Chapter 2: Migration and youth - Motives, expectations and circumstances


This chapter explores the complex interplay between being young, migration and being an undocumented migrant. These inter-relationships manifest themselves in several different ways in the lives of the interviewees. The narratives clearly demonstrate the ways in which being young and being a migrant and, more specifically, being an undocumented migrant vary considerably. One very important factor in understanding the differences between young undocumented migrants are the circumstances and reasons for their migration. This revolves mostly around their country of origin and the ways in which the pre-migration social, economic and political lives and experiences of young people intersect with this. Age and sex are much less important in terms of understanding the complexities between migration and youth. This chapter focuses on five main areas: the circumstances and motives for migration, the reasons for coming to the UK and the information that young people had before arrival, being young as an incentive for migration and being young as a ‘reason’ for undocumented migration.

Circumstances and motivations for migration

The reason or reasons why young people migrated, which for some are closely linked to the political and/or economic situation in their country of origin, affect their everyday lives. The reasons manifest themselves in the migrants’ fears about being caught and deported, and in their aspirations and hope for life in the UK, as subsequent chapters will demonstrate. It is for this reason that the migrants’ country of origin was an important explanatory variable. Age and gender are less significant in understanding people’s motives for migration, as well as their aspirations and everyday lives too. This section explores the situation that led young people to migrate to the UK and how the decision was made.

Among Zimbabweans, the decision was often made by parents or was a collective family decision. For many, the political problems in Zimbabwe were the main reason for leaving, especially in cases where the individual was directly engaged in political activity or family members had been involved, indirectly threatening the safety of the young person. In the case of Bob, who had been involved in information dissemination for the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), and had been tortured in Zimbabwe, the decision to leave was simply,

‘… because I feared for my life. I was arrested several times’

– Bob, 31, M, Zimbabwean

 Around half of the Zimbabwean interviewees came to join a family member who was already in the UK, with seven coming as teenagers. For a few, including Theo and Ray who came to the UK as young teenagers, aged twelve and thirteen, the decision was not their own, but was made by others. Theo’s mother had been ill and moved to the UK to obtain necessary medication, which was unavailable to her in Zimbabwe. Theo noted that, ‘I just wanted to be where my mum was’ (Theo, 19, M, Zimbabwe). For Ray, who was 21 at the time of the interview and had been in the UK for eight years, migration was also his mother’s decision, but was based on the situation in Zimbabwe:

Well it wasn’t my decision was it, I was 13, it was clearly not my decision. But I understand the reasons behind it… I think my mum had a vision, there was problems, clearly it wasn’t an environment conducive to us being there politically, it just… you have to look at the country to look at how unstable it is… I can understand the reasons for us coming here.

– Ray, 21, M, Zimbabwean

The ongoing political and economic crisis makes return unfeasible for many young people from Zimbabwe and this permeates their experiences, as it also does for young Kurdish people.

For Kurdish young undocumented migrants, the discrimination they experienced, coming from a minority group – such as police oppression and violence against them and fear due to their political activities and views – was evident in their reasons for leaving. Amed left to ‘escape’ and went on to say that, ‘The deep state of Turkey had issued our death sentence’ (Amed, 29, M, Kurd from Turkey). Among some young men, avoiding military service was also an important reason, because they knew that if they were in the Turkish army they would be stationed in Kurdistan.

I don’t want to go to military service. I don’t want to serve as soldier to Turkish republic… You know the situation in Turkey. There is policy of the state to destroy the Kurds. At the moment they have huge military operations in the east Anatolia. They are my people. When I go to army they will ask me to kill my people. You would go to army to defend your country but they will put me in a position to fight against my people. If I need to protect or defend something I would go to defend Kurdistan… They would send you to Kurdistan to be soldier there. People from my hometown they all went to Kurdistan to do the military service. They all engaged in clashes. It was the same for all of them. This what was going to happen to me as well

– Ciwan, 28, M, Kurd from Turkey

Firat, who has been in the UK for seven years and was politically active prior to his migration, felt that he had to leave suddenly. For Firat, avoiding military service was also part of his motive for migration. He said,

How I can fight against my own people? How can you fire bullets against your own people?

– Firat, 30, M, Kurd from Turkey

 One young Kurdish woman, Jiyan, who was 23 and had been in the UK for seven years, had a completely different reason for coming to the UK – she had received a proposal for an arranged marriage from a distant relative. When explaining her decision, she relates how she did it with ‘a childish mind’ and how she didn’t want to miss such an opportunity.

