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The rights of undocumented people living in the UK will be the subject of a Westminster Hall debate on 19 July 2021. Over 102,000 people have signed a Parliamentary e-petition advocating for the rights of undocumented people living in the UK. This briefing details how the immigration system itself causes individuals to become undocumented, highlights the current lack of accessible routes to regularisation, and lays out simple reforms that would allow people to regularise their status.

The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants works with people who are undocumented, helping them to navigate an extremely complex system and regularise their status.

In March 2021 we published a report entitled We Are Here, based on 22 interviews and 2 focus groups with undocumented people, as well as an online survey for legal advisors working with undocumented people, which received 92 responses. This primary research was supplemented by data collected through the JCWI undocumented migrant’s helpline, which provides confidential immigration advice to migrants seeking to regularise their status or understand their options. Data from this source used in this report was collected between March 2020 and January 2021. 

How the immigration system makes people undocumented

Although it is by definition impossible to know how many people are living in the UK without status,  recent comparative research suggests we have by far the largest undocumented population in Europe. Our research suggests that this is because barriers within the UK’s immigration system itself cause people to become undocumented. 82% of those in our surveys entered the UK through legal routes and later fell out of status (We Are Here, Routes to Regularisation for the UK’s Undocumented Population, p3).

Migrants are considered “temporary” for a decade and must reapply for the right to remain in their homes and jobs every 2.5 years. Each of these applications costs thousands of pounds per person. At present, 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. While fee waivers for some visa categories do exist, the application process is extremely complex, with high evidential requirements. Most applicants will require legal assistance in order to apply for a fee waiver – but since Legal Aid is not available for most non-asylum applications, this is almost impossible to obtain. The 10-year route to settlement is the default route for most categories of visa-holders. If at any point during this 10-year period, the visa-holder is unable to submit the right application at the right time, they will become undocumented.

Our research found that this can happen for a variety of reasons, 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. Once a migrant falls out of status, it can be very difficult to obtain status again. A third of callers to JCWI’s helpline for undocumented migrants had fallen out of status, then been able to obtain status again, and then fallen out of status a second time. 

Kojo’s story

Kojo* is now undocumented, after being unable to renew his leave because he was overwhelmed with caring duties. His wife fell ill, and he became the primary carer for her, as well as caring for his two daughters, both of whom have Autism Spectrum Disorder. When his wife died, he found himself an undocumented father with two children in need of care. He has finally been able to obtain two and half years’ leave to remain, but will now need to wait another 7.5 years before he can apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain.

The consequences of becoming undocumented

Undocumented migrants are subject to a series of policies that bar them from accessing the basic services and the public safety net. These policies, commonly called the “Hostile Environment”, include the criminalisation of work as an undocumented migrant, making it illegal to rent a home, open a bank account or obtain a driver’s licence, as well as immigration checks taking place in healthcare settings.

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. Women in our surveys experienced domestic violence at three times the average national rate, while men did so at double the national rate. If they do experience domestic violence or abuse, undocumented migrants often have nowhere to turn for support, fearing that they will be turned over to immigration authorities if report their abuse to police.

Kelly’s story

Kelly* was undocumented, and became known to immigration authorities when she came forward to the police, to report that she had been kidnapped and raped. She was being cared for in a recovery centre when she was arrested by immigration enforcement officers. She was also pregnant at the time of her arrest.

The criminalisation of work for undocumented people means that there is a very significant problem of exploitation of undocumented workers in unregulated “under-the-counter” work. This was flagged as an issue of concern by JCWI representatives in 11% of the calls received through the helpline over the past year. Immigration officers and labour inspectors regularly conduct joint operations in workplaces, making it impossible for migrant workers with insecure immigration status to bring exploitative conditions to the inspectors’ attention without risking being subject to enforcement.

