Record migrants cross Channel but numbers are dwarfed by unauthorised people in UK

As a record number of migrants have crossed the Channel this summer, they have become the face of illegal immigration into the UK.

But Sky News analysis of the last three years of complete Home Office data shows those arriving in small boats – who generally claim asylum – are only a small fraction of the number of migrants arriving in the UK each year.

Every year, an annual estimated average of 87,000 people become irregular migrants. They arrive in different ways and live without any official immigration status so cannot get a proper job, register with a GP or claim benefits.

These numbers are based on estimates. The real number of unauthorised people in the UK is not known as official figures cannot capture the true reality.

But, these estimates help to contextualise the number of migrants we often see arriving on Kent’s beaches.

Professor Andrew Jolly, lecturer in social work at the University of Plymouth, told Sky News: "It’s more likely that people become undocumented or have an irregular migration status because they came to the UK legally, perhaps on a visa, and then overstayed the length of that visa."

Unauthorised migrants wanting to remain in the UK try to avoid detection, which means they cannot claim benefits, register with a GP or get an official job so they are in a very precarious position which often leads to them being exploited and destitute.

Dr Peter William Walsh, a researcher at the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, said: "It is difficult psychologically to live in a country without immigration status, there’s always that fear.

"You hear a knock at the door, ‘is that them?’ It’s an entirely unenviable position."

The government’s immigration plans

Home Secretary Priti Patel recently closed a consultation on a plan to overhaul the UK’s immigration system in a post-Brexit world in which it would be a criminal offence to enter the UK without permission.

The plan would also see asylum seekers who arrive via legal routes have more entitlements than those who have arrived illegally, who will only be granted temporary refugee status – if successful – and face being removed.

Illegal arrivals will have limited access to benefits and family reunion rights and the government wants to change the law so asylum seekers can be moved from the UK while their claim or appeal is being considered.

The plan is very much focused on asylum seekers and clandestine entries but unauthorised migrants become so through many different ways not mentioned in the new plan. In fact, "undocumented", "unauthorised" or "irregular" appear nowhere in the consultation.

How do you legislate on immigration without the data?

As most unauthorised migrants live undetected by the government, there is very little data on them, yet the new immigration plan will affect them.

Dr Walsh said: "Policy needs to be made in accordance with the evidence, but just because there’s a lack of evidence doesn’t mean it’s not right for the government to legislate as they can do so on other grounds – on something theoretically plausible.

"It’s entirely possible that good policy can be made even with a paucity of evidence.

"The big policy change here is that the government proposes to penalise asylum seekers who have entered the country illegally and from countries that the government deems to be safe to try to deter these irregular arrivals on paper.

"That makes intuitive sense, but whether or not that’s good policy will remain to be seen."

Dr Walsh added that there is evidence that migrants do not really take into account policy changes, with other drivers being stronger, such as family in the UK or the perception it is a democratic, peaceful, tolerant and fair country.

Junior Home Office minister Chris Philp told the Commons in May: "By its very nature, it is not possible to know the exact number of the illegal population and so we do not seek to make any official estimates on this.

"The government’s New Plan for Immigration will make it harder for people to enter and live in the UK illegally, whilst ensuring that those who do have the right to reside in the UK can do so.

"The vast majority of people leave the UK on time, in line with the expiry of their visa or leave to remain. However, those who have no right to remain in the UK and do not return home voluntarily should be in no doubt of our determination to remove them."

How many irregular migrants are in the UK?

Although they try to remain under the radar, there have been two recent attempts to calculate the size of the unauthorised population.

In January 2020, a study by the Institute for Community Research and Development estimated "there were likely to be 674,000 irregular individuals in the UK at the beginning of April 2017, including non-UK born dependants."

"Our estimates further suggest that the numbers of undocumented individuals are increasing, but at a slower rate than the foreign-born population as a whole," it added.

Two months earlier, in November 2019, Pew Research Center increased that figure to between 800,000 and 1.2 million in 2017.

These are the best attempts, but again, do not capture the true impact.

Prof Jolly said: "The evidence is the population of undocumented migrants is increasing, and UK laws that try to prevent people coming to the UK in the first place increases the number of undocumented migrants.

"Making it more difficult for people to cross the Channel in small boats won’t necessarily make too much of a difference as the numbers of people crossing are relatively small compared with the whole UK population.

"I think the focus of the new legislation is perhaps misplaced and actually might make it more likely that people become undocumented."

Can irregular people gain ‘regular’ status?

Once a person has been living in the UK, it is more difficult to claim asylum or regulate their status through a route such as employment.

It is possible though, with irregular people able to remain on Article 8 human rights grounds – they have developed a family life in the UK and it would be a breach of human rights to split up the family.

If a person has lived in the UK unauthorised for 20 years, they can apply to regularise their status.

Another way is if children were born and brought up in the UK, and that can be proved, or they have a British parent, then they can apply for British citizenship.

"That doesn’t happen automatically, that has to be applied for – and the Home Office has to respond to that and decide," Prof Jolly said.

"Lots of UK-born children who have got an irregular migration status, they don’t necessarily know that they’re undocumented until they reach a crisis point or if they reach the end of their education and maybe want to apply for university.

"Then if they are not able to apply for benefits, student finance or aren’t allowed to legally work, then they realise that actually, they don’t have leave to remain in this country.

"And that can last for their whole childhood. If they don’t know well into adulthood that leaves them in this kind of limbo."

They can face deportation to their parents’ country of origin, which could be somewhere they have never been or do not know the language, which can have a huge impact on their wellbeing and identity.

Irregular migrants could increase due to Brexit

Since 1 July this year, EU, Swiss, Norwegian, Icelandic and Liechtenstein citizens have needed official immigration status in the UK – which they had to apply for under the EU Resettlement Scheme.

If they failed to apply yet remained in the UK then they automatically became irregular, which brings all the perils of not being a recognised citizen.

"That’s likely to be a sizeable population," Prof Jolly said.

"We don’t know how many that is yet, but local services, charities, faith communities and local authorities are likely to be seeing the effects of that over the next year or two."

On Mumin’s case, a Home Office spokeswoman said: "Sky News refused to provide us with any details to be able to investigate this individual case.

"The government is committed to ensuring asylum claims are considered without unnecessary delay but some cases can be more complex and take longer to process.

"Nobody should be making these illegal and potentially life-threatening journeys to the UK. Our New Plan for Immigration seeks to welcome those who come through safe and legal routes whilst preventing the abuse of the system and the criminality associated with it."


The irregular migration visualisation is based on a conversation with Dr Peter William Walsh, a researcher at the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford.
Data to estimate the size of each category comes from the Home Office – statistics relating to exit checks, asylum applications figures and the New Immigration Plan report – and the Institute for Community Research and Development’s report "London’s children and young people who are not British citizens: A profile".
Numbers are an average of the last three years of data available except for asylum applicants not recorded as having left the country. Given that the number of applicants waiting to get a final response is high in the most recent years, we have used the average of the last 10 years.

The Data and Forensics team is a multi-skilled unit dedicated to providing transparent journalism from Sky News. We gather, analyse and visualise data to tell data-driven stories. We combine traditional reporting skills with advanced analysis of satellite images, social media and other open source information. Through multimedia storytelling we aim to better explain the world while also showing how our journalism is done.

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