Illegal alien, irregular migrant, sans papier, undocumented migrants, or unauthorized migrants; people without proper immigration status go by a lot of names in the media, in public debate, and in policy documents. Just have a look at this graph surveying the prevalence of these terms in English-language books from 1800 to 2008. Despite all of the articles, books and reports written about irregular migrants they are rarely seen as individuals with specific and personal stories as to why they have become irregular – whether by choice or accident. In current discourse irregularity is most often seen as the fault of the individual, as a result of “bad” choices or as a deliberate strategy or choice for people to gain entrance to another country without going through the proper immigration channels.
In late August this year the British government decided to revoke the London Metropolis University’s (London Met) status as a “Highly Trusted Sponsor” (HTS) of its international non-EU students. In doing so, they clearly showed that changes in immigration status are often not the result of individuals’ own actions, but the actions or inactions of others: in this case university administrators and government officials. The UKBA’s motivation for going after London Met seems to be have been encouraged by the Coalition Government’s desire to cut net immigration to tens of thousands. Students whose courses last for more than one year count towards net immigration figures, i.e. they are statistically viewed as permanent migrants. This policy does seem to conflict with the UK higher education sector’s stated desire to be a world leader in education and the desire to attract international students. As Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute pointed out “We have a Government that is committed to reducing immigration, and targeting overseas students is really the only way to achieve that aim,” he said. “The Home Office is very keen to reduce their numbers while other parts of the Government want to attract them because of the fees they bring. We’ve seen this tension explode in the most spectacular way with what’s happened at London Met.”
Thus despite spending thousands of pounds, or more likely tens of thousands of pounds, contributing to the British economy through both their tuition fees as well as living expenses (current international fees at London Metropolitan University range from £6,500 to £13,500 for undergrad and postgrad degrees per annum), these students suddenly faced an impossible choice: they could give up their degrees and go home, they could seek to transfer to other universities (possibly prolonging their degrees as courses are often not transferable), or they could become irregular migrants, through a loss of regular student status. Irregular status would mean facing the possibility of immigration detention and deportation, as well as an entry ban on returning to the UK. Most of these students, some of whom had lived in the UK for two or three years, were given 60 days to resolve their situation before losing their status.
However, at the end of September the British High Court gave London Met the right to challenge the decision in court. Mr Justice Irwin, British High Court Judge, emphasised the need to take the interests of students into account and said, referring to students whose visas were ‘legitimate’: “I would be interested in respect of such students whether a concession could be made”. Later that same day, the UKBA (UK Border Agency) issued a statement allowing “existing genuine students” to continue studying at the university “until their course has ended or the end of the academic year, whichever is soonest – as long as they meet the right standards” – thus giving many worried students a year’s reprieve from deportation and for some, the chance to finish a very expensive degree.
This situation is a perfect example of how vulnerable immigrants are to the whims of government policies and decisions. It clearly illustrates that despite the prevailing narrative which paints irregular migrants as cheaters, and as people who deliberately chose to become irregular migrants, this is often not the case.
As Senior Researcher at Oxford Franck Duvell has argued irregularity or illegality describes a number of different situations, the most often referred to – and the image most people see in their mind’s eye – is that of crammed boats crossing the Mediterranean Sea in the middle of the night, rickety boats crossing the Atlantic from the edge of Western Africa to reach the Canary Islands, or in the USA – Latin Americans crossing the Rio Grande or climbing the fences in New Mexico or Arizona. However, in Europe very few irregular migrants enter the European Union in an irregular manner. The vast majority enter on legitimate visas: as students, for work, family reunification or for holidays, and then they become irregular either because they stay beyond the expiration date of their visa, or they engage in activities not permitted by their visa, for example: working on a holiday visa, working more than 20 hours a week on a student visa or doing house work for cash as an au pair. Bridget Anderson, Professor of Migration and Citizenship at COMPAS in Oxford, and Martin Ruhs, Senior Researcher at Oxford, describe and discuss these situations as semi-compliance or illegality depending on the specific situation. In addition, many asylum seekers experience periods of irregularity because they cannot claim asylum before they are physically present in the destination country. Most Western European countries actively try to discourage or prevent people from reaching their national territory, thus leaving potential refugees with few options but to enter in other irregular ways. Or people become irregular as a result of the actions or inactions of other people who are responsible for their immigration status, as is the case with the unfortunate students at London Met.
The High Court’s decision left London Met to challenge the Government’s decision, and the UKBA’s decision to let students continue or finish their course recognizes that the irregularisation of more than 2000 individuals is not a desired outcome for the UK or for individual migrants as it leaves them vulnerable to exploitation in a number of social relations; work, relationships, housing and health to mention a few. Furthermore, it would create tremendous pressure on the UKBA if it was to actually enforce detention and deportation for so many people. The events at London Met thus clearly show how irregularity can happen to any migrant and how it is often not the responsibility of the individual. It also illustrates how policies are often conflicting and impossible to enforce in the real world.