Chapter 6: feelings, adjustments, coping strategies and aspirations


What is it like to be undocumented? How do young undocumented migrants feel about it? What do they make of their experiences in the UK? These questions define the focus of this chapter. Building on previous chapters, which have explored the impact of being undocumented in different contexts, here we explore the feelings, aspirations, adjustments and coping strategies of young undocumented migrants, and look at how issues of gender, country of origin and life events intersect in shaping migrants’ experiences and responses. This chapter explores these topics in four interrelated sections which address, respectively: how being undocumented invades personal and emotional space; if, how and to what extent migrants adapt and adjust to their lack of status through time; how being undocumented affects their vision of the future; and, finally, what migrants have learned from their experiences in the UK and if, on the whole, the experience has been worth it.

Undocumentedness – invading personal and emotional space

Participants in the study reserved some of their most detailed and distressing interview and testimony responses to describe their feelings about being undocumented. The three poignant statements below suggest something of the sense of unfulfilled lives, and possibly failure, which young undocumented migrants have experienced as their dreams and ambitions are left unrealised. They have had to confront situations which offer little, if any, hope of escape.

I police myself a lot because of my conditions

– Brígido, 30, M, Brazilian

Being undocumented in this country means that you don’t exist

– Rojhan, M, 27, Kurd from Turkey

Once you are illegal… You can’t do anything. It’s all empty

– Welat, 23, M, Kurd from Turkey

Interviewees give graphic accounts of their experiences. Of all the metaphors used to describe their situation, the Kafkaesque image of prison pervades:

It’s just living in a prison… It’s like living in a prison…

– Huadi Zhang, 29, M, Chinese

It feels like a room with no air

– Colin, 23, M, Zimbabwean

But alongside the lack of freedom, other common responses are a lack of self- worth and feelings of betrayal and, as discussed in the last chapter, fear of being visible to the authorities, lack of trust in others and disempowerment.

Beyond the distress and frustration caused by these day-to-day constraints, being undocumented invades and permeates the personal and emotional space of young undocumented migrants in profound and often disturbing ways. As a result, many respondents powerfully internalise their feelings about living on the margins. This, ‘internal fear’ as Rita (29, F, Ukrainian) puts it, and the fact that, ‘you never know about tomorrow’ (Augusto, 26, M, Brazilian), further compounds their distress and alienation. The impacts on their psycho-social wellbeing are displayed in a variety of ways and settings. It is clear that being undocumented is always on their mind:

The most difficult part of being undocumented is the lack of freedom, the hiding, the constantly looking over your shoulder, the lack of peace of mind to just be free… every day when I wake up and am going to work, I keep thinking is this the day that I am going to be asked. Everyday you have no peace of mind ever, your mind is always working, what if this or that and you just have to keep praying every time that you leave the house basically

– Tracy, 29, F, Zimbabwean

The most obvious evidence of the way personal and emotional space is invaded comes from the fear of detection and the way this accentuates the precariousness of their situation. The four accounts below describe this acute sense of vulnerability:

Life is very, I can say, well, how, it’s constantly tense… every day [you are] afraid that someone knocks at the door. Just a police car passes by and you already think that it’s after you

– Sergiy, 27, M, Ukrainian

You know [you] can’t safely build up something before someone knock on your door and takes it all away and says, ‘Hey, you’re working without documents’

– Huadi Zhang, 29, M, Chinese

When you see the police, you get stressed

– Welat, 23, M, Kurd from Turkey

 … it affects everything, because nothing is certain. Maybe now I go home now, ten minutes later, the police will stop me and catch me. After an hour they will bring me to the airport, everything tied, your arms and legs… The most difficult thing is not sleeping in peace. Even while going in bed, I am not comfortable. I think like, ‘what will I do if the bell rings?’ I sometimes think of sleeping with my clothes. Take my stuff, put it next to my bed and sleep like that just in case… That disturbs me a lot Jiyan, 23, F, Kurd from Turkey

In Jiyan’s case, the fear of detection lies as much in the consequences of detection for her family, notably the future for her daughter, as the process of being apprehended itself. Some Chinese migrants articulate similar anxieties where apprehension and deportation would have incalculable consequences in terms of repaying smugglers. Whereas Huadi Zhang is all too familiar with the fears and guilt of his obligations to family back home, if the whole migratory enterprise were to come to a sudden end, Zhu Chen displays a more relaxed attitude.

What if the police get you? That’s why I am always worried about this and that. At the end of the day, we have no status. We have a guilty conscience. We have a guilty conscience. We owe lots of debts back home

– Huadi Zhang, 29, M, Chinese

At the end of the day, I have a home [in China]. I’d go home if I can’t stay on, my parents and relatives are there for me

– Zhu Chen, 25, F, Chinese

While fear is a constant source of anxiety, only Berenice (23, F, Brazilian) out of those interviewed has actually witnessed a police raid which meant she had to leave a house in the middle of the night. To make matters worse, she had to leave money behind. Custódia worked in a hotel which was inspected the day of her interview for this research. Although this was only a health and safety inspection, her fear is palpable:

My legs didn’t want to move. You want to run but there’s nowhere to go… My luck was that they [the inspectors] didn’t ask to meet the staff

– Custódia 25, F, Brazilian

Carol had a friend whose wife is pregnant. She says:

[He] was drinking and driving. The police caught him… the Immigration was called… three days later, put him on a plane and sent him back [to Brazil]

– Carol, 24, F, Brazilian

Given these fears of detection, many young undocumented migrants internalise their anxiety by taking great care in the way they develop their lives and livelihoods. Semen summarises this sense of controlled exposure.