Chinese young people were much more economically motivated than Zimbabweans and Kurdish young people. For the most part, migration had been the personal decision of the young person and was based on economic considerations. Some wanted to help support their families, as summed up by Fu Chenming, a young Chinese man who has been in the UK for less than two years.

Wages there can’t allow you to make ends meet easily… I wanted to come so my parents didn’t have to work so hard

– Fu Chenming, 22, M, Chinese

While there is a trend for young people from Fujian Province to migrate, one of the problems these young people face is the huge debts they accrue to pay the ‘snakeheads’ to smuggle them out of China. Gao Zeng, who has been in the UK for two years and eight months, reflects on his situation in the following quote:

I thought I’d better go abroad to earn money. But the money spent for me to smuggle myself out was quite something, it was already something in the range of 300,000 Yuan [roughly £20,000]. I had to borrow bits and bobs… bits and bobs and I haven’t paid back the debts yet.

– Gao Zeng 24, M, Chinese

This level of debt permeates the experiences, choices and aspirations of young Chinese migrants in the UK and is evident in many of their narratives throughout the report.

Ukrainians were, for the most part, motivated to migrate by economic factors and made the decision to migrate themselves. Thus, Rita did not describe joining her husband in England as her main motivation, nor that she was looking to settle in the UK, although she has now been here for more than three years. Instead, she said:

It was simply to earn and return. Return home. To earn something and come back.

– Rita, 29, F, Ukrainian

For a few, learning English, having an adventure, fulfilling a long-held dream and travel were also the reasons for their migration. Halyna, who had been in the UK for more than eight years, describes her dreams of coming to the UK,

… since I was in 5th class, I told my English teacher ‘I’ll go to England’… I just turned 18 and I came here.

– Halyna, 26, F, Ukrainian

In contrast to the other country-of-origin groups, the migration circumstances of young people from Brazil were, on the whole, socially motivated rather than politically or economically motivated. Some came to join a partner, a relative or with friends. Custódia who had only been in the UK for four months at the time of the interview describes her experiences:

London for me wasn’t a dream. It wasn’t my dream. But it’s not by chance either… I ended up having a relationship, a cool friendship with a crowd who always talked about living abroad. All of them, at the time, between 20, 22 years old, let’s say about 3 years ago. ‘Oh, I want to go (abroad). I want to visit this and that place!’ You know the dream of university students for after they finish their courses and things like that. Suddenly, life shows you your path, your route, and I became very close to this girl my classmate. We lived in the same town, we shared plans and then she said ‘Let’s go to London. Let’s go to London. It’s cool there.’

– Custódia, 25, F, Brazilian

For others migration was an adventure; it allowed exposure to another culture and for some enabled the learning of a new language. A few came with the specific reason of developing skills or working to save money, such as Celso:

I came with the aim of working and studying, learn the English language you know.

– Celso, 28, M, Brazilian

The choices made by Brazilians were much more individualistic, and were not family decisions or household survival strategies. As a consequence, Brazilians are not fearful of return in the way that Zimbabwean, Chinese and Kurdish young people are. Like Ukrainians, Brazilian young people are more economically self- motivated in terms of their migration, but, unlike Ukrainians, the social dimension of joining a partner or having an adventure is prevalent for them. These differences have a very real affect on the lives of young undocumented migrants from the five groups in this study.

 Reasons for coming to the UK: choice or chance

The data from the interviews and testimonies suggests that for most young undocumented migrants, coming to the UK was a deliberate choice and a targeted destination. The main reasons for migrating were perceptions of the economic opportunities available, because friends were going, family members were already in the UK, or because it had always been an aspiration to come to the UK to experience the language and culture. For some, perceptions about cultural freedom, the asylum system and human rights were motivating factors. A minority would have preferred a different destination and the UK was their second choice or the UK was just more feasible to get to, or it was the destination selected by smugglers, so it was just where they happened to end up.

The diversity of factors motivating the decision to come to the UK is, like causes and motivations for migration, strongly nuanced by noticeably different tendencies between the five national groups. Among most Chinese, Kurdish and Ukrainian migrants, the UK was their preferred choice. For Zimbabweans, especially those who came as teenagers, it was a family member who decided and the young person had little choice in the decision; kinship ties facilitated the journey, so it was an obvious choice. The impetus for choosing the UK among Brazilians was often because of friends or partners, and for others an interest in the language and culture. Antônio, for example, came to the UK after his friend had decided to come, while Bernardo was at a point in his life when he wanted a change and already had a friend in London:

‘Hey mate, I’m going’, he said. ‘I’m going to London’… Then based on what he told me, he told me he was coming, I thought, would it be okay? Then I started to check it as a possibility and saw that it had many advantages and ended up coming.

