Chapter 5: social life and social and community networks


This chapter focuses on the social lives and social and community networks of young undocumented migrants in the UK. Three main areas are explored: first, the range of social activities they engage in and the places where they socialise; secondly, migrants’ social relations and social networks, and the impact of being undocumented on the way they choose who and how to interact with people; and thirdly, the role of communities, community organisations, churches and other potential support agencies in the lives of young people. The analysis shows that having undocumented status mediates social and community relations. Country of origin, length of stay in the UK, life events, places of residence, as well as language skills, prove important factors in shaping young people’s social networks.

Social activities and where people socialise

This section explores social activities and the places where young undocumented migrants socialise. As shown in the previous chapter, the majority of young undocumented migrants are in low-wage employment, often working long hours. By the end of the day, as Eduardo, Daniel and Huadi Zhang explain, there is little or no time or energy to dedicate to social activities:

I work in a company which makes books and newspapers, and I also work as a cleaner in the middle of the night. Well, basically these are my days, everyday, boom-boom-boom-boom

– Eduardo, 23, M, Brazilian

My day-to-day in England? Well, my name changed after I arrived here. I started to be called ‘Work’ and my surname is ‘Overtime’ (laughs)

– Daniel, 28, M, Brazilian

 I work till midnight, well after midnight, until the boss goes… Life is just like this every day. I spend my time like this every single day

– Huadi Zhang, 29, M, Chinese

Moreover, the precariousness of the stay in the UK and debts, obligations and/or economic aspirations for migration drive some migrants to send most of their earnings home, leaving little money for leisure activities in the UK (see Chapter 4 for a discussion on spending and remittances). Celso offers a poignant example of the relationship between being undocumented and his livelihood strategy:

I’m here illegally. For my safety, I became more reserved, keeping more to myself. It helped me to save more money because I couldn’t go out. I thought, ‘If I go out, the police stop me and deport me’

– Celso, 28, M, Brazilian

Despite these constraints, most participants do have some limited time for a social life outside work. Window shopping, playing football or video games, surfing the internet, talking on the phone, visiting friends, having a barbeque, walking in a park, going to church or community organisations, going to the pub for a drink after work and sometimes to nightclubs are the most common social activities mentioned by our interviewees.

I go to the library… after library I pick my child from nursery then we go to town, shopping… just window shopping then we come back home. Sometimes that’s how we spend our day

– Pat, 27, F, Zimbabwean

I come to do sports with my friends. I go to the community centre, that is why I come here. I have a uncle in London. I go to my uncle, my uncle has children, I mean he has a family. My uncle’s son, is my brother. They are like my family and when I visit them I feel that I am at home

– Kawa, 25, M, Kurd from Turkey

We go to the dance, but very rarely. Last summer and once this summer. In Ukrainian club. Sometimes, Saturday or Sunday, I go to restaurant. [We] go out to a pub for a beer. Walking around London, around Westminster, go to London Eye and that’s, actually, [it]. The evening has passed. How long do you get if you work whole day on Saturday and, what is left till the night?

– Tatiana, 22, F, Ukrainian

I’d stroll around the streets in the area I stay and window shop… If I get a ticket, I’d go stroll in the [city centre]. And most of the time I’d go with [my] Chinese friends… because we can communicate easily

– Zhu Chen, 25, F, Chinese

Young undocumented migrants do feel excluded from participating in certain activities due to their status, and travel is frequently given as an example:

I think having no residential status does have impact on me. You want to go out but you are too afraid of being stopped [by police]; and without residential status you know that there are lots of things you simply can’t do

– Fu Chenming, 22, M, Chinese

If you have the right to see the people you like, there are no problems [in being an illegal migrant]. That’s the only problem I’ve got

– Alice, 27, F, Brazilian

Being unable to travel freely also exposes undocumented migrants to their ‘legal’ peers, affecting the way they relate to others. Levko and Dilan came to the UK as teenagers – Levko was 16 and Dilan 14. They have active social lives and ‘many friends’. Nevertheless, there are moments and situations when they feel different from their peers because of their status:

If you think about it, many things would be different… I have friends… they all like, ‘oh, we are going on holiday there, we are going on holiday here’. You can’t even go to see something for two–three days. Where can you go? [You can] go nowhere

– Levko, 24, M, Ukrainian

I cannot socialise as much as I would like to. I would like to travel more. I would like to see different places and countries. For example now we are coming to end of summer. People will get back from holiday and tell me where they have been to. They will ask where I have been to. I will tell them that I was here

– Dilan, 23, F, Kurd from Turkey

Everyday activities like joining a gym or going clubbing can also become difficult, if not impossible.

