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Executive Summary


We Are Here is a piece of research that seeks to better understand the realities of life for undocumented migrants in the UK today. It explores how people become undocumented, and how vulnerability is produced through the structures of the system itself. It reveals the systemic weaknesses of our immigration system that lead to so many people becoming undocumented and how a small error, or a short period of illness, can change the course of a life.

Under the current system, people are kept in insecure temporary status, punctuated by expensive and stressful renewal applications, for years and decades, greatly increasing the chance that a piece of bad luck will drive them out of status. Once that happens, the system makes it almost impossible to change course and regain status. We explore how, once someone becomes undocumented, their everyday lives are criminalised, and they are driven into exploitation. Their voices are silenced, and they are unable to get help or tell anyone about their plight. Under the Hostile Environment, almost everyone who should keep them safe - like the police, the NHS, social services, and even some charities - have become part of the system of immigration enforcement and surveillance, and attempt to rip them away from their families and homes.

We look at how undocumented status impacts on people’s lives and the lives of those around them. And finally, we make recommendations as to how sensible, measured and simple reforms could help break the cycle of insecure immigration status for people living and working in the UK. We propose measures that would both prevent people from becoming undocumented in the first place, and make it practically possible for undocumented migrants who have established lives here to resolve their situation. 


Our research combines survey evidence and testimony from immigration lawyers about people they represent, interviews and focus groups with undocumented and formerly undocumented migrants, and data from JCWI’s undocumented migrant helpline. 


The immigration system actively and unnecessarily creates undocumented migrants

The immigration system itself creates insecurity. Migrants are considered “temporary” for a decade, and forced to reapply for the right to remain in their homes and jobs every 2.5 years, at a cost of thousands of pounds per person each time. If the time where they need to apply to renew their stay coincides with any kind of personal crisis, they can lose their status and every part of their lives become criminalised. 

Our research found that people became undocumented for a variety of reasons outside their control, including relationship breakdown, domestic violence, poor legal advice, their or a relative’s physical or mental health crisis, inability to pay extremely high fees, or a simple mistake. 

Some visa pathways have no route to extend or settle at all, meaning that there is no flexibility to protect migrants from becoming undocumented if their circumstances change while on that route.

82% of those in our surveys entered the country through a legal route and later fell out of status.

Undocumented migrants are left deeply vulnerable to exploitation and harm

Given that over three-quarters of migrants in our surveys reported having family in the UK, it is unsurprising that many of those forced out of status have to remain here - but to do so they face grave risks of exploitation and harm under the Hostile Environment.

Migrants in our research suffered high rates of domestic abuse, which they cannot escape because of their immigration situation. The Government’s Hostile Environment makes it impossible for migrants to report exploitation or crime to the authorities, because of the fear that this will result in being pursued for deportation. Women in our surveys experienced domestic violence at three times the average national rate, while men did so at double the national rate.

Migrants are particularly vulnerable in the workplace; exploitative employers underpay or enslave undocumented migrants with impunity. They are usually forced into some form of under the counter work of the kind characterised by exploitation, underpayment, long hours, poor health and safety standards, and no benefits such as sick leave or paid holiday. 

Of the migrants in our surveys who are still currently undocumented, 24% are employed. Almost half (46%) of migrants in our surveys have been affected by right to work checks, driving them into more exploitative parts of the labour market.

The routes available to undocumented migrants to regularise their status are inadequate

The existing routes to regularise status that are available for migrants who have become undocumented are extremely complicated and expensive. A child, even one born in the UK is required to demonstrate having lived a minimum of seven or ten years, or half their lifetime in the UK to be eligible to obtain a regular immigration status, depending on their circumstances. For adults, the criteria include a requirement to demonstrate 20 years’ residence before they are considered permanent enough residents to apply to regularise their status.

