After 100,000 people signed a Parliamentary e-petition advocating for the rights of undocumented people living in the UK, MPs gathered for a Westminster Hall debate. Although these debates do not directly lead to the creation or reform of policy, they are a chance to MPs to speak up for their constituents, and get a response from the relevant Government Minister.

Over 800 of you wrote to your MP inviting them to turn up and speak out and we were pleased that half of the speakers in the debate had been invited by you. We were so pleased to hear so many of the issues we have raised together getting air time – thank you for making this happen! You can watch the debate back on Parliament TV or read what was said in Hansard, but here are a few highlights:

How the immigration system makes people undocumented

Many of the MPs referenced our research, We Are Here. One of our findings came up a lot; 82% of those in our surveys entered the UK through legal routes and later fell out of status. That goes to show that the immigration system itself is pushing people out of status.

Migrants are treated as temporary for a decade and must reapply for the right to stay in their homes and jobs every 2.5 years – paying thousands of pounds each time. As things stand, a migrant on the 10-year route to settlement will have paid £12,937 in application fees by the time they are granted Indefinite Leave to Remain.

Anne McLaughlin, SNP MP for Glasgow North East, told the story of Paul (not his real name). Working on minimum wage, he could not afford to renew his visa and became undocumented. Without status, he lost his job and faced eviction. He had to send his son away to live with his mum. He turned to his MP, Anne, in despair, and together with a local housing association they helped secure his home and his status - for 2.5 years, at least. But “it was all so unnecessary”, says Anne.

There was a disappointing failure to engage with the reality of people's experiences by some MPs, who characterised undocumented migrants as rule breakers - ignoring the evidence that most people who are undocumented originally held valid status, but lost it often through no fault of their own. In our research we found that a small error, a short period of illness or just bad luck can leave someone without status, changing the course of a life. Once that happens, the system makes it almost impossible to change course and get status back. Stories of the reality of life undocumented were the best rebuttal these kinds of misunderstandings, put forward by Tom Hunt MP (Ipswich, Conservative) who opened the debate, and Adam Holloway MP (Gravesham, Conservative).

The realities of being undocumented

Undocumented migrants are barred from accessing the basic services and the public safety net, by a set of policies called the 'Hostile Environment'.

The Hostile Environment makes it illegal for an undocumented migrant to work, rent a home, open a bank account or obtain a driver’s licence. These policies also affect the NHS, barring or making it difficult to safely access healthcare.

Our research shows that, as well as making people unable to access essential services, becoming undocumented also makes people much more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

Virendra Sharma MP (Labour, Ealing, Southall) spoke about the cruel realities of this system and the ways people without status are left vulnerable to exploitation. “This bewildering system limits the life chances of our vulnerable and puts them at risk of rank exploitation. From rogue employers and those who seek to prey on the defenceless - under the government’s Hostile Environment their situation has become even more precarious.”


Sarah Owen MP (Labour, Luton North) spoke about the brutal ways that migrants are treated in the UK and highlighted the disparities we have seen in covid infection and hospitalisation rates.


Rushanara Ali, Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, said better routes to regularisation are a ‘no brainer’ in the context of public health. When undocumented migrants do not feel safe to come forward for covid vaccinations we all lose out.

 

John McDonnell MP, (Labour, Hayes and Harlington), urged the government to act quickly to reform the system that leaves people open to suffering and exploitation. He reflected on the tragedy in a hotel in his constituency on Monday, when a 24 year old man from Sudan, seeking asylum in the UK, took his own life.

Reforms are needed

Regularising your immigration status in the UK as an undocumented migrant is complicated, expensive, and difficult. The Home Office pursues an approach focused entirely on removing people without status from the UK, rather than providing them with alternative solutions. Many MPs spoke out about the reforms that are needed.

Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, Labour MP for Slough, spoke of Boris Johnson’s repeated, but unfulfilled, promise to create an amnesty or regularisation programme for undocumented migrants, saying that undocumented migrants had “their hopes falsely raised and then cruelly dashed”.

Claudia Webbe, independent MP for Leicester East, called for new routes to regularisation while avoiding the word ‘amnesty’, which suggests wrongdoing – whereas in reality we know most people who lose their status do so through no fault of their own – instead they have been pushed out of status by a complex and expensive immigration system.

Ruth Cadbury, Labour MP for Brentford and Isleworth, summed it up, saying “this government cannot claim to be compassionate or just until it ends the Hostile Environment”. She also spoke about the creation of a new population of undocumented migrants – all those left behind by the EU Settlement Scheme.

Seema Malhotra MP, (Labour, Feltham and Heston), spoke of the need to cut visa fees and simplify routes to regularisation, referencing the recommendations we set out in our research, We Are Here.

Bambos Charalambous, Labour MP Enfield, Southgate, and shadow minister for the Home Office, spoke about plans to regularise migrants with over four years’ residency in Ireland as a potential model to look to; and said the “exorbitant” fees in the UK immigration system should be seen as part of the Hostile Environment.

The Government response

Delivering the official response from the Government was Kevin Foster MP, Minister for Future Borders and Immigration.

He dismissed evidence that undocumented migrants are too afraid to seek treatment or vaccinations in relation to covid, saying “I made very clear that… their status will not be checked.” This simply isn’t enough. Multiple reports show people remain afraid of coming forward or being refused treatment when they do.

Sadly he fell into the same trap of mischaracterised people who fall foul of a complex, gruelling, exorbitant immigration system as ‘breaking the rules’. This refusal to accept reality and listen to the evidence and experiences of those who use the system is a tragic waste.

He noted the existing routes to regularisation, but failed to engage with the issues many MPs had raised about how inadequate these are.

More positively, he mentioned our friends at We Belong, and recommitted to changes “to reduce the number of people ending up on the 10-year route to settlement. We accept that too many people are on that route.” This is excellent news that will help keep many people away from the risk of becoming undocumented. One of the recommendations we made in We Are Here is that no route to settlement is longer than five years.

What happens next?

We were pleased to see so many MPs engaging on the issues facing undocumented migrants, and the overwhelming majority spoke in favour of reforming the system which pushes so many out of status and then punishes them.

We need to keep this issue on the agenda. Parliament takes its summer recess at the end of this week, returning in September. As Priti Patel pushes her anti-refugee bill through the House of Commons, we will have more opportunities to raise these issues and start more conversations with MPs about this broken system and the suffering it causes.

1. Take action now by writing to your MP

Already written to your MP? Find out what you can do next

2. Take the next step

Thank you.