Chapter 3: The everyday life of young undocumented migrants


Focusing on the day-to-day reality of living without documents and on early stages and experiences soon after arrival, this chapter explores the complex interplay between being young and being undocumented in the UK. The interplay manifests itself in different ways in the lives of the interviewees, shaping their identity and how they settle. Many of the struggles which young undocumented migrants face are common to other marginalised social groups in the UK. However, this chapter shows how being undocumented is an all-encompassing experience which produces distinctive and unique forms of marginality. In general, issues of gender, country of origin and place of residence don’t seem to be differentiating variables, although social networks do play a crucial role in the first few months of settlement, as well as subsequently (see Chapters 4, 5 and 6).

The discussion is articulated around a number of key themes. It commences with significant and practical day-to-day impacts on the lives of migrants from first arrival through to issues such as ‘enforced’ mobility and accommodation, before progressing to perceptions and more general experiential and reflective matters. In the last section, the chapter considers what young undocumented migrants like and dislike about living in the UK.

The narratives demonstrate the means by which young undocumented people navigate their way through considerable uncertainty and the manner in which their status structures key aspects of their lives making them transitory and insecure. Later chapters elaborate and explore these characteristics in more detail. Here, the objective is to establish some of the key parameters of structure and autonomy which can determine longer term processes of adjustment and coping strategies, which are elaborated in Chapter 6.

Confronting the reality

The immediate impact of arriving in the UK, and the priorities of finding one’s feet and suitable accommodation (considered in subsequent sections) confront young undocumented migrants on their arrival. For some, this relates to their irregular entry into the UK and their immediate lack of status. As Serhado, a Kurd from Turkey, put it, ‘… I came here and I faced the reality’ (28, M).

For the vast majority of migrants, the instant of arrival was a desperate experience, ‘… all lies. They told us their lies. Nothing same as told’ (Amed, 29, M, Kurd from Turkey) or ‘… completely untrue’ (Serhado, 28, M, Kurd from Turkey). ‘There was nothing true in the information given by him to me’ (Botan, 29, M, Kurd from Turkey). Kurds do indeed seem most extreme in their stark and unqualified negative reactions. Though others, such as Daniel from Brazil, poignantly reflected that, ‘… the wonderful things are left at the airport when you get on the airplane’ (Daniel, 28, M, Brazilian).

This sense of betrayal is compounded by isolation, fear, the lack of escape, and the suppression of emotions and anxieties that would be naturally expressed in a familiar environment. These feelings are prevalent in many of the narratives. Zhu Chen and Fang Ping offer two examples:

I didn’t like it when I first came. When I first came… I came with several other girls… I used to be homesick and often when I became homesick, I’d cry. It continued like this for months. I didn’t even feel like eating… I used to cry when I was having my dinner.

– Fang Ping, 22, F, Chines

Back in China, 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 wanna go home.’

– Zhu Chen, 25, F, Chinese

Uliana, in particular, captures the way in which a sequence of sensations left her in a desolate state:

We went there, in Hackney. ‘Beautiful’ area. When I first saw it… Autumn. Those leaves. And all that rubbish. Windy. I felt so disgusted. I thought ‘Oh my God, is it London?’ And then, we went into this house and there were so many people. I just sat there at the end of a bed. [laughs] I thought, ‘You are in trouble’… I had that feeling that I was there alone, that no one wouldn’t even move a finger to simply help you.

– Uliana, F, 29, Ukrainian

Shock is a frequent reaction, notably when expectations or assumptions don’t meet reality. The following quotes from Ray, who arrived in the UK aged 13, and Jiyan, in relation to the asylum system, show the discrepancies between expectation and reality:

To be honest I was shocked… I came here thinking Oh! London such a great place. Well it wasn’t a great place.

– Ray, 21, M, Zimbabwean

I came here, I saw how refugee things work and I had a shock and I am still in shock.

– Jiyan, 23, F, Kurd from Turkey

The experience of arrival, sometimes contingent on exactly how young undocumented migrants arrived, can have a protracted effect. Five years after she arrived, Avashin still reflects on her first few days:

I was in the truck with the 5 other people… I didn’t know where to go or nothing so the first couple days I stayed at one of their houses, and after that I have just been staying around, each person would send me to a different place and it just goes on… I look back at the past 5 years, I think to myself… how did it happen?

-Avashin, 29, F, Kurd from Turkey

Almost without exception, illusions are shattered. This is a more prevalent reaction among female migrants, and is illustrated in the following reflections:

I wasn’t aware of how much we create such a big illusion in Brazil. The people who are there say, ‘Go to England… ’ the number of people (who tell you), ‘Come, it’s wonderful here, come’. I’m one of them. You have to come, then they’ll taste the same as you and they will see how England is hard.

– Carol, 24, F, Brazilian

I didn’t believe [what I was told], just like everyone else in Ukraine. We live in some sort of illusion.

– Victoria, F, 24, Ukrainian

Disillusionment continues for some migrants. After seven months in the UK, Diana is now working as a cleaner. At home, she worked for an engineering company. She now feels that:

This magical thing of being in London, being in England, it’s gone. I don’t feel like getting to know it. I don’t have anybody to share (this experience) with.

– Diana, 28, F, Brazilian

But alongside these narratives of despair and shock, the young migrants also show resilience. This resilience is partly, though not necessarily, time-related, and seems as much dependent on personality traits, acquiring basic language skills and luck in finding work. Both Lesya and Tatiana reveal how they had to dig into their personal resources to cope with the shock and isolation:

Well, at the very beginning, I thought, Oh, God, why did I come? Why did I come? No job. Must pay for everything. Children are in the other end of the world… Then, I went to work… Later I felt very good. I was much better.

– Lesya, 29, F, Ukrainian

You are afraid of everything, you are afraid to move. But… With time. I learned a bit of English so I could find a job myself and not to beg please give me any job. I realised that I have to get [things] myself because no one will bring it to you on the plate.

– Tatiana, 22, F, Ukrainian

Sipiwe, who has been in the UK for five and a half years and was a hospital doctor prior to migration, expresses how it has taken years for her to feel that she understands enough in the UK to be able to cope with everyday life:

I think I had a lot of misconceptions and I also find that… for me to understand how the system works here, it has taken me all this time to really get to grips how things work!

