In an article on the openDemocracy website, Zrinka Bralo argues that “in a free and fair society, amnesty for all migrants stuck within yet excluded from our dysfunctional system is the only workable reparation for the government’s hostile environment immigration policies”.
Over recent weeks the repercussions of the UK Government’s ‘hostile immigration policies’ have been witnessed as the story of how they have been directed against ‘Windrush immigrants’ has been unearthed.
“… citizens who have spent decades living and working in this country. The majority were British subjects when they arrived, and now they are being told they no longer belong. Repatriation … is now becoming the stark reality of deportation for thousands of people declared to be ‘illegal’.”
Bralo is CEO of Migrants Organise, a self-help, organising platform for migrants and refugees acting for justice. She maintains that a narrative of fear has been built up around the concept of ‘illegal immigrants’ “and the myths generated around them has had serious consequences for democratic societies from Brexit to the US presidential election”.
The Oxford Migration Observatory researched through a decade of newspaper coverage and found that the term most frequently associated with ‘immigrant’ is ‘illegal’. Journalists contacted Migrants organise after the Grenfell Tower fire. “Many found it hard to believe that we have only been able to identify five, of whom two were actually underdocumented or in the process of regulating their status.”
Bralo’s article dispels the myth that people without immigration status have “‘sneaked’ into the country when no one was watching”.
“Although clandestine entry feeds the imagination of right-wing populists and their press, the majority of undocumented migrants are overstayers. At the time of entry they had some form of status as students, visitors, workers or spouses and they were able to establish themselves in the community. And then things got complicated – they suffer from a lack of knowledge about immigration rules or are misled and exploited by unscrupulous employers, lawyers and family members. Very little is known about their daily life and the exploitation, fear, shame and isolation they face. Inevitably, many people are subjected to blackmail, sexual abuse and modern slavery.”
She goes on to say:
“The majority of these people are hiding in plain sight, and are able do so because they are just like us, trying to make the best life for themselves and their families. They survive not because they have super powers, but because our economy is structured in a way to depend on cheap labour to deliver higher profits.”
Asking how the situation of undocumented people (who are “maintaining industries that would not survive without them” but with little protection from “the welfare state … laws and unions”) can be fixed, Bralo offers a structural answer.
“In addition to anger over the inhumanity and injustice of the impact of hostilities, we need to accept that migrants are here, that no government measure will close the borders completely or manage to deport them all, and that our government cannot cope with the demands of exiting the European Union. We need to accept that the [UK] Home Office immigration service, re-branded so many times in recent years, is still not fit for purpose.
“If we accept the reality of the situation, the only right, pragmatic, humane, fair and positive step for any government to take, is amnesty, or regularisation of immigration status.”
Bralo’s essay goes on to remind readers of historical amnesties in Europe and North America. It also reminds readers that when the Strangers Into Citizens campaign was launched in 2007, Boris Johnson was among the cross-party group of politicians who supported the initiative.
“[Boris Johnson] first called for amnesty when he was the Mayor of London and did so again more recently when he became the Foreign Secretary.”
The benefits of an amnesty are wide according to Bralo.
“In one stroke of amnesty the government would deal with employers who are breaking the law and would collect a huge amount in taxes” and the “huge amounts of money wasted on enforcement and detention would be saved”. The backlog of asylum applications would also be cut and “EU citizens and their families would be able to live their lives free from fear and anxiety”.
“Women especially would benefit from increased protection from domestic violence and sexual exploitation. Domestic workers would be able to leave their abusive employers without losing their right to work. Children, sometimes born in the UK, would be able to access further education and live without the shame of being labelled ‘illegal’.”
The article finishes:
“If we could find the courage to deliver the amnesty, the world would not be perfect, but our country would be less divided and we could focus our resources and energies on repairing the damage that fear and hate have caused us.
“Finally, politicians would have to focus on real solutions for real problems. There would no longer be that mythical ‘other’ to blame – we would all be just ‘us’, in it together.”