Illegal life is an alert. The more you want to be [here] the more careful you have to be

– Semen, 28, M, Ukrainian

A common response to these fears is not to go out, or to minimise mobility, social encounters and to avoid public transport, as Chapters 3 and 5 showed. Not surprisingly, the fear of detection, as Jiyan’s narrative above demonstrates, is more acute among those who had to escape persecution or don’t wish to return to the situation in their country of origin. For Rojan, who has previously been arrested and imprisoned for four months for his political activities, the fear of the police in the UK resonates with the memories of police detention in Turkey:

There is a burden on our shoulders all the time. We have fear inside us all the time. When we were in Turkey, we had the same fear when we see the police. We had the fear that he would beat us… Now… here… when we see the police we say, ‘Ohhh my god, police! … The police here does not hate me because of my language, colour. He only looks for me because I am undocumented. We get scared because of this

– Rojhan, 27, M, Kurd from Turkey

Rojan explains how his fears affect his everyday life despite being here for nine years:

I wake up around 4am in the morning. Home Office people usually goes to houses around 4am, 5am, 6am. I wake up early in the morning and can’t sleep

– Rojhan 27, M, Kurd from Turkey

The fear of detection invades the work setting as well as life in public spaces, as Chapters 3 and 4 showed. The counterpart to fear of detection is fear of betrayal, and a wariness of being able to trust all but the closest friends. Whether friends can be trusted or not can engender much more distressing consequences for some young undocumented migrants – self-deception, denial, interrogation of one’s morality, and, ultimately, a loss of self-respect and self-worth (see Chapter 5). Trish expresses these feelings:

It impacts on my self-esteem as a person and my ability to participate… this issue of not having papers makes me feel as though I am not human

– Trish, 25, F, Zimbabwean

Vulnerability and self-denial can also take another perverse turn. A number of undocumented migrants reflect on the criminalisation of their identity and the implied self-alienation which their status suggests.

The most difficult one is that [you] get criminalised after you try to make ends meet because you are forced to commit a crime. You are forced to get forged documents in order to get a job and pay for the rent… You know I have been undocumented because of certain policies… I think being undocumented is not through my fault, it is through the UK government policy

– Bob, 31, M, Zimbabwean

Here, Bob recognises, albeit with regret, the inevitable double bind he has had to confront. He blames this on the government. Others also reject the way they are criminalised and some forcefully resist what they see as an imposed identity.

Well, for me it’s hard. It’s hard because of… I don’t mind to work hard but it would’ve been easy morally to not feel yourself like some kind of a criminal. Because you do feel yourself like a criminal… You feel constrained

– Rita, 29, F, Ukrainian

The fact that my lack of status makes me an ’illegal immigrant’, it makes me sound like a criminal who is doing bad things. All I want is to be allowed to have a life. I haven’t done anything wrong, I haven’t hurt anyone, I don’t steal, I don’t break the law, yet I am labelled an ’illegal’ immigrant

– Tracy, 29, F, Zimbabwean

Beatriz voices her sense of injustice towards the criminalisation of migrants, and recalls how Brazil has welcomed migrants and refugees in the past:

Brazil welcomed many Italians, people from Russia, with open doors during the war and everything. Now that the Brazilians are trying to adventure out, travel, immigrate, they find all doors closed, all the barriers, all the difficulties, all the prejudice

– Beatriz, 24, F, Brazilian

Bob articulates his view that forging an identity is not a criminal activity, but the only way to survive social exclusion and the real criminals who exploit the undocumented:

… you associate with the right people in terms of making an identity [getting documents]… and they wonder why these people are making money off these people. You know, that in itself causes crime isn’t it, [you] having to get an identity… you try and use that to find a job, you try and use that to open bank accounts… you are left in a position where you either do that, or you starve or you commit crime because for example, if you are not a legal entity how do you put bread on the table?

– Bob, 31, M, Zimbabwean

Augusto does not accept the criminalisation of his status:

I am not doing anything illegal except for not being myself. I am not causing trouble to anybody

– Augusto, 26, M, Brazilian

By contrast, other young undocumented migrants express their alienation in terms of the injustice of their position in society, and their lack of freedom compared to their peers. Some of the extracts have already intimated these feelings.

You are limited in the sense that you cannot get the job that you want… you cannot even walk into a bank and open an account easily. There always has to be some other way of trying to do things and so it is frustrating because those are simple things that anyone should be able to do

– Jamie, 30, M, Zimbabwean

Technically [it] isn’t [that] I am a criminal, I am illegal, and I am a criminal. It’s not nice you know having that title, ‘illegal’, because it makes it sound as if you are some sort of bad person, when you are not. It’s just the situation that you have found yourself in, unfortunately. It’s beyond my control now

– Tracy, 29, F, Zimbabwean

Adjustment and adaptation: life courses and changing circumstances

In a variety of different ways young undocumented migrants adapt and adjust to their lack of legal status. Inevitably, there are contradictory accounts within each respondent’s perceptions. Although, for the most part, the narratives do not give the impression of failure, they show how being undocumented presents enormous personal and material challenges. Success, failure, disappointment, aspiration, adaptation, uncertainty and the ‘here and there’ existence are all interwoven in complex ways. Significantly, none of the young undocumented migrants are completely unfulfilled by their experiences. Despite the problems of their transient state, they still have aspirations and ambitions which transcend the pressures of everyday life and their uncertain status. Others found that life in the UK has simply grown on them and they enjoy living here with no pretentions about the future.