– Sipiwe, 31, F, Zimbabwean

Social networks and settlement

For the majority of migrants, the pressure to find accommodation and work to pay bills is all pervading. An important key to the initial settlement process is the role of relations and/or co-national intermediaries. Some of these networks are helpful in smoothing the way into accommodation or the workplace. But those providing support are often little better placed than those arriving and also need assistance. Thus, young undocumented migrants are reluctant to outstay their welcome. The following examples illustrate these opposing opportunities and stresses:

When I first came, I would normally spend my time with friends who had come earlier. They have relatives here. I stayed with them. It was OK to stay with them then.

– Fang Ping, 22, F, Chinese

I survived through the assistance of friends, but it was very difficult for me and it was difficult for other people to look after me as well without any contribution from myself.

– Trish, 25, F, Zimbabwean

Basic survival and an introverted lifestyle characterise the early days, but this is conditioned partly by the form of social networks. Chinese migrants tend to lead isolated lives, although the experience of isolation is not confined to them. Nevertheless, Fu Chenming expresses how his social networks operated at a minimal level, offering little help in adjusting to reality.

I stayed with a friend during that week… who picked me up when I came here. During that week I just stayed home; I normally ate instant noodles, bread… I asked the friend to get me some instant noodles and things like that… I cooked the meals for myself… It’s a foreign country for me… And I’m afraid to go out… You can’t communicate with people.

– Fu Chenming, 22, M, Chinese

Others struggled with the powerlessness produced by their undocumented status, vulnerable to both officialdom and their own networks. Firat, for example, was caught between both the immigration authorities on the one hand and possible betrayal by a family friend on the other:

When I arrive here they took my ID from me… They told me that will release me now and then I need to make an application. They have explain to me that I need to find lawyer and other procedures… Smugglers had contact with my brother in law so I think they have informed him about my arrival date and time. The officials… They gave me some papers… Then we went to a lawyer. We have prepared a statement with lawyer. I gave them my statement. Then we have applied to Home Office then legal procedure has started. I got refusal at court.

– Firat, 30, M, Kurd from Turkey

Important as social networks were in facilitating settlement and adjustment, by contrast, many migrants found it difficult to engage with their communities or other support structures, and some lacked knowledge about them (see Chapter 5). This exposed them to early experiences of vulnerability and exploitation, as the quotes from Trish who arrived in the UK aged 20 as a school leaver and Zhu Chen who was 23 show.

It was because I arrived and sought asylum at point of entry… it was because I lacked legal support and I was rushed through without that support. I never had a lawyer. There were no Zimbabwe community support groups, I did not know where to find people of my own community. The asylum interview was… handled in a very interrogative manner.

 – Trish, 25, F, Zimbabwean

They sent a person to pick us up at the airport… I stayed in the snakeheads place for two or three days and moved out to the place where my friend’s friend stayed. I had to stay with her because she could not find accommodation for me immediately. She couldn’t find accommodation for me so I had to stay with her for a little while… They [snakeheads] gave us support for the first two days. They said to us that if we needed further assistance from that point, we had to pay for it.

– Zhu Chen, 25, F, Chinese

 Although some struggled because of their status and their mode of arrival, this was not always the case. Other young undocumented migrants benefited from sophisticated and efficient ‘tour operator-like’ machinery that brought them into the country and connected them with housing and employment, as Uliana describes.

Everything was normal, with documents. We were met… She didn’t say anything at all about where we were going. Then… she told the address where to take us to a taxi driver. They took us to… When we arrived, there was that house managed by a XXX [man]. It was like a hotel for those who came from Ukraine. It was their little business at that time. They [Ukrainians] were first taken there, stayed overnight, and straight away, in the morning, another taxi and taken to that farm.

– Uliana, 29, F, Ukrainian


Alongside the role of social networks in facilitating (or not) the early stages of settlement, accommodation is a major problem for young undocumented migrants. Three distinct sets of experiences emerge.

First, overcrowding, poor quality, small rooms, lack of communal space, high rents, tied accommodation (provided by their employer) and conflict with fellow tenants are familiar experiences. Dilan, who stayed with relatives on arrival, captures some of these attributes; initial dependency on co-nationals inevitably gives way to tensions and the need to move on:

Yes, we stayed in their house when we first arrived. They are valuable for you… We are thankful to them [relatives] that they have opened their house for us. We stayed there about 5 months. But if you live in the same house there are some issues. You have to share rooms with these people. Although you love them still difficult. It’s not best option to stay with them… In the end we said we should get our own place even it is a single room. When they put us in a hotel all of us stayed in the same room.

– Dilan, F, 23, Kurd from Turkey

Overcrowding is widespread amongst the respondents in the study. For some, these conditions persist, as the case of Guo Ming illustrates for those Chinese migrants, who live in tied accommodation often ‘over the shop’:

I presently live in the [takeaway] shop. Three of us share a room.

– Guo Ming, 30, M, Chinese

When we arrived in London, we lived in a place where there were eight people sharing two beds. This was the first week. The reason for that I think was that we didn’t know anything about London.

– Victoria, 24, F, Ukrainian

Families with children found the poor housing conditions very distressing as Jiyan notes,

Very small house. Have to deal with the mice and bugs… Because I have a daughter. Living in such a place is bad for my daughter.

– Jiyan, F, 23, Kurd from Turkey

A second theme is the different ways in which young undocumented migrants respond to these unsatisfactory conditions. Some are resigned to the structural forces which consign them to this situation; they tolerate poor housing through inertia or lack of choice, perhaps because they are a family group, or the housing is tied to their work which is the case among some young Chinese and Kurdish migrants. Others, predominantly the younger and single migrants or those in a relationship without children, move in and out of housing in the hope of alleviating some of the stresses of unsatisfactory housing, or of reducing rental payments. The search to improve housing partly explains the high level of mobility discussed below.