– Antônio, 23, M, Brazilian

I used to play football in Brazil. I even played professionally for a period of time. But when I was 19–20 I felt that I wasn’t progressing anymore. I was not having… er… financial return. I was about 20 and still depended on my parents. I wasn’t pleased with that situation so I had a friend who was already here and… er… he gave me this idea. I always had this intention of living abroad, especially in England in consequence of the English influence on me in terms of music and everything else, so I always had… er… I don’t know, maybe not live here, but I always felt I wanted to come here. That’s what ended up happening. I had the opportunity, I wasn’t happy with football any longer, even personally I wasn’t happy with what I was doing and when the opportunity came, I didn’t think twice and came (laughs).

– Bernardo, 26, M, Brazilian

While for some Brazilians the ‘choice’ of the UK suggests spontaneity, for the Kurds and Chinese the decision was more deliberate, although for different reasons. For Kurds, safety and the hope of asylum are never far from the surface of their narratives, reflecting the specific conditions which prompt their migration. They perceived the UK, compared with other European countries, as a fair country to lodge their claims – a perception, as we shall see, that is neither born out by their information before arrival nor their experience here. Amed and Avashin typify a number of Kurdish participants:

I came to this country because I had political problems. I thought England is more honest on this issue… We thought England would not send us back. England would not give us to Turkey. We thought that we can set up a new life in England. We came with this idea in mind

– Amed, 29, M, Kurd from Turkey

Because they [i.e. Britain] have human rights and a better government. It’s not like Turkey, if there was freedom and some independence we wouldn’t have to come here.

– Avashin, 29, F, Kurd from Turkey

For other Kurds, the human rights situation was just as compelling as a motive to leave, although the specific attraction of the UK was less immediate. Ciwan started in Germany simply because, ‘It was easy for the smuggler to get a visa to Germany’. However he was told that Germany had changed its asylum policy towards Kurds, and so the UK was recommended. Likewise, Necirwan had wanted to stay in Belgium, but was advised to go elsewhere:

I wanted to stay in Belgium but I was told that, the rules are stricter and conditions are difficult to stay in Belgium for somebody like me… Then I was advised to think about France and the UK or any other country. I had some friends with me and we said UK. Then we have started looking for option to get to the UK. Three days later we were in the UK.

– Necirwan, 30, M, Kurd from Turkey

I did not plan to come to UK after leaving Turkey. I was planning to stay in Germany. Then my uncle told me that it would be impossible to get asylum in Germany and within the 20 days I have left Germany. He told me that here is better for me to go to the UK.

– Ciwan, 28, M, Kurd from Turkey

The immediacy of the hope of sanctuary was reinforced by a wider sense of what the UK had to offer and a belief that it would provide an environment of stability and freedom as the following quote demonstrates:

We see [the UK] as a place where we would not lose our identity or culture.

– Necirwan, 30, M, Kurd from Turkey

Nearly all the Chinese young undocumented migrants who were interviewed wanted to come to the UK and planned it as a destination. Positive economic conditions, including the exchange rate at the time of migration, and the possibility of work (coupled with social networks) explain their choice of the UK. The following responses capture the financial considerations, which seem to be the overriding reasons for migration among young Chinese people:

Here in the UK, it is easier to earn money than in China. Salaries here are higher… because of the high exchange rates… each month you get roughly £1,000; if you send it home, you get over 10,000Yuan.

– Fang Ping, 22, F, Chinese

At that time, although lots of people were going abroad, most went to other countries. Those leaving for the UK were not so many. It was thought that since not too many were going to the UK, finding work should be easier. It would be easier to find work in the UK.

– Jessy Chang, 21, F, Chinese

Pre-existing social networks are important in the Chinese community and are influential in decision making. In Chapter 4, we see the ways in which these social networks have been crucial in terms of job search strategies and employment, but also in terms of the ways in which young people survive during periods of unemployment. In the following quote, Yao Xiamin describes how social networks transfer into different geographical contexts:

Whenever some guest comes to a family, everyone would show them hospitality. So when they meet in a foreign land, people would understand that it hadn’t been easy for them to have reached this stage. So when you call for help with looking for work, normally they would be quite willing to assist; because everyone has come illegally [and therefore understands how difficult it had been].

