Amid rising migrant figures, the UK has announced harsher measures aimed at curbing the trend. But some critics say the government is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Samira Shackle reports from London.
The British government's new immigration bill will introduce a package of measures designed to create a "hostile environment" for undocumented migrants. When it comes into effect in the autumn, the new bill will create the offense of illegal working, which will carry a six-month jail sentence and an unlimited fine. New powers will allow the authorities to temporarily shut down businesses suspected of employing illegal migrants. It also means that the trading licenses could be removed from takeaway shops, pubs and off-licenses, which consistently fail to comply with immigration rules.
The new measures, announced on Tuesday, have caused controversy. "These are business sectors where people of migrant background have established themselves on high streets across the country," Don Flynn, director of the Migrants Rights Network, tells DW. "The power to shut down a trading operation, on the grounds that it has failed to satisfy proper immigration checks, is a sledgehammer-to-crack-a-nut approach."
Since coming to power in 2010, David Cameron's Conservative Party has chosen a hardline stance on immigration, pledging to get net migration down into the "tens of thousands." In the 2015 election, the Conservatives won an overall majority and were freed from a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, which had blocked certain hardline measures during the previous parliament. As Europe struggles with the biggest global refugee crisis since World War Two, the UK government's position has hardened further.
The latest details of the immigration bill were announced ahead of quarterly net migration figures, due later this week. The last quarterly figures, released in May, showed that net migration had risen to 318,000 by the end of 2014. This was the highest level since the 2010 election, and very close to the peak recorded in 2005 when the Labour government had opened British borders to workers from Poland and other eastern European countries.
The figures are embarrassing for a government that promised to drastically reduce the number of people coming to the UK; the tough action promised in Tuesday's announcement is aimed at pre-empting criticism. "Anyone who thinks the UK is a soft touch should be in no doubt - if you are here illegally, we will take action to stop you from working, renting a flat, opening a bank account or driving a car," said the immigration minister, James Brokenshire.
Critics disagree about necessity of new law
Yet experts suggest that the additional measures will have little material effect on the numbers. Those working illegally in the UK already operate under the risk of deportation, a deterrent in itself.
"Undocumented migrants in the UK already face a 'hostile environment,' so it's hard to understand what purpose is served by these new powers, except to reiterate that people fleeing conflict and hardship are not welcome here," says Laura Howard, who volunteers at a London refugee center. "Many of the people I work with have been pushed into destitution by an overly harsh asylum system that is predisposed to reject their claims. If it is not safe to deport them to their home countries, they are left in no man's land, unable to claim state support but also unable to work and contribute by paying taxes, which most would like to do. What purpose is served by driving them further into the black economy? They have nowhere to go."
While some organizations, including the anti-immigration think tank Migration Watch UK, have praised the bill and urged the authorities to actually act on their new powers, others dispute whether the proposed measures are proportionate. "The research which has been carried out on the impact of the employment of irregular migrants has failed to find evidence of anti-social effects which would merit penalties of this nature," says Flynn, referring to the proposed six-month sentences. He points out that migrants today are already vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation because of years of poor migration management.
Across the English Channel in France, thousands of migrants have attempted to reach the UK via the Eurotunnel
Law bolsters landlords' rights
The crackdown on employment is just the latest detail to be trailed from the forthcoming immigration bill. Earlier this month, the government announced that landlords in England will be expected to evict tenants who lose the right to live in the UK. Landlords will be empowered to end tenancies, sometimes without a court order, when asylum requests fail and will be legally required to check a migrant's status before they agree a lease. Concerns have been raised over this.
"Making it easier for landlords to evict people without the correct immigration status could leave many facing homelessness," says Jon Sparkes, the chief executive of Crisis, a homelessness charity. "We need assurances from the government that robust plans will be put in place to make sure people who are unable to return home aren't left homeless. We also need safeguards to ensure this 'easier' form of eviction isn't open to abuse and used to evict tenants who do have the correct immigration status."
It has also been reported that immigration officers are preparing to raid building sites, care homes and cleaning contractors over the coming months.
"It is gesture politics that will have very little effect other than to make already desperate people feel further hunted by the state," says Howard.