The third theme establishes that although housing conditions are a widespread problem for many young undocumented migrants, this is not always the case and for some, housing is not an issue. They may have settled into reasonable housing, sometimes by luck, or they realised that others live in far worse conditions. While it is difficult to generalise, the Brazilian migrants seem less negatively affected by poor accommodation, perhaps because, as we see in other parts of the study, less seems to depend on making a success of their migration or on the consequences of failing and being repatriated. Overcoming the need for documentation may make the accommodation seem more comfortable than it is:

There it was very nice because it was well organised. I visited my friends house… conditions where I was (were) much better (Antônio, 23, M, Brazilian). It was God’s hand, we met this person… who rented to us… he didn’t ask for any documents… all is fine in this house.

– Custódia, F, 25, Brazilian

Undocumentedness and everyday life

Being undocumented manifests itself in both obvious and unexpected ways in the daily lives of interviewees. These impacts are explored at a material and functional level. At the functional level, the participants described the many constraints on their day-to-day existence. Tracy, who has lived in the UK for two periods totalling 10 years, summarises the restrictions of being undocumented.

I can’t do anything without papers… Not having papers you can’t go to school, you can’t do anything, you’re not allowed to do anything. You’re not allowed to work

– Tracy, 29, F, Zimbabwean

Barriers to education are a particularly significant constraint on the lives and the developmental aspirations of young undocumented migrants. This is a widespread experience, since pursuing education opportunities – notably access to higher education – is an aspiration which a number of young undocumented migrants identify (even if this is not a primary motivation for migration in the first place). Rojhan, who has lived in the UK for nine years, and whose ambitions for education have developed while he has been here, says:

The biggest loss for me is education. I wanted to go to university but I could not.

– Rojhan 27, M, Kurd from Turkey

Thwarted educational ambitions seem particularly keenly felt amongst Zimbabweans, and especially amongst young undocumented migrants, like Rojhan and Colin, who have lived in the UK for a number of years; the sense of a blocked opportunity presents itself much more forcefully. Colin, who has lived in the UK for six and a half years, arrived as a teenager and then developed an expectation of higher education. He clearly articulates his disempowerment and the feelings of exclusion compared to his ‘documented’ peers:

I mean at first it didn’t really affect me until after I completed my ‘A’ levels and I had to produce my documents to support my funding for university. I think that was when it really hit me, I mean about how bad the situation I was in really was. So I couldn’t get into university – something that I knew I could easily get into. I mean from that point, I think that’s when my life really changed. From that point – after leaving… after completing my ‘A’ Levels, know that [you] are capable of doing something and you can’t do it. Sometimes you can lose hope and think what’s the hope in this place?

– Colin 23, M, Zimbabwean

Although these barriers are sometimes surmounted, the anticipation of trying to find a way into education provokes severe anxiety for the family as a whole, not just the individual, as the following account of Jiyan’s fears for her daughter’s educational prospects illustrates:

How long can we carry on like that? … Soon, our child’s situation will also be discovered. She will not be able to go to school. How long can we live here? I mean it is such a difficult thing. It is a very bad thing. This affects our relations at home… For my daughter’s future. Because perhaps she will not study. She can go now [to nursery], but perhaps in future she will not be able to go. My child will have to sit at home. That’s a very bad thing

– Jiyan, 23, F, Kurd from Turkey

This narrative also reveals the importance of the inter-generational impacts of being undocumented.

Accessing basic services, such as health care, is another functional area where being undocumented is a constant concern. This is demonstrated in several ways. Most obvious is the fear of accessing medical care, unequivocally stated by both Fu Chenming and Ahmed:

You can’t see a doctor when you are unwell.

– Fu Chenming, 22, M, Chinese

We cannot have a proper life here because we have not got enough financial sources. We have not got income. I got ill few times but I could not go to the doctor. Why? Because I have no documents. I cannot go. What cannot I do? I try to cure myself at home. Although I am a socialist and I do not believe in any religion, I am trying to get my health back by believing superficial ways. Why? Because I cannot even buy medicine. I cannot go to doctor what cannot I do?

– Ahmed, M, 29, Kurd from Turkey

This fear and lack of resources causes migrants to suppress their illnesses or, in extreme situations, take risks. Mei Chen recounts the incident of a 40 year old undocumented man, the father of a friend, who was taken ill at a tube station. After doubts about lying down in case he drew attention to himself, he refused treatment, but the consequences and the impact on friends and family is very worrying.

He is very ill. I feel [the situation for him] is very insecure.

– Mei Chen, F, 24, Chinese

Berenice, who has lived in the UK for four years, could not avoid seeking medical assistance. Her account mirrors that of other young undocumented migrants – on the one hand fearing the need to seek medical care but, on the other hand, usually finding that the medical duty of care overrides the need for documentary proof of eligibility.

I’ve been in hospital, as emergency, so, they saw me quickly… they didn’t ask me for my documents, thank God, but, everything, you know, it wasn’t too serious, thank God. It was only a fever that wouldn’t go away, so, like, we had to go (to hospital).

– Berenice, 23, F, Brazilian

One particular pressure for parents with young children and pregnant women was access to health services. We found a range of experiences in part due to different practices among GPs. Some interviewees, such as Jiyan, did not encounter problems registering herself and her child with a GP, but her concerns were evident:

There is not problem in term of bringing my child to GP. The chemist gives her medicines for free. I am afraid that there will be some problems about that. Because I am undocumented and I go to the doctor for free. There is no problem now, but there will be sometimes.

– Jiyan, 23, F, Kurd from Turkey

In contrast Avashin (29, F, Kurd from Turkey) does not take her child to the doctor but instead relies on paracetamol and the advice of others with young children. Halyna’s case demonstrates the stress of trying to access antenatal care, as well as the fear of authorities:

The most difficult was when I became pregnant… I needed a GP and they wouldn’t register me anywhere because I didn’t have a visa in [my] passport… For me it was such desperation. Because I went from one GP [to another]… I didn’t have an antenatal care. I had to go to private establishments to get an antenatal care because I was very worried, well, how… But it cost me. And again, I was angry. Knowing that I can receive free antenatal care, I had to pay big money. I don’t have a lot and had to fork out on that. This was the most difficult for me. In relation to finding a GP and all those [registration] ’procedures’ and those walks [from post to pillar]. That was for me the most difficult to manage. But on the other side… Well, how the most difficult? Because of the worries. First of all, you are carrying a child. You don’t know. And what other fears I had that they frightened me that I’ll have to pay. And that at the end, when the child will be born, an immigration officer will come to hospital. [They] frightened me with all those things like they will be asking for your status and this and that. They scared me a lot. Even that woman at GP’s was trying to scare me saying that I have to be careful because, if I’m undocumented, an immigration officer can come to this, to hospital, asking you questions. That was frightening me a lot.