For an illegal person? There isn’t anything. It’s all closed. It’s all blocked. You don’t have access to absolutely anything. I… I joined a gym; I had to show false documents in the gym to join and run risks because you give a name

– Brígido, 30, M, Brazilian

Sometimes there are these clubs where DJ’s perform init, and they are kind of like famous DJ’s init, and like, I can’t go so don’t really get to see them because I don’t have an ID and I don’t have money

– Natasha, 18, F, Zimbabwean

Despite limitations and constraints due to the lack of status, some young undocumented migrants try to preserve their social life. Dilan and Rita provide valuable examples of how this can achieved:

I would like to go to cinema and theatre but I can rarely go. I love theatre and I am working with a volunteer theatre group now. At least I can watch some theatre in this way. We write and play our own plays

– Dilan, 23, F, Kurd from Turkey

Because I’m a girl a lot of money, not very many, but quite a lot goes on fashion. You’re young, you want to look good. I think it’s natural. And it should be like that. If you don’t like yourself, no one will like you. So I’m not greedy when it comes to it

– Rita, 29, F, Ukrainian

For Eduardo, buying goods and spending money is a way of enjoying his undocumented life; consumerism, in his experience, is a response to uncertainty about the future, an example of the ‘enforced orientation to the present’ discussed in Chapter 6.

My plans were to make money, right, but she and I were both crazy, we used to spend everything, but, that’s like this, I didn’t save money because I didn’t want really. I chose to enjoy life here. It’s wrong, I know it’s wrong but I don’t know, I don’t know about tomorrow… I enjoy, I enjoy life here, I’ve given up this idea of saving money

– Eduardo, 23, M, Brazilian

A geography of undocumentedness would show cities full of no-go limited access areas and curfews and borders invisible to ‘documented’ people. Undocumented migrants soon learn to be cautious, to navigate through the city without being visible and to be streetwise:

The fact that you have a bit of fear, caution of going to certain places. For example, ‘Ah, we are not going to the pub because the immigration, not immigration, the police usually goes there from time to time’. Or, ‘I am not going to this pub because the police goes 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

– Custódia, 25, F, Brazilian

The perception of risk and fear permeates many narratives and was explored in relation to mobility in Chapter 3. Fear is notable among Kurdish respondents and is linked to their migration circumstances and the situation in their country of origin. The following quotes from Serhado, Firat and Jiyan illustrate the fear felt by young Kurdish migrants:

Even if you want to do sightseeing in the central London, you have that fear in you when you take underground

– Serhado, 28, M, Kurd from Turkey

I am not scared of my flatmates but of people on the street. I am scared that they will know I am illegal. I have fears in my work place. Because I work there undocumented, I am doing something illegal in a way

– Firat, 30, M, Kurd from Turkey

Getting on the bus is difficult. There are often controls on the buses. Just in case, I don’t go out much. Police are checking everywhere

– Jiyan, 23, F, Kurd from Turkey

The cause of this fear is due to a number of factors, most notably experiences of state persecution and violence by the police in the country of origin and previous negative experiences in the UK (see Chapter 6 for a discussion on anxiety and fear due to lack of documents).

The length of stay in the UK also plays a role as migrants seem to get used to their constraints and limitations, which become part of the way they interact with society and their place of residence. The time this process takes can vary, although among younger respondents it can take as little as a few months to adapt to the restrictions of status. Pawlo, who arrived in the UK 14 months ago, Bridigo, who has been in England for 3 years and 3 months, and Semen, who has been in the UK for eight years, offer some insightful thoughts on the issue of adaptation (see Chapters 3 and 6 for a thorough discussion on mobility, coping strategies and undocumentedness):

Simply… You so get used to this that sometimes it happens that I even forget that I’m undocumented. I now simply came to terms with that I simply can’t go and that’s all. I can’t travel, I can’t do this, I can’t do other certain things. By now, I got so used to it. You fight, develop this immunity that we now, how they say, whatever stick was thrown in [our] wheels [barrier], we always find a way out…