– Yao Xiamin, 25, F, Chinese

For a minority, other factors played a part in their decision making, such as the perception of the UK as a, ‘… country that was better for us’ (Meixin He, 24, M, Chinese), and that, ‘… everybody says human rights are respected in the UK’ (Gao Ming, 30, M, Chinese). Smuggling affected some people’s destination, although it is important to note that this was neither exclusive to the Chinese community, nor did it seem to be the principal means of transit and entry (see Figure 1).

We were trying moving along… whichever country that might be… We kind of had no definitive destination.

– Meixin He, 24, M, Chinese

Two young Chinese migrants, Yao Xiamin and Fu Chenming, would have preferred to go to Japan, but were unable to obtain visas. Yao Xiamin spent six months in Ireland on a student visa, although she worked rather than studied while in Ireland, before coming to the UK. She paid around £6,700 for assistance in making the journey between Ireland and the UK. She describes her experiences as follows:

At that time most of my friends and school mates had gone abroad, so I wanted to go abroad, too. I tried to apply for a visa to go to Japan, but my application was rejected. I wanted to go to Japan because I had relatives there… We had originally intended to come to study in the UK. The original intended destination was the UK, but this was not granted. So we went to Ireland… I had been in Ireland for about half a year. Then there was someone planning to organise a group of people to come to the UK. This person had come with us from China, so she told me about this.

– Yao Xiamin, 25, F, Chinese

Yao Xiamin was clear about wanting to come to the UK, after Japan, rather than elsewhere:

Because firstly, the exchange rates of the Pound is higher. Secondly, here in the UK, there are quite a few people from Fujian already living here.

– Yao Xiamin, 25, F, Chinese

For most young undocumented migrants from the Ukraine, England was a planned destination because of the earning potential. Fedia says that, ‘I knew before that in England you can earn money… ’(29, M, Ukrainian). Sergiy had always been interested in England but would have preferred America. It was a pragmatic decision to travel to England:

To go unofficially, it was only possible to go to Britain. It was simple to go to Britain. Basically I liked Britain too. And it was more realistic to come here.

– Sergiy, 27, M, Ukrainian

Among Zimbabweans, the UK was the preferred destination, but this was really a consequence of pre-existing family ties. This is exemplified by the young Zimbabwean migrants who came to the UK as teenagers, such as Theo who arrived aged 12 and ‘did not know anything because I was a kid’ (Theo 19, M). For most Zimbabweans, the UK wasn’t a dream but just an obvious choice. Colin illustrates this when he says:

Personally I never really thought about it. I knew I had family here, but I never really said to myself, ‘I want to come to Britain.’

– Colin, 23, M, Zimbabwean

What information did young undocumented migrants have?

Some young undocumented migrants prepared themselves with information about the UK. However, what is most evident in the narratives is the lack of information many young people had prior to arrival. Those who came to the UK as teenagers tended to know virtually nothing about the country prior to arrival, though some who arrived in their 20s were equally uninformed. Ray, Theo and Welat had been in the UK since they were teenagers while Antônio, Bertiz and Serhado arrived in their twenties.

Didn’t have a clue, didn’t have a clue. I just knew it was London.

– Ray, 21, M, Zimbabwean

I knew the Queen lived here. I knew there were 5 countries including Northern Ireland and Ireland that all together formed the United Kingdom. I knew about London, that it was the capital city.

– Theo, 19, M, Zimbabwean

… didn’t know anything. Because I was 16–17.

– Welat, 23, M, Kurd from Turkey

I didn’t have information about how to be here legally, about work or anything. I was completely unaware of all of this.

– Beatriz, 24, F, Brazilian

I came without knowing anything. It was a real adventure.

– Antônio, 23, M, Brazilian

I did not know much about England. I can say that I came to [the] unknown.

– Serhado, 28, M, Kurd from Turkey

Others relied on selective hearsay accounts – often from friends and family members, as the quotes from Firat and Dmytro show – and these accounts often resonated with their aspirations or expectations for a better life, or seeking asylum. The reality, however, was often different, as the quotes from Berenice and Levko demonstrate:

My brother in law asked me if I want to come here and he can help me… He told me that I will have to apply for asylum when I get here. He said he did the same thing as well. I did not have any information on this country.

– Firat, 30, M, Kurd from Turkey

My cousin was here three years before me for about half a year. He was here on visa, picking strawberries on the farm. When he came back, he told me, in general, how it is possible to earn and how the life is here; about how people live here and how people [back] home just exist. I become attracted and wanted even more to come here.