Coping and adjusting

Halyna has lived in the UK for eight years now. She speaks about her contradictory circumstances, and her capacity to adapt to the constraints of her situation:

Then I said, ‘No I want to be there [London] a bit more, want to be there, I like it so’… Simply… You so get used to this that sometimes it happens that I even forget that I’m undocumented. I now simply came to terms with that I simply can’t go and that’s all. I can’t travel, I can’t do this, I can’t do other certain things. By now, I got so used to it. You fight, develop this immunity that we now, how they say, whatever stick was thrown in [our] wheels [barrier], we always find a way out and pull it out

– Halyna, 26, F, Ukrainian

Celso and Eduardo have been in the UK for three and four-and-a-half years respectively. Both speak of the stressful process of adjustment and of drawing on their own resilience and relying on the experience of others from their own communities.

[At the beginning] I was close to suffering from depression. I think it didn’t happen because I was working. I was very strong. I asked God to give me strength to overcome this difficult moment. I think it was the six-month period. I think that in any country, any place, any person had this period of six months [when it’s difficult to adapt]

– Celso, 28, M, Brazilian

At the time when I was feeling like that, there was a friend of mine who had the same job and made the pizza at the time. He told me to be patient because he had gone through all of that and that it was part of my experience but that I’d be okay

– Eduardo, 23, M, Brazilian

Although it might be a generalisation, our narratives show that the Brazilian migrants seem to have the firmest sense of optimism. However, in some cases, ambitious plans have had to be sacrificed, mainly because of financial pressures. Brígido, who has been in the UK a little over three years, and Custódia who has only been here four months, sum up this attitude: Although generalising from the narratives, it is amongst the Brazilian migrants that the firmest sense of optimism can be detected – although even here, plans often have had to be sacrificed because of financial pressures. Brígido, who has been in the UK a little over three years, and Custódia, who has only been here four months, sum up this attitude:

My plan was to come… see what was possible

– Brígido, 30, M, Brazilian

When you think, wow, you think things can get better, man, each day. I think that’s what happened to me. Today it can get better. Tomorrow it can get better

– Custódia, 25, F, Brazilian

One coping strategy is to shrug off any resistance to the challenge presented by their undocumented status.

I feel myself very relaxed. Despite that I’m illegally, have no rights here, I believe that every person has their rights, legally or illegally. It doesn’t depend on status. Every person has some rights. And voice and right and… It’s always been like that and it’ll always be

– Uliana, 29, F, Ukrainian

The establishment of community support structures, notably the embedding of community-based organisations and faith groups, clearly plays its part:

It happened 4 years ago, you know. Now things are very different. I, I even think that nowadays it’s possible to find people who are more willing to help, maybe, with the bunch of things we see in the life of the migrants

– Berenice, 23, F, Brazilian

Faith provides support for some of the migrants, as the quotes by Daniel, who has been in the UK for eight months, and Terry, who has been in the UK for over three and a half years, show. Family responsibilities may dominate, almost to the point of despair in the case of Avashin, but also provide support.

Faith is the basis; faith is the basis of everything. For me, God is essential in anyone’s life. God and health

– Daniel, 28, M, Brazilian

Honestly I was just at home and mostly depressed. It was a really difficult time and… err… the truth about it that I had a survival guide. I’m a Christian and I really had to work with the Bible and praying, that really helps a lot

– Terry, M, 21, Zimbabwean

I mean my only will to live is my child. Because of her, I find the strength to stand up this life

– Avashin, F, 29, Kurd from Turkey

I am maintaining regular links with my immediate family at home, I think that is what keeps me sane Trish, F, 25, Zimbabwean

Many young undocumented migrants reveal how the process of adjustment and adaptation poses complex challenges to their identity and how their everyday life is constrained by their lack of status.

I simply want to live like other people

– Semen, 28, M, Ukrainian

All I want is something real, something with my own name on it, finger print everything and that way I will feel more comfortable and I will even work more harder.

– Kirsty, 22, F, Zimbabwean

You get damaged as long as you are undocumented. It has huge impact on your life

– Firat, 30, M, Kurd from Turkey

We don’t have [documents] but we try to behave in the best way as possible

– Berenice, 23, F, Brazilian

The uncertain status of the young undocumented migrants impacts on their psychological wellbeing and personal behaviour, with increasingly dysfunctional coping strategies.

I watch TV to discharge as well. I know that I am talking to myself and I am talking to the TV. I know one thing in psychiatry well, which is person get discharge if they talk. I talk to the TV if there is nobody in room. I ask questions and give answers as if a mutual conversation. I know this is the first step to insanity. I am aware of that. We try to diverse our energy in this way in order to avoid any sudden explosion… My drinking culture was not so frequent but now I drink arose. By drinking I am benumbing myself. In order to sleep I drink alcohol or drink milk and yogurt drink

– Amed, 29, M, Kurd from Turkey

In general, the fear of return affects the lives of Zimbabwean, Chinese, Kurdish migrants, underpinning narratives which are less optimistic and suggesting a greater sense of anxiety about their situation. It seems that the process of establishing oneself is becoming more difficult. The sense of freedom of earlier years is now curtailed by the increasing investigation and detection of undocumented immigrants. Andrea, who has been in the UK for a year and a half, and Diana, who has been here for just seven months, show their perceptions of a rapidly changing environment of surveillance.