– Pawlo, 22, M, Ukranian

Life like this is very restrictive, very restrictive and you get used to it. I got used to it. It is not a problem any longer [to] live like this, you know. In my case, it’s actually good. It means I have more time to dedicate to what I want. But not everybody is like me

 – Brígido, 30, M, Brazilian

Before, I was afraid. Well, afraid, I simply didn’t want to go home. [… ] Now, it is more or less normal. I assess the situation realistically, with experience. Past anxieties, emotions… to ruin your mentality because of all this… not necessary

– Semen, 28, M, Ukrainian

In the UK, racism is an experience that impacts the lives of some of our young interviewees and differentiates experiences between and within the five country-of- origin groups. While Ukrainian migrants or white Brazilians can access nightclubs or gyms relatively easily, migrants from visible minorities, notably Zimbabweans and black Brazilians, encounter a different reality that affects their social life and perceptions of the UK:

I have experienced racism here… it’s not as open but you can tell how people react towards you and the fact that you are from a foreign country. People have sort of got this perception about you that you’re a black person and you’re like that

– Jamie, 30, M, Zimbabwean

I was humiliated many times because here, if you are not humiliated you are not in England. And, it’s not by English people, most of the people who humiliate you are not English, they are immigrants, most of them are immigrants… You hear so many things that are not logical

– Daniel, 28, M, Brazilian

 Your skin colour is also perceived as making you more ‘visible’ to the police. Daniel arrived in England 8 months ago, and has already learned a few lessons on how to avoid unnecessary risk. Taking a taxi instead of a short walk home after a night out, in order to avoid the police, is one of the devices he mentions to overcome the issue of visibility:

Sometimes it’s possible for you to go on foot. Sometimes I’m here in the centre and I decide to go to a friend’s house, sometimes I catch a taxi depending on how late it is, although I could go on foot. You are always worried

– Daniel, 28, M, Brazilian

Inviting people home, visiting them in their houses, going to a church, a community centre or walking in a park, are considered safe places for social activities by most interviewees. These are situations and moments when most interviewees feel they are not different from the others, because of their status:

[My status] does not affect me under this roof of association. But if I go out it does

– Botan, 29, M, Kurd from Turkey

There is another place where young undocumented migrants feel secure – the internet. Social networking sites (more often in their first language, rather than in English), Skype, emailing and instant messaging are important components of the daily life of several interviewees. For some, virtual social networking became familiar and important after they arrived in the UK:

I am always in front of the computer. I have that kind of computer-mania. If there is no work, I would not leave the house. I wake up in the morning and directly turn on the computer

– Welat, 23, M, Kurd from Turkey

 I spend most of my pastime on the internet. When there is nothing else to do

– Mei Chen, 24, F, Chinese

My life here is on the computer. If I don’t have it, I die

– Diana, 28, F, Brazilian

Among young undocumented migrants with families, social activities are planned around the family and, especially if there are children, most of the time goes on children’s activities. Both Lesya and Augusto have their family in the UK. Lesya has been in England for five years and has three children and a husband to look after. Two of them go to school, while the younger one stays at home with her. Augusto has been in England for three years and lives with his wife and their son, who was born in the UK, while his older daughter lives in Brazil with his wife’s parents.

I can’t have a free minute. My free minute is at midnight when they are all asleep. I make myself a tea and then, I can really sit down, to see something on the computer, watch TV. After, I get things ready for tomorrow: children’s uniforms and all that

– Lesya, 29, F, Ukrainiann

Sunday, the only day [I’ve got free], I have to go out with my wife because she doesn’t work. We have a small boy, he, she, she is taking care of him, right. So on Sunday I try to please her, we go out, even if I don’t rest, but I try to do something, right

Augusto, 26, M, Brazilian

Family, friends and acquaintances

The issue of trust is central to the ways in which undocumented migrants develop and establish their social networks; family and friends represent an invaluable resource, especially during the early stages of one’s life in the UK. While most Kurdish and Zimbabwean respondents could rely on the help of family members or friends on arrival, Brazilians and Ukrainians had less tangible contacts, if any, when they arrived.