– Halyna, 26, F, Ukrainian

Another dimension of the problem of medical assistance – not unique to undocumented migrants, but related more to their command of the English language – was the need to use intermediaries.

I’ve been here, let’s say, for 3 years and I’ve never really been to the doctor… the worst thing is that you have to find somebody to accompany you. That’s what I find horrible.

– Alice, 27, F, Brazilian

Even if a medical diagnosis can be obtained, despite the fear this creates, the problems do not stop there. Fernando ironically describes how he had to conceal his lack of status when buying his drugs. Although costing more than the prescription charge, his lack of status and thus lack of an NI number meant that paying privately was the only option. He even apologised to the chemist, despite the hardship this must have caused:

When I bought the medicine, at Boots, the staff told me, if I had the GP, I should try to get it, because… I’d pay £7 [i.e. prescription charge]. She asked me why I don’t go to the GP and register… I told her that my GP was private. She said, ‘Don’t do this, it’s too expensive’. Poor thing, she didn’t know about my situation. I said, ‘That’s ok, it’s not a problem’

– Fernando, 27, M, Brazilian

Another functional area where being undocumented affects young undocumented migrants’ daily lives is handling money. Whether or not the primary motive for migration is to earn money, their undocumented status means that by working illegally, young undocumented migrants have great difficulty when it comes to banking:

You cannot even walk into a bank and open an account easily.

– Jamie, M, 30, Zimbabwean

You try… to open bank accounts because that’s one other thing as well, without an ID in this country you can’t open a bank account… that’s a basic thing that everyone needs a bank account. You can’t always live on cash.

– Ray, 21, M, Zimbabwean

Without a bank account there are barriers to other resources and needs. Brígido speaks for many when he says that: I go to the bank, when I try, like, to change my account, I can’t. If I try to get a mobile phone, I can’t. If I try to get [access to] the internet but internet like 3 [network provider], I can’t.

– Brígido, M, 30, Brazilian

The problems of access to banking can also lead to exploitation and vulnerability; this will be explored in the next section. However, the migrant’s narratives also provide ironic asides on daily life without papers:

The only thing you can do in this country is get a bus pass. That’s the only thing you can get without being asked for papers, that’s all.

– Tanaka, 22, F, Zimbabwean.

Sometimes, when I want to buy myself a beer and I’m asked if I have any ID, it gets so funny for me because… I have… 29 years and they still ask me for ID. [laughs] That’s when it gets funny.

– Uliana, 29, F, Ukrainian

These penalties are also evident in other aspects of daily life. For example there are other limitations to mobility, particularly being unable to travel (see Chapter 5). What is significant about all these accounts is not just the practical barriers of being undocumented, but the awareness that this status signals profound and unwelcome impacts on their social responsibilities and obligations to their families. Thus, lying behind these practical constraints and limitations to everyday life are impossible moral dilemmas regarding the ability to cope with life events. This is brought home by a poignant narrative from Levko about his cousin:

The most difficult was that you can’t go and visit your loved ones. My cousin, his father has a cancer… he knew his father was about to die. He didn’t have documents and he couldn’t go to say ‘goodbye’, nothing. He was in tears for a couple of months [after that]. But, if it happens, it happens [silence].

– Levko, 24, M, Ukrainian


The degree to which mobility constitutes both the outcome and the continuity of their unrootedness is evident in many narratives of the daily lives of young undocumented migrants. The transitory nature of their lives is reflected in their paradoxical attitudes to, and experience of, mobility. On the one hand, their precarious status demands frequent geographical, occupational and residential mobility. Yet, on the other hand, vulnerability and fear of being caught create a sense of paranoia, imprisoning young undocumented migrants in their homes, or limiting them to minimal movement in their localities and very cautious use of public transport. Ironically, for Kurds from Turkey, this replicates the fear of being apprehended in their own countries which brought some of them to the UK in the first place. Avashin migrated due to fear of persecution and her account below reflects this:

Yes, I do get scared that you might get caught by the immigration officers, sometimes I don’t leave house of my friends. I just stay in all day. I use public transport, and if I get caught without a card, they may send be back home so I feel scared.

– Avashin, 29, F, Kurd from Turkey

 The fear of being caught makes young undocumented migrants very cautious, particularly when using public transport. Some insight into the uncertainty that permeates their lives and the fear of being detected is captured in these contradictory accounts:

 … my friend was caught on the tube and now I avoid catching the tube. I’ve been travelling a lot by bus. I’m afraid, man. I don’t want to put myself at risk.

– Eduardo, 23, M, Brazilian

Some say you get caught, some say safer, but I hear and told that I should not get on the bus. Because they check very often. They raid buses very often.

– Firat, 30, M, Kurd from Turkey

 We hardly go out; the [authorities] in the UK are getting strict on [illegal migrants] these days. I don’t want to take the risk to go out. I stay at home basically… Here… If you get lost, you won’t be able to ask the police for help; you can’t tell them what’s happening.

– Fu Chenming, 22, M, Chinese

Among Brazilians, there is often a fear of apprehension, but they lack direct experience of persecution or repressive state apparatus. As a result, some migrants see it as a game which, when linked to the circumstances of their migration, has few direct consequences. This is expressed in Custódia’s account below:

… you have… er… it’s a bit of fear, caution of going to certain places, for example, ‘Ah, we are not going to the pub because the immigration, immigration, not immigration, the police usually goes there from time to time’. Or, ‘I am not going to this pub because… er… the police… er… goes… er… has closed it down and will do it again’. So you end up, you have to get streetwise to know where, which places you go. The best places are the English ones, you know. (laughs) They never go there.