The system is not only inaccessible, but vastly over-complicated and expensive, far more so than in other countries  comparable to the UK. The average cost of a regularisation application in France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, or Germany is less than a tenth of the cost in the UK, and the cost of applying for permanent settlement in the UK costs 20 times more than the average cost in those countries.

The design of the system ensures that people are trapped in limbo, are at high risk of exploitation and have no options to get back on track. Even migrants who are able to regularise their status are placed at risk of becoming undocumented again.

One third of the callers to JCWI’s undocumented migrants’ helpline over the past year had gone in and out of status. 87% of migrants surveyed had been living in the UK for over five years.


Introduce a new, simplified route to regularisation based on five years’ residence to replace the seven-year, half-life and 20-year routes 

The Government must ensure that people are assisted to regularise their status and are supported to maintain their status. The current system is so complex and restrictive that it instead pushes people out of status. A five-year route would provide simplicity within the immigration system and provide a clear route back into a safe immigration status for people who have been forced out of it. This would provide a realistic, permanent solution for long-term residents.

Children born in the UK should be entitled to British citizenship

Every child born and raised in the UK should have an automatic right to British citizenship. The removal of birthright citizenship in 1981 means that people who were born and raised in the UK can often be considered for removal to countries they have never known. Restoring birthright citizenship would prevent the injustice of young British people living under the threat of deportation.

All visa routes should be affordable

The ability to document right to stay in the UK should not depend on whether the applicant can afford the fees. The UK’s immigration fees are far higher than in most comparable countries and they continue to increase. Families who are unable to raise thousands of pounds every few years are at risk of losing their status and becoming undocumented, or forced to choose which family members maintain their status while others cannot. Immigration fees should be set no higher than the cost of processing an application.

Visa renewals should be automatic and facilitate integration and settlement

Once someone has successfully applied to live in the UK, the system should ensure that they are able to put down roots and become settled members of their community. Under the current system, almost all migrants lose their status by default every thirty months unless they go through a complex and expensive renewal process.

This is a crucial point at which many people become undocumented. Visa renewals should be simple, cheap, and granted by default unless there is new and important information to be considered.

All migrants should be entitled to permanent settlement after five years’ legal residence

The immigration system does not respond to the fact that once people enter the UK, they form permanent relationships and communities, and put down roots. Too many types of visa come with no pathway to settlement or renewal. Others include a long and expensive 10-year path to settlement. This increases the risk of people being forced out of status after having built a life here. 

All those welcomed to live or work in the UK should be able to do so with confidence and should be allowed to renew their visa and apply for indefinite leave to remain after five years’ lawful residence. 

Abolish the offence of Illegal Working and introduce a work permit system allowing lawful residence based on lawful employment

All workers should be safe and protected from exploitation and abuse, regardless of their immigration status. Banning undocumented migrants from working legally does not reduce the need for people to work or to provide for themselves or their families. Illegal working offences drive undocumented migrants underground and strengthen the hand of exploitative employers who profit when workers are marginalised, fearful and have few choices. Undocumented workers are unprotected and cannot report labour violations without fear of punishment or being reported to immigration enforcement. Work permits should be made available for all undocumented migrants with an offer of employment, and form part of the route to regularisation. 

Make the immigration system responsive to human circumstances 

The immigration system should seek in the first instance to resolve errors in applications and changes to personal circumstances, particularly for those already living here. Under the current system, simple errors and personal crises can result in the loss of immigration status. Missing a deadline, making a minor error, poor legal advice, or using the wrong form can have grave consequences lasting for years or decades. 

Migrants with an insecure status are also put at risk if they seek to access state support in the instance that they are the victim of crime or domestic violence. The system should only deny visa renewal applications as a last resort, and only after serious effort has been made to provide that person with support to resolve any issues in the application process.

Akunna's story

Akunna came to the UK to study, 13 years ago. A period of poor mental health saw him struggling with his course. As a result, he lost his right to remain in the UK. His mental health spiralled as he struggled to find a way to regain the right to be in the UK with his family. Read his story.

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