Bedford: Illegal immigration, Windrush, and public compassion

Our last visit of the National Conversation on Immigration was to Bedford, a town that has welcomed waves of immigrant from Italians and Indians after the Second World War, to more recent arrivals from Eastern Europe. Today, estimates suggest that nearly 18% of the town’s population has been born overseas, with many more having recent family history of migration. Bedford is home to one of the biggest Italian populations outside of Italy and the largest Sikh Gurdwara in the United Kingdom.

The town has a strong culture of volunteering, and we heard about some of the excellent work that is going on in Bedford to help new migrants integrate and to bring different communities together. After we met local stakeholders – the council and local charities – we held our citizens’ panel. Many of the views that were aired were similar to those we have heard elsewhere in the UK. In many of our discussions citizens’ panels have brought up issues that have been in the news at the time of our visit, so it was not surprising that the treatment of the Windrush group was brought up spontaneously:

“What about what they’re doing now to the Jamaicans that came over here and fought in the war, they’ve got no passports, and they want to send them all back?…” 

Our participants included a few people who had strong views and thought that migration had more negative than positive impacts. Unanimously, the Bedford citizens’ panel thought the treatment of the ‘Windrush Britons’ was unfair. Some of the most vocal support for the Windrush group came from participants who were sceptical about many other aspects of immigration.

The Bedford citizens’ panel thought that the Windrush group had worked hard and made a contribution to this country. Participants believed that compassion and decency should underpin how migrants are treated.

“I think the Government just needs to be a bit more kind, is that the word? You know, kind and a bit more kind of like actually see people as people and not as like cattle. Does that make sense? I think we could be learning from the mistakes, but always treat people as if they’re humans.”

Although the Windrush generation entered the UK legally they had, through no fault of their own, become undocumented migrants.  Migrants are undocumented for all sorts of reasons, sometimes because they enter clandestinely and sometimes because they overstay their visas. Children can be born in the UK to parents who without the right papers. In this case, however, the Windrush group didn’t need any documentation when they came to Britain – they arrived as British citizens.

Undocumented or illegal immigration is an issue that causes public concern. In some citizens’ panels, participants will give their views on this subject early in the discussion. Almost everyone wants immigration regulations to be properly enforced. Media coverage of migrants found hiding in lorries or trying to breach the security at Calais inevitably causes anxiety.  People often see this as a failure by the Government to enforce border control.

All of our citizens’ panels explore attitudes to undocumented migration, giving participants three real case studies of undocumented migrants and asking them to decide how the Government should approach each case. Our case studies include a New Zealand visa overstayer who fathered a child in the UK and a clandestine entrant from Nigeria who was refused asylum in the early 1990s but never removed.

In Bedford, we discussed the case of a young person born in the UK to a mother who had overstayed her visa. The girl was soon to turn 18 and so would no longer be considered a dependent. There are humanitarian provisions within UK immigration law to grant leave to remain on a case-by-case basis to undocumented migrants. The dilemma for the girl and her mother was that by coming forwards to the Home Office, the mother could be deported after spending most of her life in the UK. Participants were asked to decide how they thought this family should be treated.

We have found that our citizens’ panel make pragmatic decisions on these case studies, using moral and economic arguments to justify their conclusions. In Bedford, the participants argued that the family should not be separated, and both mother and daughter should be given the right to remain legally in the UK and offered routes to citizenship. While most felt that immigration rules are important and should be applied uniformly and fairly to everyone, our citizens’ panels have generally supported flexibility and compassion as principles too. In Bedford when we discussed our case study we were told:

“Not everything is black and white. Sometimes, situations happen and everybody in this room has got a different story to tell about something or other. So, I think it says there the government, but it should probably be someone with a bit of a heart, who can see what’s going on, and see it for what it is….I should imagine that there’s quite a lot of people like that in this country.”

Our conversations in Bedford and elsewhere in the UK have made very clear that people want effective immigration controls but they also want migrants to be treated decently and fairly. The Windrush cases have shown public outrage about immigration enforcement when it is seen as unfair and without compassion. Reaching a consensus on immigration, the Government will need to learn from past mistakes, and ensure that post-Brexit approaches to border control are enacted with compassion and fairness.

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