It was much easier in the past. We could go out. There was more freedom. It wasn’t as difficult as it is today. We used to go out. There wasn’t this thing of going out and the police stopping you, this and that… but now it is very difficult. In the past, it was much better

– Andrea, 20, F, Brazilian

My plans haven’t changed. The situations have changed and have become more difficult, but [my plans] haven’t changed

– Diana, 28, F, Brazilian

Adaptation – strategies and challenges

Young undocumented migrants adopt a variety of mechanisms and strategies to support the longer term adaptation to their lack of status, while pursuing their life courses. Some of the participants cope in a pragmatic way – such as Fernando – while others need to have clear goals, even when recognising that their status makes this process a form of self-deception – such as Diana who has been in the UK for seven months.

Learn to change things [the difficulties] into fun, adventure, right. If you take it too seriously, it’s not worth it, but you have to take things with a pinch of salt. Be worth it, it’s not, but I stay here, right, until things get better or worse. Now, my hope is that things don’t get worse. I actually think that they are going to get worse or get better. They are not going to stay the way they are

– Fernando, 27, M, Brazilian

I need to have an objective. I need to have an aim, something to keep me here, even if it’s an illusion you know, something that I have in mind to make [my experience] less painful, so, like, I go to the library, spend a long time there, don’t feel like leaving

– Diana, 28, F, Brazilian

Overall, four themes dominate the way young undocumented migrants reflect on their circumstances and underpin their longer term strategies to adapt and develop their aspirations: getting documented; wanting to stay; adapting to changing social situations and personal aspirations, including the sense of life moving on; and feeling trapped. The desire to regularise status is the most frequently stated objective of young undocumented migrants. Most obviously, this is to remove the insecurity in their lives and to unblock the barriers to their future development. Pawlo, who has been here one year, offers a candid assessment of his situation without papers but perhaps he, and many other undocumented migrants, will find it hard to leave.

Plans changed in that respect that I would like to live here but as documented and achieve what I want. But it [the lack of status] ruins all this, gets on the way. If it’s not going to happen, I wouldn’t like to live here for long, undocumented

– Pawlo, 22, M, Ukrainian

Others live in stasis, like Dilan, hoping that things might change.

My family… told me that I am very emotional person and I would find it hard to cope with the life there. Then I have met few people here who told me that I should wait bit longer and there might be amnesty. If I go back I have no chance of coming back as well. Then I started thinking about all these issues… then decided to stay

– Dilan, 23, F, Kurd from Turkey

The motivations to get documented are varied. Some want to settle, as we shall see below. But others want to regularise their status to be able to save more in order to invest back home – a strong theme among Brazilian migrants in particular, exemplified by Carol who has been here a little over a year:

The aim is to stay three years to open a business [back home]… [but] everything has changed, I only think about these documents

– Carol, 24, F, Brazilian

For others, there is a strong feeling that their life chances and aspirations are blocked without documents.

I mean they live this life without documents, yes, they only have that minimum. Some are happy with that… They measure their life level by how much their wages are. I… I’m not satisfied by that. I want to develop as an individual… But it’s only possible if you have documents. Perhaps I think, yes, I ask how it’s possible to legalise in this country so that you can live here and develop

– Sergiy, 27, M, Ukrainian

We can’t move forward. We want to resolve immigration status and go ahead with plans that we have

– Halyna, 26, F, Ukranian

I would do a lot of things if I had documents. Maybe I had family and child or finished study. If you documented I would plan other things and you would plan other when you are undocumented. If I had documents I would plan to study but now I do not have such thing in mind but I think about how can I get permission to stay here, should I do arranged marriage or open a new case

– Botan, 29, M, Kurd from Turkey

Botan’s reflections on what he would do if he had documentation leads to a second theme which underscores the adaptation process for some, but by no means all, of the respondents. In short, becoming documented underpins the desire to settle in the UK. The narratives suggest that this was not the motivation for coming, as the evidence in Chapter 2 made clear. Rather, the impression is that living in the UK has changed the aspirations of the migrants as they adapt and find new opportunities and goals. At the same time, changing personal and domestic circumstances, discussed below, often provide a strong additional motivation. This is process of transition. Beatriz’s account illustrates how, with the course of time and changing life events, her stay has now extended to over four years. Celso and Semen intimate something of the inevitability, rather than the proactive choice, of wanting to stay in the UK, but also the transience of their lives here.

But I stayed here. I didn’t plan to stay here for long. I started to postpone my return. I hated it here, I hated it… I forced myself… to want to be here because of him (ex-boyfriend)… then after the second year… I started to like it here. I started to search for information… about citizenship… I always believed that sooner or later I’d regularise my situation, via legal means… and I stayed, stayed, time went by and I’m here until today

– Beatriz 24, F, Brazilian

Nowadays I like it here. Nowadays I tell everybody that I don’t want to leave, I really don’t. And the money isn’t the most important thing (Celso, 28, M, Brazilian). At the beginning I came to earn but with the time I… of course I wanted to go back home but I would postpone [departure] again and again… then, I didn’t want… let’s do another year… but now I simply want to live here like other people

– Semen, 28, M, Ukrainian

Changing social and domestic circumstances play a significant role in motives and aspirations for adapting. These conditions constitute an important decision point in the lives of young undocumented migrants. It is another dimension of the period and process of transition – of leaving one’s home and identity, but also building a new home. Often it is children – left behind or newly born in the UK – which produce critical points of transition. Augusto from Brazil has been in the UK for three years with his wife. As noted earlier, they left a daughter behind, but they now have a newborn son in the UK. Originally, he was intent on staying five years and then going back to university in Brazil.