– Custódia, 25, F, Brazilian

Young undocumented migrants feel less safe in London compared to the other cities in the study, although the evidence is impressionistic. Yet, some are prepared to make a three-way trade-off between better work opportunities, greater vulnerability and higher living costs.

There are more opportunities in London, even though it’s a lot more dangerous… But there are more opportunities there. The downside is that in London you have to spend more; accommodation there is more expensive; travel expenses are more costly. Compared to London, things here [Birmingham] are cheaper.

– Zhu Chen, 25, F, Chinese

Poor accommodation was also a major factor in the mobility of young people as Brígido, a Brazilian, says, ‘I’ve moved many times’ (30, M). These narratives capture something of the crisis of housing mobility. Brígido and Carol have lived here for over three years and one year respectively.

We arrived and lived with a couple… we moved – more because they moved they moved… and the landlord wanted the house. After I went to live with this Brazilian girl. Then I moved to a far place, in a building, God, such a strange building. It looked like a prison, whatever, such a place. Then I went to live with all those people [seven.] Then I moved to another building with this couple, then they broke up and we left.

– Brígido, 30, M, Brazilian

 … once we had problems with a flatmate… So we moved because I couldn’t even look at her, so we moved. There are problems all the time. Like, I was the only one to tidy up the house. They didn’t. So, there are these little clashes.

– Carol, 24, F, Brazilian

Personal circumstances can accentuate these dynamics, creating more instability and vulnerability in their lives. For example, Alice broke up the relationship with her boyfriend but she says: He used to follow me, to threaten me. I had to take a month holiday because, like, he’d go there all the time. I had to constantly hide because he’d wait for me.

– Alice, 27, F, Brazilian

Moving to find a job was mentioned most by young Chinese migrants such as Meixin He: I stayed in Manchester for a few months and then returned to London. I just felt that it was difficult to find work there, so I came back to London.

– Meixin He, 24, M, Chinese

For others, keeping one step ahead of immigration authorities necessitates being on the move. I was in Birmingham for over a year; and then I’ve come here for some months now. In February [when I was still in Birmingham] they [immigration authorities] began to round up people. They hadn’t got me yet. But some of those that worked in the boss’s other restaurant were arrested; the boss then quickly laid off all those who had no status working in the restaurant that I was in. That’s why we got the sack. Then we came down to London and hired a room to stay and look for work.

– Huadi Zhang, 29, M, Chinese

Coping with changing political and economic and conditions

Young undocumented migrants are more susceptible to the impacts of changing economic and political conditions than the rest of society. But these dynamics play out in specific ways for them, given their precarious status in British society. Their narratives reveal three elements. First, the increasing intensity of immigration controls, secondly, the impact of the economic crisis and thirdly, perhaps reflecting the way in which the first two factors are playing themselves out through wider British society, is the increasing awareness of prejudice and the anti-immigrant political rhetoric. It is not surprising that, in general, those who have been here longer are more vocal about the tighter conditions they face.

Berenice, who has been in the UK for four years, summarises the way immigration controls have had an effect. Zhang Feimei, who has been in the UK for three and a half years, reflects on the changing attitudes towards undocumented migrant workers:

Now it’s each day more difficult as the law is much stricter, the conditions for staying… it’s not accessible any longer, almost nothing is.

– Berenice, 23, F, Brazilian

They are getting increasingly strict on illegal workers.

– Zhang Feimei, 24, F

The migrants also notice the way that the increasing restrictive control of work permits and the heavy financial penalties for employers caught using unauthorised labour are having an effect. After two years here Mei Chen says:

It is difficult to find work now because the [authorities] are arresting illegal immigrants… the bosses are too afraid to employ people [without status].

– Mei Chen, 24, F, Chinese

It is not just the increasing efficacy of the regulatory apparatus which affects young undocumented migrants; it is also the constantly changing legal and policy framework dealing with immigration. Cihan’s case exemplifies this situation:

There were a lot of new laws at that time… about asylum seekers, about students… about their status, their environment, work.

– Cihan, 23, M, Kurd from Turkey

His claim for asylum had been rejected after a confusing and unsatisfactory legal process. The field work was conducted in late 2008, which coincided with the intensifying impact of the global, economic recession. The narratives provide a snap shot of how declining economic prospects are affecting young undocumented migrants, and reveal their increasing anxieties. For those migrants who use their earnings for remittances, the falling value of the pound is a source of concern.

Both recent and longer term migrants detail the effects of their vulnerability to the volatility and uncertainty of the economic situation and, in particular, the significant devaluation of the British pound. For Custódia, who has been in the UK little more than four months and thus at the pivotal period when exchange rates plummeted, this has had a dramatic effect. She observed that:

When I first arrived here it was 6:1 [Brazilian Reais: Sterling exchange rate ]… so it was worth it… I don’t send money to Brazil any longer [the rate is halved].

– Custódia, 25, F

Fu Chenming and Fang Ping, who have both been here for about two years, make the same point: The UK economy is not so good… the exchange rate is 10Yuan [£1=10Yuan]… there were periods when the rates were 15Yaun or even 16Yuan Fang Ping, 22,F

It’s a big difference compared to earlier. For £1000 now you would get 3000–4000Yuan less compared with… before.

– Fu Chenming, 22, M

Perhaps because of the need to pay snakeheads, perhaps because there is little in their lives except long hours of work, the significance of exchange rates in the daily lives of young Chinese migrants is very apparent. Reinforcing the concerns reflected in the last two quotations, Gao Zeng notes how he watches exchange rates closely:

Today’s rate is 10.35 (to £1 Sterling]. I watch the rates every day. Today’s rate is 10.35 if you send [through the bank]. Very low. When I first came it was 14, 15 or even higher.

– Gao Zeng, 24, M, Chinese

Young undocumented migrants are also acutely aware of changing labour market conditions: they have a clear understanding of how the combination of labour market dynamics are forcing down wage rates and, indeed, employment opportunities as a whole. Thus, some migrants are concerned that the labour market has become very competitive, with the introduction of new EU accession states. Others note how immigration controls are contributing to fewer job opportunities as employers, presumably fearing the high fines if prosecuted, become more reluctant to engage people without work permits. These views are reflected in a number of the narratives included. Cihan has been in the UK for five years, so he has seen the longer term impact of these changes, as indeed has Semen who has been here eight years. Even for Fu Chenming, who arrived less than two years ago, the volatility of the economic situation is already having an impact:

Since Poland, Lithuania and the European countries become a member… Romania… since they have come to this country and starting to work it has changed a lot.

