them better.

Still, the absence of identity cards and the use of the English language - often the only foreign tongue migrants have any knowledge of - will continue to make Britain an irresistible magnet.

So although "Britons want their government to grip the question of immigration", as Prime Minister David Cameron recently admitted, there is little likelihood of that happening.

Britain is not the most generous or welcoming country to migrants... Still, the absence of identity cards and the use of the English language - often the only foreign tongue migrants have any knowledge of - will continue to make Britain an irresistible magnet.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 05, 2015, with the headline 'No stopping illegals from trying to enter Britain'. Print Edition | Subscribe