I can cope but my daughter is growing up, she is demanding us. Sometimes money isn’t everything

– Augusto, 26, M, Brazilian

Conversely, some migrants feel that life is catching up and realise that marrying and settling down without documents is all but impossible. This period of transition, and the impression that life as an undocumented young migrant is a rite of passage nearing completion, is clearly summarised by Semen:

Now it is really the time to decide [what to do]. Time flies fast. Now I am 28. It is about the time to decide where to be and how, and [to think about] family. Back then, it was only ’full [steam] ahead’. Only forward, overstaying… Well, I don’t regret that I stayed. Because I spent my best years in the best capital in Europe. I didn’t have needs, feelings of isolation. I simply lived a normal life throughout my young years, a good life

– Semen, 28, M, Ukrainian

Some migrants reflect on life back home, and find that the prospect of return is no longer attractive in comparison with life changes in the UK. Comparing family life here with family life with his peers in Brazil, Eduardo expresses these dilemmas:

Of course… if I go back, it’s not going to be the same because their [friends] lives are different, you know… So, I know it’s not going to be the same. One of the things that keep me here is this… I’ve already got roots here… If I go back, I’m going to be by myself because they already have their lives, their families, so, what am I going to do in Brazil? My son is here. There is no reason for me to go back

– Eduardo, 23, M, Brazilian

Another way in which conditions back home prompt a period of transition comes when migrants reflect on wider economic and political circumstances.

Well, I came here, [I] thought year or two. To stay until all that [problems in Ukraine] get closed. Earn a bit for the beginning, you know. Then, [it] sucked you in. I simply was… scared to go [to Ukraine]. I simply didn’t feel like [going back]. Constantly hearing about how the life is there. Simply, you know, it gets frightening. I’ve not been there for so many years

– Levko, 24, M, Ukrainian

Educational aspirations constitute another element of this transition stage. Here, the lack of documentation becomes most pressing when young undocumented migrants seek to access higher education.

No my plans haven’t changed, I just keep hoping for the best otherwise my plans haven’t changed… Because even for this year I had put in my application for university and obviously clearing has come and gone and rejected me

– Suku, 30, F, Zimbabwean

A fourth manifestation of how life events are changed by the experience of coping and adaptation is articulated by some respondents who feel their aspirations are unattainable, or that they feel trapped. Either they are locked into a treadmill of earning money or their lives are blocked through lack of documentation as well as fear of return. Botan and Natalia summarise the grip exerted by the need to earn money to survive, while Antônio and Welat exemplify the way in which personal interrogation can come to dominate the lives of the migrants. To a large extent, they are all victims of circumstances out of their control.

I had a different thing in my mind. I did not want to start working and making money immediately. It was difficult to get the money I borrowed… and send it [home]. My real intension was to study. That did not happen

– Botan, 29, M, Kurd from Turkey

I planned that I’ll really earn something quickly and I’ll go back home. But because that money are not so easy to get here, all those dreams now are gone.

– Natalia, 26, F, Ukrainian

How is it possible to make any plans? What can you do? You don’t know what tomorrow brings

– Antônio, 23, M, Brazilian

Welat, whose application for refugee status has been refused, expresses the sense of desolation at unfulfilled aspirations and a wasted life.

This has stolen my two years. I was in the college two years ago at this time. I mean it was supposed to finish this year. My two years have gone, and the other two years will also be wasted. In total this makes four years. I lost four years

– Welat, 23, M, Kurd from Turkey

Reflections on a ‘failed project’ bring some young undocumented migrants full circle:

I was planning to live here freely. I could do something and have further education. I would get advanced in professions. I would live in better environment in better conditions. But after coming here and facing these consequences, I am really looking for my days in Turkey. We do not even dream here

– Serhado, 28, M, Kurd from Turkey

Making (and not making) plans for the future

Although none of the participants in this study had previously been deported from the UK, all of them mentioned some kind of fear of deportation as a central feature of their everyday lives. Many knew of friends, acquaintances or family members who had been deported or were awaiting deportation. It is the possibility of being arrested and deported at any time that shapes their daily routine and their aspirations for the future. Taffi, despite her nine years in the UK, explains how she still feels vulnerable and why:

I feel vulnerable, because… err… you just don’t know what will happen tomorrow, or you just don’t know how it’s gonna pan out in the end. You don’t know if you are going to end up getting your papers or if it’s never going to happen

– Taffi, 27, F, Zimbabwean

One of the several dimensions in which being undocumented is revealed in the everyday lives of migrants is through the uncertainties arising from the possibility of deportation and detention. However, fear of deportation does not affect everyone in the same way, due to their differing reasons for migration (See earlier in this chapter and Chapter 2), In this section, we explore dreams for the future and how they are affected by a lack of documents. A reluctance to make long and medium-term plans is evident in the narratives of our research participants, who directly relate the impossibility of talking about the future to the condition of being undocumented:

I have no status, how can I talk about the future?

– Fei Lin, 20, M, Chinese

My plans can’t change anything

– Semen, 28, M, Ukrainian

I really don’t have hopes while being illegal

– Avashin, 29, F, Kurd from Turkey

When you don’t have papers like me, it sort of makes all those little dreams that [you] had before become blurred. [You] sort of lose hope and you say to yourself, ‘Ok, now this hasn’t gone the way it was supposed to go, how long am I going to be sitting at home?’ As optimistic as you may try to be, the fact is that you’ll be going nowhere and it’s a very painful existence

– Terry, 21, M, Zimbabwean

Making plans for the future is a crucial part of being young. ‘The right to dream’, as one of our interviewees put it, or the possibility of imagining and planning the future seem to be denied to young undocumented migrants. Rather than concrete plans, we focused on migrants’ feelings about the future and on the impact of being undocumented on their hopes and ambitions. We also looked at migrants’ attempts to reclaim at least part of that unmet promise, and explored everyday epiphanies of the ‘enforced orientation to the present’ (De Genova 2002):

Right now my aim is just to succeed and do things in the shortest possible time [… ] which means taking in more work and trying to do a lot more than any other normal person would do (Colin, 23, M, Zimbabwe). I try to make the most of each day, like, what I can because there are many things that are not [available] because of this situation

– Berenice, 23, F, Brazilian

Thinking about the future does not make much sense to most of our interviewees. Making concrete long or even medium-term plans is difficult, if not impossible, given their circumstances. Life is precarious and full of uncertainty, so any plans can be swept away. Tracy and Serhado’s accounts offer vivid illustrations of the feeling of uncertainty that is entrenched in the lives of undocumented migrants, while Halyna talks about her optimism after living in the UK for over eight years.