– Cihan, 23, M, Kurd from Turkey

When we were on the farm… back then, everyone was ‘no one’, Poles, Lithuanians. It was… in 2001… before the union [i.e. the Accession, 2004]. They were saying they will stay [i.e. after the Accession].

– Semen, 28, M, Ukrainian

The wages were higher before. Now the wages are low because they are rounding up [illegal workers]. The wages are very low these days.

– Fu Chenming, 22, M, Chinese

The expansion of the EU has not adversely affected everyone. Ukrainians, for example, can pose as Polish people and find employment that way, as Dmytro does (see Chapter 4). Finally the narratives give some evidence that the undocumented migrants are experiencing more hostility as the economic conditions become more severe. This also intensifies the anti-immigrant rhetoric.

They are mocking immigrants. They oppress them so much (Halyna, 26, F, Ukrainian). In conclusion, and reflecting on her exploitation in an increasingly saturated job market, Mei Chen poses an ironic question about her situation: Would the Brits be willing to run Chinese restaurants themselves?

– Mei Chen, 24, F, Chinese

 Incidents and consequences of being undocumented

So far, this chapter has explored how young undocumented migrants cope with everyday life and get around the problems that this creates. This section will relate incidents which arise directly because of their undocumented position in society and explore how their undocumented status is used against them. Exploitation in the workplace, in accommodation, by money lenders and sexual exploitation all reflect the vulnerability which arises from their undocumented status. This exploitation can come from members of their own country-of-origin group, and even from those who are undocumented like themselves. The narratives frequently cite their lack of rights in being able to seek redress for exploitation. Without recourse to law or the police to remedy these injustices they are frustrated and often feel humiliated at not being able to retaliate, for fear that their illegal status will come to light.

Perhaps the most widespread form of exploitation occurs in the workplace (see Chapter 4). This can take many forms, including low pay, less pay than documented migrants, dismissal without wages, and coercion to work longer hours for little return. There is no redress for the former and refusal of the latter risks the threat of being reported. This is unlikely, of course, since the employer would also be exposed to severe fines, but the vulnerable migrant may not know this. Once locked into employment and dependency on an employer, there may be no alternative but to be coerced into acquiring false documents at an exorbitant price, or to receive misleading information, as in Zhu Chen’s case:

The manager said that… according to EU regulations, you would be allowed to work if you possess this card. But this card can only be arranged by the boss of the restaurant you are working for… you can either pay it yourself, or be paid by the restaurant, who will claim the money back by deducting your wages… The cost for this card… was something like £2,000 to £3,000. But they said that each card was valid only one year; and after one year you needed to reapply for another one.

– Zhu Chen, F, 25, Chinese

Only one interviewee, Tatiana, speaks of sexual exploitation. But Alice’s experience of being stalked draws further attention to the particular vulnerabilities of young female migrants:

There were many of us… He proposed me to do cleaning in his house. I thought that this was very good because he knows that I’m illegal… He pays well. He harassed me. He wanted me to sleep with him and… I simply… I simply… I didn’t want to lose money but I felt I had to do it [refuse cleaning]. He simply blackmailed me. I know many girls who told me, they worked in that hotel too… How he solicited Lithuanian [girls/women]… so he will keep quiet [about their status].

– Tatiana 22, F, Ukrainian

My biggest problem has never been immigration or anything, it was always this [ex-] boyfriend of mine. Because I didn’t have how to tell the police, how to do anything. He used to follow me, to threaten me… I had to constantly hide because he’d wait for me at the door.

– Alice, 27, F, Brazilian

The search for, and desperate conditions of, accommodation have been discussed earlier in this chapter; but renting accommodation constitutes another arena for widespread exploitation. The following narratives exemplify the most common experiences, including lost deposits and uncertainty, due to immigration status:

She refused to give my deposit (back) because she knew I was Brazilian. She said she was going to the police… she asked for the copies of my documents. If I didn’t give her a copy of my documents, she’d go to the police, then I felt desperate.

– Beatriz, 24, F, Brazilian

For example, like, she’s got 6 houses, she puts, she puts too many people in her houses… She also threatens people, like, it’s not that she threatens of calling immigration. It’s that situation where you depend on her… You end up being in her hands.

– Carol, 24, F, Zimbabwean

Renting accommodation also provides situations where scarce savings are at risk: It’s very difficult to rent a house. Sometimes even to rent a room, people ask for documents… I’ve already lived in places where I’ve lost my deposit. Sometimes you have to give £200–£300.

– Berenice, 23, F, Brazilian

Whatever the form of exploitation or criminal activity to which undocumented migrants are subjected, their situation means that they have no recourse to the police or due legal process and cannot take the law into their own hands, for fear of being apprehended. This accentuates their sense of powerlessness and vulnerability.

Without residential status… say if you’re robbed, you can’t take the risk to report to the police. If you report it to the police, the police will eventually investigate you.

– Fang Ping, 22, F, Chinese

They know you have DVDs, and if they want to rob you, you can’t go to the police station anyway. So they do this to you repeatedly. You can’t report to the police even if they rob you; and you’d be too scared to hit back even if you’re hit.

– Huadi Zhang, 29, M, Chinese

But then he didn’t dare to report this incident to the police, because he knew full well that he had no status… I have heard of many of such stories Mei Chen, 24, F, Chinese

The most disturbing narratives come from migrants who have lost friends and relatives, but because of their situation, they are unable to use formal channels to try to find them. A lengthy account from Guo Ming, who has been trying to find his missing wife since when he arrived in August 2007, although in detention himself for some of this time, is quite harrowing:

My relatives and friends went to check at the nearby police stations, but were told that they held noone resembling my wife. Then I asked my relatives to submit a formal missing-person report… there was no news of my wife’s whereabouts. I became even more worried. I tried to apply for special leave from the jail to find my wife but was not granted. Then I made a formal report to the Prison Authorities about my wife’s disappearance… The police suspect that she is murdered. We don’t know where she is right now. She has never appeared again after the trip to the man’s house.