– Dmytro, 22, M, Ukrainian

The information that arrives there [in Brazil] is like this, ‘so-and-so has bought a house, so-and-so bought a car, so-and-so works for an hour and earns R$50,00, works one day and earns R$300,00’. In Brazil, it’s a month salary. So it’s the information you hear. Then you only understand part of it. You don’t realise that from those R$300,00, you have to pay for rent, which is very expensive and everything else, you know.

– Berenice, 23, F, Brazilian

When I arrived, I knew that there is a river Thames but I imagined its waters are as clear as in the swimming pool. [Laughs]. When I saw [those] logs [and] wheels [floating] I was in shock.

– Levko, 24, M, Ukrainian

Victoria, who has been in the UK for three years, had been told by a friend how hard it was in the UK, although this did not deter her from coming and experiencing the reality herself.

I knew this girl. Here in England, we met only once and then [shortly] she went back home [to Ukraine]. Basically I knew very, very little. All I knew, I knew it from her. She explained to me how to live here… When I was at home she used to tell me it was very difficult here. Very difficult mentally, very difficult in every aspect. Of course I didn’t believe, just like everyone else in Ukraine. We live in some sort of illusion where we build ourselves different worlds where we would go and everything will be under our feet. But in reality, nothing you gain here comes easy.

– Victoria, 24, F, Ukrainian

In some of the narratives, the impetuousness of young people, a willingness to take risks and the adventure of migration comes through. Taffi came to the UK aged 18 and had heard that it offered many opportunities although, as she says, ‘I was thinking things like ‘how much is a Playstation?’’. Taffi elaborates on her feelings and excitement:

When you are young you just get excited, you know, you’re going to a new place, coz, you know, it’s like someone whose grown up in this country and if he was given an opportunity to go to a new place at the age 18… just the excitement of going to see what it is like, I think it was the same for me, just the excitement of seeing what the place was like.

– Taffi, 27, M, Zimbabwean

Those who proactively searched for information did so from a wide variety of sources though, again, relatives and friends are the most common source – sometimes in the country of origin, sometimes from those already in the UK or who had been here and, for Brazilians, travel agents play an important role:

My mother and brother were here. Our relatives told us to come here and apply for asylum… We wanted to know about the life here. When we were asking them how is life there, they told us.

– Dilan, 23, F, Kurd from Turkey

I did speak to my brother a lot, but I didn’t come to this country just for the financial side. I know the life style was better, because I spoke with my uncle.

– Cihan, 23, M, Kurd from Turkey

Before I came here, the travel agent… said… many times he’d tell me… when I got here, it was exactly how he said, I met people. Interviewer: Do they give you information about immigration, what you have to say at the airport? Celso: Exactly, all of that. Everything you can imagine that, that they can do for you to enter the UK, they do it.

– Celso, 28, M, Brazilian

However, there is also the impression that there is little evidence of detailed information being provided. Instead it is as if reassurance, or perhaps implicit consent, is being requested:

… someone who had been in the UK… he was able to build a house back home. I heard of this and asked my dad to see if there’s any way I could go. My dad then found the snakeheads and talked to them.

– Jessy Chang, F, 21, Chinese

I think it’s a lot through friends and family. Like I can come here and my aunt can tell me, you know, have you tried this? Have you tried that?

– Taffi, M, 27, Zimbabwean

Regardless of the sources, the information is rarely collected in a systematic or careful way. There is little attempt to verify information. Much is selective and taken on trust, and the young migrant is often left in a confused state.

There were about two or three people who had been here and returned, so they told me many things. In fact, it didn’t help, it made things very confusing… but… The travel agents, we ask and they tell us, more or less what happens, what was happening.

– Eduardo, M, 23, Brazilian

Unexpectedly, the internet is cited very infrequently as an information source, although this may be because this was not a prompted question. Where it was used, it played a significant role:

He [an agent] gave me 30% information, 70% I got from the internet. I got into those groups, whatever, London something on the internet, where people, like, backpackers, I went to the internet and searched these topics. At the time, there were loads of people coming here, so, like, whenever you got into these sites, like, it was 100% help [that you’d get], so, everything that I found out, before I came I already knew.

– Daniel, 28, M, Brazilian

Being young as an incentive for migration

In this section, young people’s narratives about their reasons for migration are explored to understand the ways in which being young contributed to their decision making. For most young people, aspirations for a better or safer life for themselves and/or their families was the main motivating factor in migration although, as we will see, this varied between and within country of origin groups.