Every day is a day of uncertainty because you could just be walking down the street and you could be taken from the street or taken from work by the immigration. [You] are always looking over your shoulder, so my hope for the future is that I don’t have to keep on living this lie I’m living

– Tracy, 29, F, Zimbabwean

I cannot do anything because I do not know what will happen. For example, I talk to you now, after this I will go to work and I do not know what will happen to me on the way. Maybe they will arrest me on the bus and send [me] back. I cannot make decisions about the future but I have dreams

– Serhado, 28, M, Kurd from Turkey

Just as I dreamed to get here, I dream to realise myself [here]. I still have this optimism that’ll achieve something, that I’ll have an opportunity to legalise [myself] here and get somewhere here, to fulfil my dream

– Halyna, 26, F, Ukrainian

But, for some, dreaming is seen as a counterproductive activity as it creates and nurtures aspirations that cannot be fulfilled.

Every day you see your life in danger. Actually, it’s not your life. Every day you see your dreams in danger, everything you dreamed of

– Custódia, 25, F, Brazilian

I am not in the situation to dream, because there is nothing to dream about. Because there is nothing you can do much… Having future plans like marrying, children depend on the money to afford these. You need to be legal in order to do this. If I am not legal, how can I have hopes? … I don’t even have the right to dream now

– Welat, 23, M, Kurd from Turkey

Assessing the experience

In this section, we explore how migrants assess and evaluate their experience in the UK. Their responses are discussed in two main subsections, in which we look respectively into what they think they have learned from the experience and if, all considered, it was worthwhile.

Lessons learned

After eight years in the UK, Semen has some very practical lessons to offer to those who want to live longer in this country:

If you want to live longer in this country, don’t cruise streets while drunk. Avoid… well, walking at night when you are drunk or look for trouble. Don’t shoplift in supermarkets and don’t avoid transport fairs. This is I am saying like safety measures. Don’t drive under the influence

– Semen, 28, M, Ukrainian

Surviving as an undocumented migrant in the UK is not easy. Being able to stand on one’s feet is essential, as a number of respondents pointed out. For Cihan, the biggest lesson he has learned is expressed in his sense of personal independence:

I can stand on my feet, achieving something. [… ] It taught me not to give the strings to anyone, you need to hold on to them, focus on your work

– Cihan, 23, M, Kurd from Turkey

Achieving independence and learning to rely on no one but yourself are themes that resonate, especially among female respondents.

You are your own boss here. That no one have the right to ‘point’ you and blame that you shouldn’t have done this or that. But [here] it’s not like at home, you are always told. Here you chose yourself, you making your choice

– Tatiana, 22, F, Ukrainian

Here’s the time the child cries and the mother doesn’t see it (laughs)

– Andrea, 20, F, Brazilian

Independence for some migrants is not a choice, but a necessity, as their experience as undocumented migrants has taught them not to trust other people:

I’ve learned not to be too trusting, to make decisions for myself. Not to sort of wait on others to do certain things and not to be bullied into doing certain things, because I think I was a bit gullible

– Suku, 30, F, Zimbabwean

I learned to walk with my own legs, don’t depend on anybody. Everything here, it’s a physical world, where people only want to take advantage of you, you have to be careful with people. Nobody helps nobody, I learned this.Fernando, 27, M, Brazilian

Our interviewees felt that they had learned many lessons, making them more mature, wiser, humbler and stronger. Experiencing hardship, exclusion and racism can be a shock, but can also make one ‘ready for any type of problem in life’ (Brígido, 30, M, Brazilian), giving you ‘skills for surviving in difficult circumstances’ (Guo Ming, 30, M, Chinese). Serhado (28, M, Kurd from Turkey) offers a powerful image, stating that in the UK, ‘you get like steel’. Daniel and Huadi Zhang feel they have learned a tough lesson – that as undocumented migrants, they have no rights and the only way to survive is to learn to keep your head down and be ‘humble’:

Here you learn to be humble, something that in Brazil you are not obliged to do and don’t do. Here you hear things and look down

– Daniel, 28, M, Brazilian

When they’re shouting you have to put up with it. You’d tell yourself to be careful next time. Try to work harder and talk less. Try to lower your head and focus on work. Try to work non-stop, and then they will not keep on shouting

– Huadi Zhang, 29, M, Chinese

For some interviewees, life in the UK means experiencing poverty and getting to know ‘the other side’:

It was good for me to get to know the other side – having to do cleaning, having to clean everything, so I learned to value these things. If I had to go back to Brazil and I had no opportunities or possibilities, I would do it. But being there, I’d complain about the government, this and that, all those things and would not do it. Now, I would

– Beatriz, 24, F, Brazilian

To process of learning to value things has, in some accounts, an anti-consumerist edge – Diana (28, F, Brazilian) states that she has ‘… learned not to be materialistic about things’. However, money is like an obsession for some undocumented migrants who cannot have a life in the UK because of their status:

Here people see only the money. If they were here legally, they would know that there is a life, not just money… But they know only money and they would drive their own brother or a sister to hysteria. They could report you for money. In London, money is the most important for us

– Tatiana, 22, F, Ukrainian

Chinese interviewees offer more practical and disenchanted responses to questions about lessons learned. Wendy Wang and Fu Chenming, for example, have learned:

Nothing in particular. I’ve just learned how to be a waitress. I’ve not learned much otherwise

– Wendy Wang, 24, F, Chinese

All you have learned may be how to ‘daza’… the miscellaneous duties like cleaning and so on… There are not many talking to you there… Each day you just see the same few faces

– Fu Chenming, 22, M, Chinese

Uliana’s advice offers an optimistic end to this section and reminds us how individual autonomy plays a crucial role in shaping migrant experiences, despite the structural constraints placed on them by their lack of documentation.

I always tell everyone that you simply shouldn’t be afraid. You always have to ask, listen, knock on the door, and they will open. That’s what I think. Otherwise, if you are afraid all your life because you don’t have anything, you won’t get anywhere at all

– Uliana, 29, F, Ukrainian

Was it worthwhile?

The life stories collected in this research offer a complex and varied picture of the everyday lives of young undocumented migrants in the UK – experiences of hardship, racism and exploitation, as well as psychological pressure and insecurity, are shared to a different extent by all participants. It seems, therefore, reasonable to ask if it has all been worth it and if, with the knowledge gathered in the UK, they would embark on such a daunting and challenging experience again. Most interviewees answer this question affirmatively and offered reasons. In this section we explore their responses and reasons. Among Brazilians, the majority respond affirmatively. Eduardo feels he belongs here, and for him the question has a straightforward answer: ‘of course it is worth it’ (Eduardo, 23, M, Brazilian). Bernardo and David echo Eduardo. Bernardo explains that ‘illegality’ offered him the only way for him to stay here and he has no regrets:

I don’t regret having stayed here all this time at all, even as an illegal because it was the only way, the only option I had, unless I had returned to Brazil without having achieved anything

– Bernardo, 26, M, Brazilian

David feels he is achieving his migration objective and therefore the experience is worth it:

My reason is mainly financial. I’m not here for any other reasons. Surely, it’s worth it. It’s so much so that if there’s somebody from Brazil asking me about coming: ‘If I come as a tourist, (should) I stay illegally?’ I will say, ‘You should. Come and stay illegally’

– David, 29, M, Brazilian

Overall, Kurdish migrants do not regret the decision to migrate to the UK, despite the hardship, because of the situation they have left behind and the freedom they have gained.

Not really. But our country is not something worth to live in as well. We had no protection for our life. At least I got my right to life here

– Firat, 30, M, Kurd from Turkey

I might have struggled for five years but even thinking about go back home scares me

– Avashin, 29, F, Kurd from Turkey

Kawa’s response is particularly interesting, because it shows how an undocumented migrant goes through different stages. Kawa has been in Britain for seven years now, and following an initial period of disorientation, he has finally learned how to cope with his trials and tribulations.

Life is very difficult, I mean I came here, there was no one, I didn’t know the language, but I say now I am happy. I don’t have regrets, but it has been a long time. At the beginning when I came here it was very difficult, at that time I regretted. I had stress, psychological problems, I experienced all of them. They caught me, Home Office made life not so easy for me but that is gone now, that is gone

– Kawa, 25, M, Kurd from Turkey

Being able to survive and cope becomes, for some migrants, a source of pride. It reinforces, somehow, a sense of the ‘epic’. A number of interviewees mention their intention to write an autobiography of their experience:

I have so many things written down, so many notes, that I might write a book. There won’t be so many people who will conquer as much as I have. I’ve been here for five years, three more, it’ll be eight years, so I might write a book after eight years

– David, 29, M, Brazilian

Sometimes I write these things down. I have electronic book on the net. I try to be discharge with these kinds of things. I am trying to find something about these things and write them down and saved them on my electronic book

– Amed, 29, M, Kurd from Turkey

A sense of an ‘epic’ journey also emerges in Necirwan’s account, as he explains why his experience was successful:

I think I have been successful. I have resisted. Maybe it’s illegal but I worked and stayed in this country. These might be crime. I managed to stand on my own feet. I have limited my life, but I managed to resist in this country and I continue to do so. Regardless social and financial limitation of the situation I continue to live this life. I hope that in one day this will be sorted

– Necirwan, 30, M, Kurd from Turkey

On the contrary, for Welat the balance between what he has gained and what he has lost tips towards the side of loss:

Who can bring those years back? If this state gave you residence or citizenship, would this bring back those four years? I mean if I were to go to Turkish state and spend my one year in the army, then I could have saved my three years

– Welat, 23, M, Kurd from Turkey

Ukrainian migrants, overall, regard their experience in positive terms – among some of them, there is a clear sense of achievement and of migration as an important stage of transition in their life:

It was a major plus, a major plus. Because you started by yourself and you achieve and achieve. Even to step over that language barrier. You step over, you saw a bit of that. Your worldview is completely different now. It’s worth it

– Natalia, 26, F, Ukrainian

Those who came here and can survive in these conditions will actually become a proper person in the future

– Dmytro, 22, M, Ukrainian

It’s a new level in my life. I think that I’m making a step. This life and this tempo, it’s harder. But I have to make these steps higher if I want to achieve something in my life. And, when it’s harder, right, I feel that I progress. [… ] You should hold on to your dream regardless different circumstances, when it’s hard or when it’s easy. You have to go towards your aim. You have to build it from little cells, from little bricks. And something will grow. You should never give up. You have to follow your dream

