By Nando Sigona
Over the last decade, Western governments have increasingly used enforced removals, assisted voluntary returns and denials of entry in the country as instruments for governing unauthorised immigration. The number of immigrants removed from the US with one of these tools has gone from 120,000 in 2001 to 395,000 in 2011. The capacity to enforce removals has been raised to the status of an indicator of the state’s capacity to protect its citizens. Sarkozy’s high profile campaign that led to the expulsion of thousands of Romanian Roma from France in 2010 is exemplar of the use of removal figures for gaining political capital. In the UK, between 2001 and 2011 the number of forced and assisted removals spiralled from 17,000 to 42,000.
However, a closer look to figures reveals that, despite what scholars termed the ‘deportation turn’, the stock of irregular immigrants in these countries does not seem significantly affected by these measures. In the UK, main variations in the stock of irregular migrants can be attributed to status-related in- and out-flows rather than physical mobility. In fact, the main inflow into irregular status in the 2000s results from non-removal of failed asylum seekers and visa overstayers. Similarly, the main outflow is not caused by forced or voluntary removal of unauthorised residents but by various piecemeal regularisation schemes, not least the current UKBA’s Case Resolution review which was set up to clear a backlog of hundreds of thousands of asylum and non-asylum cases. Hence, while the UK government has removed 40,000 people in 2011, current estimates put the population of irregular migrants to 400-450,000.
When it comes to irregular migrant children, deportation data shows that children and families with children are not a priority group for immigration officers; this means that these children are more likely to spend a significant part of their childhood in the country of residence in a situation of protracted legal limbo. A recent study (Sigona and Hughes, 2012) conducted at the University of Oxford’s Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) documents the long term negative impacts of protracted insecurity on children and families. In addition to concerns with the violation of the UN Convention for the Right of the Child of which the UK is one of the first signatories, the study stresses the waste of precious human capital and the risk of creating a generation of disenfranchised youth without prospects for their future.
While in the US there are updated estimates on the irregular migrant children and youth population, this is not the case in the UK. The COMPAS study offers one of the first attempts to quantify this hidden population. Building on previous estimates on the overall irregular migrant population and including recent migration in- and out- flows, COMPAS researchers estimate a population of 120,000 irregular migrant children in the UK – that is the 0.9 per cent of overall UK’s under 18 population. Another interesting aspect of this population is that over half of them (circa 65,000) are born in the UK to irregular migrant parents. Differently from the US, in the UK there is no birthright to citizenship. However, under Section 1(4) of the British Nationality Act 1981, UK-born children to irregular migrant parents have the right to apply after ten years of continuous residence to register as a British citizen on residence grounds. But due to lack of information (also among immigration support workers) and affordable legal advice, and very high bureaucratic fees, only a minority of those eligible apply, less than four thousands in 2000s. Nonetheless, data on removals also shows that they are highly unlikely to be deported from the UK. Where to?
These findings can potentially have significant policy implications, as they invite a refocus of public understanding of this population. Overall, the UK government privileges a piecemeal approach that leaves out the big picture. It provides quick and temporary fixes for some, leaving the majority of irregular migrant children out. Even in their best incarnation, UK authorities (both national and local) tend to focus on providing essential welfare to vulnerable children on human rights grounds but rarely see and address the societal dimension of the issue: 120,000 young people who grew up in the UK and, as a result of current and previous policies, are de facto non-deportable while permanently excluded from citizenship.