By denying fundamental rights and protections and exposing migrants to harm from anyone who cares to exploit them, the Government hopes they will be persuaded to leave the UK. However, our research shows that the strong ties many undocumented migrants have here make it impossible to leave the UK, no matter how difficult the authorities make it to survive. 87% of migrants in our surveys had been living in the UK for five years or more – over three quarters had family ties here.

These strong ties mean that, despite being barred from accessing services and vulnerable to exploitation, most migrants are not able to leave the UK when they become undocumented. Only one individual surveyed in our research said they had considered giving up and going back to their country of origin as a result of the Hostile Environment.

Adjo’s story

Adjo* has been living in the UK for 22 years and has two British children. Adjo had previously been able to work a regular job for a security firm and had enjoyed regular minimum standards, pay and conditions. But when right to work checks were introduced, he lost that job and was forced to take on irregular, cash-in-hand jobs, largely in construction.

“Sometimes you get to the day you should be paid and there’s nothing, and you don’t know what to do. They may say that they’ll pay you the next week, or the week after and you just have to find a way to push along and find something else. I couldn’t make them pay me if they didn’t want to. It was extremely stressful.”

Current routes to regularisation

Regularising your immigration status in the UK as an undocumented migrant is complicated, expensive, and difficult.  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 Home Office pursues an approach focused entirely on removing people without status from the UK, rather than providing them with alternative solutions.

An approach purely based on removal of people who fall through the cracks simply is not effective. At the current rate it would take the Home Office roughly 135 years to enforce the removal of the entire UK undocumented migrant population.

A policy of removal is not a realistic approach to the undocumented population, even if it were a desirable one. If the aim of the Government is to reduce the size of the undocumented population, the realistic solution to introduce an accessible route to regularisation, and reform the immigration system to prevent people losing their status in the first place.

The current routes to regularisation, and the total those applying under each will have to pay in application fees to get ILR, are summarised below:




Length to settlement

Price to settlement

10 years from birth

A child born in the UK is entitled to British citizenship once they have lived here for 10 years continuously, as long as they meet ‘good character’ requirements

Direct route to citizenship

£1206 (or £1012 for minor applicants)

7-year route for children

A child who arrived in the UK before the age of 11 can apply for status after 7 years here, as long as it is proven that staying here is in their best interests

7 years + 10 years


Half-life route

Undocumented people aged between 18 and 25 can apply for status if they can prove they have lived here for half of their life

Minimum of 9 years + 10 years


20-year route

Undocumented migrants who have lived in the UK for 20 years can apply for a visa, as long as they can prove that they cannot relocate to their country of origin, and have strong ties here

20 years + 10 years


While routes to regularisation exist, in reality they do not work effectively. 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. There is little information about how well-used these routes to regularisation are. For example, the Home Office does not collect data on how many people apply for and are granted leave under the 20-year route outlined above.


A sensible approach to the issue of the UK’s undocumented population would focus on an accessible route to regularisation, and meaningful reforms to the immigration status to stop people from falling out of status. This would be preferable to a one-off ‘amnesty’ or mass grant of status to those who are already present in the UK. Such a policy would not represent a sustainable solution – the barriers within the immigration system outlined above would still exist, and people would continue to fall out of status and become subject to the Hostile Environment in years to come. A more realistic and sustainable solution would be to reform the immigration system and introduce a simplified route to regularisation for those who have fallen out of status.

The reforms we propose are as follows:

  • Introduce a new, simplified route to regularisation based on five years’ residence, to replace the seven-year, half-life and 20-year routes
  • Reinstate automatic British citizenship for children born in the UK
  • Bring visa application fees down to match processing costs
  • Visa renewals should be automatic and facilitate integration & settlement
  • Abolish the offence of illegal working and introduce a work permit system allowing lawful residence based on lawful employment.

For more information please contact:

Minnie Rahman

Campaigns and Communications Director, JCWI

[email protected] - 0207 553 7463

Mary Atkinson

Campaigns Officer, JCWI

[email protected] - 020 7251 8708

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