– Sergiy, 27, M, Ukrainian

Like Kawa earlier, Fedia shows how, after the initial uncertainty, once migrants begin to settle and to build social networks, their assessment of the experience can change:

Now it’s worth it. Currently. Because now you earn more money and now you have family and a child. It was worth it. Before, [I] came here, little money, earned a little, just for food and the rent, and like that. But now. It’s all worth it. Definitely. I think that every person that is doing something, striving, have some plans, is worth it

– Fedia, 29, M, Ukrainian

Levko shares a similar level of motivation to that of other Ukranians in the study. However, having been in the UK for eight years now, he has come to the conclusion that being undocumented means that he can’t achieve as much as he would like to, and feels like time is passing him by:

I really want to achieve in my life, to become something. The biggest thought that eats away at you is that you simply losing your time. That simply years will pass and that’s it

– Levko, 23, M, Ukrainian

Levko’s sense of wasting time is also shared by Tracy from Zimbabwe, whose poignant description casts some light on what it actually means to live as an undocumented migrant:

Our whole lives are consumed by visas and getting a stay and getting documented. And it’s stuff that when we were back home we never discussed or even thought about, so it just makes you more appreciative of the fact that maybe there’s a lot of other people who have been going through the same things for years, and I was just oblivious to their suffering because it didn’t affect me in any way

– Tracy, 29, F, Zimbabwean

Among Zimbabwean migrants, positive and negative views are more balanced. The following quotes illustrate these two opposing positions. Theo, who has been in the UK since he was 13, feels the experience was not worth it:

It’s just a drag, it’s long, it’s too much of fuss to be a British Citizen and they don’t even treat!… err… even if you do get it, they won’t even treat you the same because you’re still black

– Theo, 19, M, Zimbabwean

Kirsty has been in the UK since she was a teenager and has grown up here:

I came when I was 15 and this is like a home for me already. I don’t have anybody back home that I can call my relative or that I can call a family. [… ] I’ve been in Britain for quite a long time and I just really wish I could be here forever because I’ve grown up here

– Kirsty, 22, F, Zimbabwean

The measure of the success for most Chinese interviewees is their ability to earn money:

It’s very tiring, but I think it’s worthwhile. At least I earn money by offering my labour. I didn’t earn the money doing nothing. I earn money with both of my hands, I earn money with my labour. So every time I get my wage, it’s also my happiest moment

– Yao Xiaomin, 25, F, Chinese

Yes, I have actually thought of this question. After coming here I thought: had I been able to earn 5,000 Yuan (£350) a month, I’d rather stay in China, instead of coming here

– Mei Chen, 24, F, Chinese

 The brief dialogue that follows reveals mixed motivations and, together with the previous quote, offers some insight into the kind of dilemmas being undocumented carries.

Interviewer: Do you regret coming here? Mei Chen: I don’t actually regret it. No. I: So over the two years in the UK, you don’t feel regret, and on the whole you still feel that it’s worthwhile coming here? MC: But I do think I have wasted a lot. I: You mean you’ve wasted time? MC: Firstly, I have not done lots of work yet. I have spent most of my time on the internet. Secondly, I have not done a lot of study either. Compared to many of my friends in China, I feel that I am lagging behind. [… ] No feeling of achievement. I still feel that I haven’t made any progress. I think I even have slipped back. I: You also said that although it had been hard on you, you still felt it was worth coming to the UK? MC: Yes. I have travelled half the globe

– Mei Chen, 24, F, Chinese

Finally, the words from Guo Ming below, who came to the UK when he was already in his late twenties, reveal a sense of futility: I don’t think it’s worthwhile. But I’m powerless to do anything about it

– Guo Ming, 30, M, Chinese


Living a life where planning for the future is almost impossible leaves young undocumented migrants anchored in the present and coping with a condition of extreme precariousness, as well as dealing with the stigma of ‘illegality’. Learning to be invisible to the ‘gaze’ of the state and society are all part of the experience and everyday lives of undocumented migrants in the UK.

Earlier chapters have shown how young undocumented migrants try to sustain and develop ‘normal’ lives and livelihoods, situated in a context which is constrained by their lack of documentation. Going beyond these accounts, this chapter has sought to define and illustrate the ‘condition’ of being undocumented, from their own words and experiences. What becomes evident is their double life, led constantly on the margins.

Being undocumented and marginalised shapes migrants’ identity. For some, it comes close to crushing their spirit, and yet there is resilience as well. Suku, for example, had been in and out of detention for almost a year, but has now been in the UK for more than eight years.

The sense of a loss of hope and of a life frozen in time is also captured in Colin’s account of his life being, ‘… like you are in a limbo’ (Colin, 23, M, Zimbabwean), and by Tracy who says, ‘Unless my papers get sorted… I am just stuck’ (Tracy, 29, F, Zimbabwean). Living as an undocumented migrant can lead to denial, to oneself as well as to others, as we have seen. But it is impossible to escape the stigma of being undocumented and the dehumanising experience that accompanies this denial.

In this chapter, we have explored migrants’ dreams for the future and how they are affected by their lack of documents. The reluctance to make long and medium- term plans is evident in the narratives of our research participants, who directly relate the impossibility of talking about the future to being undocumented. Finally, we have discussed how migrants evaluate their experiences in the UK and the lessons they have learned. The question we ask is a straightforward one: all considered, was it worth it? Positive responses outnumber negative ones, although the reasons vary among the different national and ethnic groups.