For some young people, migration marks a rite of passage to a different role in their family and in society in general. While migration can bring independence and autonomy and, for some, alleviates the social pressures to comply with the expectations and customs of the country of origin, it also means responding to a new set of expectations and brings new economic responsibilities towards the family as Xiao Xue illustrates:

I want to work here for a few years and earn some money first. I can’t go home just yet. You’ll lose face if you go home empty handed.

– Xiao Xue, 21, M, Chinese

The following examples illustrate different ways in which migration marks a transition to a different social role and becomes a crucial moment in the way interviewees define their social position, identity and aspirations.

Berenice left Brazil when she was only 17 years old and got married in the UK. Migration and marriage are intermingled and define a new stage of her life:

I came here and got married. That’s when I started to live as a married person, but sharing the house with other people… In Brazil, when I worked, for more that I worked, but always my mother is the one who was responsible for the water [bills], the electricity [bills], things like this, you know. But here, it’s me, like, me and my husband, we have our responsibilities and it finished. We don’t have that thing of spending money on superfluous things, things that I don’t know.

– Berenice, 23, F, Brazilian

Pawlo and Zhu Chen are recent arrivals in the UK having been here for just over a year and just over two years respectively. Their stories show how migration can result in a new found independence as well as self-reliance.

In Ukraine, young people in my age [are] not so independent, depend on somebody. Here… If I can provide for myself, means that I don’t depend on someone. It’s not like that back home. Because, even after graduating, the youth don’t have a job that they can completely provide for them, not even basics; all the time they depend on parents.

– Pawlo, 22, M, Ukrainian

Once you decide to come, life has to be tiring. Back in China you’d stay with your parents and if there’s anything that makes you not happy about it, you can just go home. Here in the UK you can’t just say, ‘I’m not happy, I want to go home’

– Zhu Chen, 25, F, Chinese

In other accounts, migration has opened up a new world of possibilities. Levko, a young Ukrainian who has been in the UK for around eight years, talks with optimism about how migration has changed his life:

Since I was 14 years old, I can say that I lived without parents. Never asked mother or father for money… I don’t know… I was brought up by the street. You know [how it is] like, young guys, racket, sort outs and all that… And, I’m very, very, very glad… Grateful to the Lord that I’ve got to England… I became really a workaholic. I have my own dream. I’ve changed very, very, very much. Touch wood, [changed] to the better side as far as I think. Everything lies ahead

– Levko, 24, M, Ukrainian

In general, those who came to the UK in their late 20s had more specific reasons for their migration, with migration acting as a functional step towards the realisation of concrete plans. Plans included learning a new skill, accumulating enough capital to set up a business in the country of origin, to secure a house for the family, or paying for the education of younger siblings. All in their late twenties, Brígido has been in the UK just over three years, Diana for seven months and Huadi Zhang for just over a year. Each one had very specific migration projects:

If it were not for my objective [to pursue my career] I wouldn’t have come, especially in the conditions of an illegal person

– Brígido, 30, M, Brazilian

I went with the idea that I’d go, stay for a year, save money, return [to Brazil] and when I returned in a year’s time, I’d be able to purchase in Brazil the things I want and make my plans come true

– Diana, 28, F, Brazilian

My concern is how to let my relatives have a slightly better life; because my family back home is really very poor

– Huadi Zhang, 29, M, Chinese

Earning money, accumulating capital and gaining access to material goods otherwise out of reach are important motivations for many interviewees, although the ‘better life’ to which some young undocumented migrants aspire is not just about material goods and money. Material wealth is seen as a way of achieving freedom and autonomy, to grow as a person and realise one’s potential. Both Semen and Dmytro came to the UK to earn money, but for both of them their rationale was more complex:

I have the money now. I can afford to by an ice cream or have a beer and not to think whether or not I will have something left for the next week. You see. In that aspect we were young people. We wanted to live, work and have simply a normal life. Not just existence, counting every kopiyka [penny] but to feel yourself a free person

– Semen, 28, M, Ukrainian

Firstly, I wanted to earn and secondly, I wanted to see how everything is here, how does it look… Maybe there is a feeling that I have to prove something to myself or… Like, ‘will I manage it?’… I am that sort of a person who sets targets for myself and tries to achieve

– Dmytro, 22, M, Ukrainian

Conversely, young undocumented migrants who migrated in their early 20s or late teens were motivated less by concrete plans or objectives and more by the wish to take control over their lives. When Halyna came to the UK she was only 18 years old. Since childhood she had dreamt of leaving Ukraine and exploring the world. When asked about her migration plans, she replied:

They were not plans; it was just like, how can I say, youth’s dreams, imaginations. It wasn’t like an adventure. It was like… I don’t know. Everyone plans their lives, everyone wants to their life in a certain way. You see your life and you go that direction… My plans were more to go and realise myself. Understanding myself. Just like I realised what I did about myself there by the time I become 18 years [old], what I’ve achieved by that age, let it be a senior school age and a university age, how I could see myself in a different country. Something like this

– Halyna, 26, F, Ukrainian

The following examples, as the previous ones, illustrate how abstract the motivations for migration can be, but also how open and ready young people can be to changing their plans once abroad, responding to what they find and their experiences. Both Fang Ping and Uliana came to the UK when they were 20 years old and express the positive aspects of leaving their country of origin:

Going abroad is an opportunity to see a bit of things outside. You’d know what the outside world is like. Had you stay at home all your life, all you know is China. Don’t you agree? But once you have gone abroad, you’ll know that, ‘Ah… actually the world is like this!’ Don’t you agree? So at the end of the day, it’s good to have come here. You can see lots of things and experience more

– Fang Ping, 22, F, Chinese

I love to travel and that was what I wanted at that time. To earn some money? I can’t say. I simply thought of re-paying what I borrowed. But after that, I thought that I stay for a year and will go home. Well, then it happened that I liked to be [here].

– Uliana, 29, F, Ukrainian

Among Kurdish and Zimbabwean interviewees, migration is not just a search for a better life; it is more often a search for a safer place away from ethnic discrimination, police violence and political oppression. For young Kurdish migrants, migration becomes also an opportunity for developing and expressing their Kurdish identity.

Rather than looking for new life, my reason to come to this country is my life was in danger.

– Amed, 29, M, Kurd from Turkey

I can live here freely. I can live as I want. I can defend my Kurdishness. I am defending that here.

– Rojda, 22, F, Kurd from Turkey

There are two more observations to make in relation to migration decision-making and youth. First, in some cases participants recall the decision to migrate as one taken light-heartedly, without really thinking through all the implications of the decision or planning. Second, reflecting on this process, they express surprise and astonishment for how easily they made a choice and found themselves in a new country. For example, Pat came to the UK when her brother asked her if she would look after his son while he and his wife studied. Pat only planned on staying a year and had left her boyfriend, who she thought she might marry, in Southern Africa. Seven years later she is still in the UK and is now married with a young family. Below, she describes the spontaneity of the decision to come to the UK:

It was a surprise, he just asked me… do you want to go to the UK and I said when? And he said next week, and I said yes. So I had to apply for an emergency passport and he bought my ticket! It was just a quick journey, within a week everything was sorted.

– Pat, 27, F, Zimbabwean

Jiyan, as noted earlier, came to the UK after a marriage proposal from a distant relative. She describes her experience of an arranged marriage and reflects on her hasty decision in the following way:

Because I was young, I didn’t have many difficulties [in Turkey]. But I thought there is nothing that connects me to there and I suddenly accepted. Suddenly. I am still surprised.

– Jiyan, F, 23, Kurd from Turkey

Being young as a ‘reason’ for undocumented migration

In this section the links between migration and being young are explored and it is evident that being young is sometimes a reason for initiating and enduring the experience of undocumented migration. Some of the interviewees had been in the UK for seven or more years and were able to take a more reflective view of their experiences and their impacts.

I don’t know. I was so young, I think I didn’t worry about the consequences. I thought, ‘I’ll do it and see what happens’. And it was ok.

– Bernardo, 26, M, Brazilian

I’m 23… I don’t have any worries. I know there are people who stay here illegally and still work in good places… They are not watching me now; CCTV is not watching me from above with a camera, [they are not saying] ‘Cihan is illegal, let’s catch him.’

– Cihan, 23, M, Kurd from Turkey

As much as undocumented migration can be related to being young, the realisation that time is rapidly passing led to some young undocumented migrants reconsidering their migration plans. However, it is not always possible to find alternative solutions and, especially for migrants who have stayed undocumented, there is a growing sense of frustration about trying to regain control over their lives and develop according to their changing needs. Semen is from Ukraine. He came to London eight years ago, aged 20. He feels he has achieved his initial migration goals. After years of hard work, he has bought a flat in Ukraine and, at the same time, has enjoyed living in the ‘best capital of Europe’; but now, approaching 30, he feels unable to move on and this is pushing him to reconsider his stay in the UK:

I saw a completely different world. I used to work 16–17 hours [a day]. I had power and energy. I was younger. I simply didn’t want to go home. I didn’t want to return but work and save money. It was different for me then… Now it is really the time to decide [what to do]. Time flies fast. I am 28. It is about the time to decide where to be and how, and [to think about] family.