– Guo Ming, 30, M, Chinese

Mei Chen has also lost two friends whom she thinks were en route to Europe:

A friend of mine who is my classmate in primary school… She and my brother’s former classmate… Two young girls… attempted to smuggle themselves [to the UK]. But they never made it. They got lost somewhere on the way. It has been two years since they left home and there’s no sign of them so far… If they had already arrived in the UK, the snakeheads [back home] would have demanded the [remaining] payment from their families… But there is no news about them whatsoever; and it has been two years ever since! No news at all.

– Mei Chen, 24, F, Chinese

Getting some kind of status

Given the complexity of everyday life as an undocumented migrant, the question inevitably arises as to how their situations can be made more bearable. For some, there seems to be no alternative to remaining undocumented, or, out of fear, they refuse to reveal themselves to the appropriate authorities to access documentation. Others simply do not accept their undocumented status and have clear strategies to try to regularise their status. Thus, some migrants are caught up in the complexities of immigration law and procedures, by either trying to regularise their status, or as a result of a failure to establish their status, usually as asylum seekers. Wendy’s account puts these complex issues in stark and simple terms:

Interviewer: Do you intend to make asylum claim later? Wendy: No. I don’t want to take the risk; and also I don’t know how to go about it

– Wendy Wang, 24, F, Chinese

Several of the narratives show how, with limited knowledge and extreme vulnerability, migrants are prone to either exploitation or fear. Kurdish migrants are desperate to get legal status to remain in the UK, and experience a number of difficulties:

After I got refusal [of refugee status] I was released. Then a court date set up for the next month. I went to the court and I was not prepared. At the court I did not have documents as evidence. I also had a bad luck. A Turkish law firm was looking at my case and the interpreter attended the court as lawyer. His English was not so good.

– Cirwan, 28, M, Kurd from Turkey

Ciwan later found out that:

This person [i.e. the lawyer] had done this to many people to get money and then he went back to Turkey… We could not do anything. He is Turkish and I am Kurdish. I did not think that he would done such thing… Imagine he was getting £500 per appeal petition… He got all the money and gone

– Ciwan, 28, M, Kurd from Turkey

Even where an undocumented migrant seeks to regularise their situation it can be difficult to have any autonomy within the legal system:

There were a lot of new laws at that time… about asylum seekers, about students… I went to my solicitor… he didn’t do anything, he told me I could apply… when I applied I was supposed to get a application form but I did not receive it. I got reject, my lawyer said he was surprised that so I got rejected so quickly, then I signed a form and was given a court date. I went to court, the jury was fine, I thought everything went well… But I got rejected… they didn’t ask me any questions, but it wasn’t a fair rejection, they only asked me a few questions, my name and when I came here. The barrister spoke a little about me, he had no evidence in his hand.

– Cihan, 23, M, Kurd from Turkey

Kawa had a similar experience:

I didn’t get it [refugee status]. I went to camp twice, detention centre, prison. I went twice, 10,000 [pounds] I gave to the solicitor, I gave money… twice I have gone to prison, 10,000 maybe more… now everything is finished… there is no hope… my money… now I don’t know what to do

– Kawa, 25, M, Kurd from Turkey

Sometimes the young undocumented migrants’ sense of marginalisation simply leaves them without hope that the legal system will be of any use, and a feeling of resignation about their undocumented status. Tracy has been resident in the UK for two periods, totalling ten years:

With other solicitors, they did not have a level of understanding and empathy. To them I was just another case, they really did not have that personal level of understanding or interest, because they did not understand where I was coming from

– Tracy, 29, F, Zimbabwean

In terms of understanding the impact of the increasingly complex immigration controls and regulatory apparatus, Halyna got caught up with a language school and, either through misunderstanding or exploitation by the school, found herself undocumented when her student visa was invalidated:

When I received refusal for my visa [extension], it all developed very stupid… there were a lot of those independent English language school setting up. I simply got into such a school where I… Simply I didn’t know how that all system [works]… there was some problem in that school with the Home Office… I’m not very informed about it. But the point was that, during that period that school received some un-satisfaction from the Home Office, and I received a refusal. Simply unfair. Because I was a normal student… paid for the whole study. And, I got refused

– Halyna, 26, F, Ukrainian

Some migrants have lost money and savings – usually Chinese migrants – through corrupt means or simple theft. The fear of betrayal or blackmail and an end to the migration ‘project’ is ever present, notably for the Chinese and Kurdish migrants, although for different reasons. For the Chinese this is because the snakeheads would still want to be paid, even if the migrant was repatriated; for the Kurds the fear is not the loss of money but of persecution back home. Serhado implies the dire consequences for him if he tried to recover stolen money:

We were staying in the same accommodation. When wages were given, she said [to the foreman] that ’she (the interviewee) was unwell with a painful leg and couldn’t come to get. No problem, we stay in the same place, I can take it back to her’. She then took it. But never gave it to me afterwards

– Yao Xiamin, 25, F, Chinese

She went to gamble and gambled away all my money. Actually I had planned to send the money home that day… I had saved up nearly £2,000. She didn’t tell me about it. She left there on a Sunday… but didn’t let me know. I called but she didn’t answer the phone. Later others told me that she was a gambler… with the exchange rate that time, would [send home] nearly 30,000Yuan

– Gao Zeng, 24, F, Chinese

Some people even losing their money in one second that they saved over the years. The person they leave the money with is not giving the money and you cannot take it back. You cannot argue or fight because he can spy you

– Serhado, 28, M, Kurd from Turkey

To avoid these risks, some undocumented migrants resort to unofficial money transfer agencies and pay substantial commission because, as we have seen earlier in the chapter, they cannot hold legal bank accounts. Others prefer to use informal exchanges and transfer agencies, because they have had friends who have lost their money in bank accounts which were frozen by post 9/11 government controls on money laundering.

You must have status to send money through a bank. So it’s great if they [private bank] offer to help you send money whilst you have no status. If they want to charge a bit… you’d let them do it. It would be much better than they just take your money and run; in that case all you can do is blame yourself to be unlucky. You may want to take them to the court if you want to, but you can’t even find them anywhere

– Huadi Zhang, 29, M, Chinese

Likes and dislikes of living in the UK

Having considered many dimensions of coping with everyday life as an undocumented migrant, how do they reflect on their experiences and what does living, on the margins, in the UK mean to them?

Migrants to life in the UK. First, unsurprisingly, responses are conditioned by their lack of status and the constraints and stresses which this produces. Second, inevitably, comparisons are made with conditions back home, reflecting the often contrasting economic and social conditions in the countries of origin included in the research. Third, their attitudes are conditioned by the extent to which their ambitions and aspirations have been fulfilled or thwarted since coming to the UK.

What young undocumented migrants like or dislike about living in the UK covers a wide spectrum of factors. Thus, in comparison with the other aspects of their lives discussed in this research, it is much harder to discern more than an impressionistic picture. There are no obvious clusters of factors which can be generalised across the participants as a whole, or within particular categories of age, nationality or length of residence in the UK. Moreover, for virtually all the factors which emerge, what some young undocumented migrants appreciate, others will reject. This diversity applies within the same national groups: there is no firm evidence that particular national groups have consistent likes and dislikes. Exemplifying these polarities are the responses of two Kurds: whereas Semen (28, M), ‘… opened up a new world for myself’, for Welat (23, M), ‘… there is something very depressing here, very depressing lifestyle’.

Given these caveats, it is possible to distinguish between the more prosaic likes and dislikes and the more substantive concerns for migrants. In the former category, the weather, the food, the quality of the environment, consumer society, the relative controls of the bureaucratic machinery in comparison with that at home, and the expense of living in the UK emerge from the narratives.

Substantive issues relate to lifestyle, values and attitudes, social and psychological wellbeing, the political environment and relationships with British people. In this context, and despite all the constraints, many young people appreciate the ‘lifestyle’, the opportunities for social life and for working; they comment favourably on the respect given to the individual in British society, the freedom of expression, religious freedom and the attention given to women’s rights. Some of these factors reflect the social and political environments in their countries of origin and, perhaps, the more constraining attitudes towards youth in the societies from which they have come.

Alice from Brazil has been in the UK for three years and captures something of the ambivalence of many young undocumented migrants:

My boyfriend finds it funny that I call my mom almost everyday… he is learning with me… how did he explain it? … that I taught him to value family more… I don’t know… I think that for me best is here… it’s a bit complicated… going back [to Brazil] I am going to have to start everything again.

– Alice, F, 27, Brazilian

Berenice’s likes and dislikes about social freedoms are more polarised:

London is full of opportunities for you to study, to develop to, you know, do many things. But for the young people, I see many young people… many young girls drinking, smoking until late on the street. I see a lot of crime… I know many Brazilians that’s only party, only party. It’s party on Monday, a party on Tuesday.

– Berenice, 23, F, Brazilian

Equally, while some migrants fear being detected, not least because it echoes persecution at home, they equally appreciate the sense of political freedom – notably among Kurds – and the ‘fairness’ of British society. Ahmed’s seemingly contradictory narrative captures these perspectives:

Here is everywhere CCTV. I get scared… In start thinking, look, here the state is watching us. I can’t control this thought… There is no fear from the state here. Nobody wants to create a problem for each other. Everybody seems respectful in order to keep their social, political and cultural rights.

 – Ahmed, 29, M, Kurd from Turkey

The friendliness of British people is widely reported, though in reality, as Chapter 5 reveals, there is little cross-community interaction. Zhu Chen speaks for many of the migrants on this point, although her final comment suggests disapproval, even though she herself was not working when the interview took place:

… not… a big problem to make a friend with them, because they seem to be very friendly and open. Say if you just try to chat with them they’d spend half a day with you! My English is poor… But even if you just open your mouth, they start talking non-stop. You see, some of them seem so unoccupied, busy doing nothing.

– Zhu Chen, 25, F, Chinese

Countering these positive reactions, there are negative aspects and frustrations which come from not having papers: such as the lack of freedom and the lack of rights, which limits access to perceived opportunities. Thus, Alice who has been here for three years comments that:

… the lack of freedom due to being an illegal… You know it keeps you from things which I believe are essential to human beings: go out… to travel around the country… you can’t do it.

– Alice, F, 27, Brazilian

Some young undocumented migrants recognise that their lack of language skills are a major barrier to accessing the opportunities which living in the UK presents, as much as being undocumented. Comments on the prejudice and the, ‘double standards against us’, (Ahmed, 29, M, Kurd from Turkey), together with experiences of racism are countered, on the one hand by other young undocumented migrants who comment favourably on the cosmopolitanism of British society and incidents of personal kindness – ‘… everyone was not just responsive… they really tried to help me’ (Sergiy 27, M, Ukrainian) – and, on the other hand, by some who express racist attitudes themselves.


This chapter has examined the experiences of being young and undocumented in the UK, both in terms of general perceptions and reflections as well as the day-to- day realities. Initial encounters are important in the way they determine the longer term strategies for adjustment and coping. For example, lack of status immediately conditions the type of accommodation which is available, living in poverty, the social networks which can be used, and residential and occupational mobility, which is an endemic characteristic of the lives of many of the young undocumented migrants.

At the same time, the dimension of youth is represented by the resilience and capacity to adapt. This underpins many of the narratives, but also provides them with motivation and varying degrees of autonomy. These initial expressions of the way youth shapes the identity of undocumented migrants, through the experiences of their everyday lives, is explored in more detail in later chapters, especially Chapters 5 and 6.

The analysis of likes and dislikes is significant in the way it reveals the paradoxes inherent in the uncertain status of migrants. On the one hand, young undocumented migrants reflect on their inevitable social exclusion and experiences of racism. Yet, they also acknowledge the relative social and political freedom of their lives, compared to the constraints they experienced at home – perhaps because of their youth, gender or political affiliations. Coping with these ambiguities is a constant challenge, further shaping identities within which security and insecurity are a source of constant tension.