– Semen, 28, M, Ukrainian

Interestingly, Semen explains how at the beginning, the risk of being caught by the police and forced to return to Ukraine caused him greater distress and anxiety than now because he feels he has already achieved a lot and is ready to move on. In his narrative there is a clear sense of undocumented migration as something with a time limit.

Many young people dream to come here even just as a tourist… but I live and work in this city. I’ve earned a bit… I am satisfied but the minus is that I have no papers. You want more, move forward, move on, to achieve something but without them [papers] – it’s no way… I plan to stay for another year and then I will see what the situation is, maybe even going home.

– Semen, 28, M, Ukrainian

Of course for some young undocumented migrants, especially those from Zimbabwe and Kurdistan, return at this point is not feasible, while for those who have incurred large debts to make their journey, replaying these debts also means remaining in the UK to work and that is crucial to their objectives. It is in this way that the motivation for migration and the strategies used intersect with attitudes about return.

For young people, the transition to the next stage of their life requires a degree of permanence and security that can be achieved only with a change of status, either by getting leave to remain in the UK or going back to their country of origin. This sense of undocumented migration as a transitory experience is summed up by Custódia, who arrived in the UK from Brazil with her girlfriend less than a year ago. For Custódia, buying a ticket to London and getting a visa for the first few months, as well as overstaying her visa, is relatively unproblematic, and being undocumented was not really an issue at the beginning:

This thing, ‘I’ll be an illegal (migrant)’. I knew that’s what I was going to do… In relation to documents, how I am going to work and etc, I never thought about it. I think that who comes here doesn’t think about these things because they work anyway. Wherever there are Brazilians, you can say that there is [work].

– Custódia, 25, F, Brazilian

 However, after a few months, undocumentedness is no longer an abstract and distant concept. Instead, it permeated all aspects of Custódia’s daily life and this realisation made her rethink her situation:

If I don’t get regularised and they let me stay, I’ll leave in five years time. At the end of five years, I’ll go back. Interviewer: Are you planning to stay for five years? Custódia: Yes, for five years. I: How did you come up with this number of years? C: Because I’ll be 30. I: So? C: Because I’ll be 30. I: Why is it important? C: Because I want to rest then (laughs).

– Custódia, 25, F, Brazilian

 Others express similar feelings about migration and age, since being undocumented does not allow them to grow beyond a certain point. Instead, it confines them in terms of their economic and social niche. For some, it is a suitable or acceptable temporary option, but it is not a long-term option, although Uliana had been in the UK for nine years at the time of the interview and had worked mainly as a cleaner during those years:

Your young years passing by and you are like in that capsule, you see. You can’t realise yourself fully. If you have some skills, opportunities or talents, anything that you can demonstrate… if you are a good worker or a craftsman, anything that you can use and give some benefits to this society, you can’t ‘open’ it because you are in this capsule. You are locked in because you are afraid. You are afraid to say a word about yourself. That’s how it really is.

– Natalia, 26, F, Ukrainian

To work as a cleaner is not a profession. I’m still young. Cleaning your whole life is not interesting for me. If I liked it in the past, earning some money… Now I basically have everything. But I don’t have what I want. There is always something missing.

– Uliana, 29, F, Ukrainian


This chapter has shown the importance of country of origin in determining young people’s motivations for migration and their choice of the UK as their migration destination. While some have come to the UK for an adventure or to join friends and/or family members, for others there was either a strong economic imperative, or they wanted to escape political or ethnic persecution. Levels of autonomy varied among young people in terms of their decisions to migrate. Although most had decided for themselves or in conjunction with close relatives, the minority of those who came as teenagers appear not to have had any say in their migration.

Very little was known about the UK before arrival and sometimes what was ‘known’ was not accurate. In some ways, this reflects the circumstances of the migration; but in others ways, it is the element of youth, potential opportunities and the possibilities of adventure that enables this approach to migration. For some, being a migrant (albeit undocumented) has resulted in new freedom and a sense of independence. For others a feeling of safety and security emerges, although the impact of being undocumented, as later chapters illustrate, places new and different insecurities into the lives of young undocumented migrants. The reality of life in the UK as an undocumented migrant and the passing of years can result in reflections among young people, some positive and some negative. Some see the need to return to their country of origin, after a period of time or at a certain age, while others (as we shall see later in the report) talk of wasted lives. The next chapter explores the reality of people’s everyday lives in the UK as an undocumented migrant.