In their responses, undocumented migrants flag up two main issues: on the one hand, the risk of being stigmatised or even reported to the police is real and cannot be overlooked; on the other, it is equally important to build a network of contacts and friends who can provide advice, support and help:

I want to make more friends… because living in a foreign land, you can only rely on friends for support. You won’t have anything else; you have to rely on friends

– Yingying Cai, 27, F, Chinese

 If you meet people, you can’t tell them much, you don’t know if you can trust them or not. Sometimes, the few people, the few times I talked about it, I talked to people who don’t have documents either, I joked, ‘If you do something to me, I’ll take you down with me. I know where you can be found’ (laughs)

– Diana, 28, F, Brazilian

How migrants strike a balance between secrecy and support varies according to several factors and circumstances. Sometimes, the solution is to close oneself to the outside world in order to avoid risk or limit contacts to a superficial level. More often, migrants look for a middle way. It is in the search for this middle way that the decision on if, and how, to inform friends and acquaintances of the lack of documents becomes relevant. Kurdish respondents seem particularly cautious:

[It doesn’t affect me] because I hide it from everybody until now. Only my close friends know that I am undocumented

– Ciwan, 28, M, Kurd from Turkey

 Of course I do not tell them. You cannot say that because you get scared that they will spy you. Or you have the fear that their attitude might change towards you

– Serhado, 28, M, Kurd from Turkey

Language is arguably the main factor shaping migrants’ social networks. In order to befriend someone, speaking a common language is essential – this may be one’s first language, English or a third language; for example Ukrainian migrants might speak Russian and Brazilians might speak Spanish or Italian. Most participants point out that being able to communicate better in English would help them make friends outside of their linguistic community and build more solid relationships. Ciwan, who has been in the UK for five years and works in a co-ethnically owned supermarket, expresses his difficulties in trying to form friendships outside of his linguistic community:

I have not got any British friend that I see or talk [to] constantly. There are people that I see sometimes on daily basis but [I] have no friends. There was somebody that I have met during the work and we have shared some conversation, even met sometimes, but it did not go further as I can’t speak enough English and sometimes we cannot understand each other due to difficult accents. So they got bored and don’t meet you much.

– Ciwan, 28, M, Kurd from Turkey

In general, among Chinese respondents English proficiency is lower and this inevitably affects their chance to interact with speakers of other languages:

I don’t have any friends from other groups at all. How can I have friends from other groups? I don’t even understand English, how could I have friends? All those I know are just like me. They are all like me, more or less

– Huadi Zhang, 29, M, Chinese

[I have some] British friends… but they are just ordinary friends… They are not real friends. You meet them when you do shopping, or when you sell DVD and things like that… When you meet them you say, ‘Hello, Hello’ and sometimes they say (in English), ‘My friend, my friend’ in the very polite way and something like that…

– Yan Jing, 24, M, Chinese

On the whole, our circles are small… Mostly we mingle with people from our country… Actually we mostly mingle with our relatives, friends or laoxiang (fellow village/country-people)… As to people from other groups, presently… first, we can’t communicate really very effectively; secondly, we don’t always share the same topics of conversation

– Yao Xiamin, 25, F, Chinese

But speaking a common language per se is not enough to make friends. Sometimes, especially for newcomers, the problem is the lack of spaces of interaction, as Welat explains:

[For] those who are here for one or two years, it’s really difficult, because you don’t have any common space with them [British people] and you can’t speak the language either

– Welat, 23, M, Kurd from Turkey

Other times, the problem is the (lack of) legal status itself, which affects migrants’ interactions with others:

For those who have status, their friends circle is much bigger. For people who have no status, like us, our friends are basically those who are like us, all those having no papers. Because we are in the same situation, it is easier when we chat about ourselves

– Guo Ming, 30, M, Chinese

With British friends you have to be someone else. You can’t say to them, ‘I’m depressed because of issues with my status’ for example. You always have to be happy and perky all the time; [you] can’t just be happy all of the time – it seems like extra work to me

– Tracy, 29, F, Zimbabwean

The distance that exists between the migrant experience in the UK and that of British and other ‘documented’ people is a structural distance that makes dialogue impossible or extremely difficult. Most interviewees find support and friendship in their fellow nationals, towards whom they feel ‘naturally’ drawn:

You do tend to find that people will end up shifting or making their own little community where you find that Zimbabwean people are with Zimbabwean people. [You know] you would rarely find that Zimbabweans are socializing with Europeans or something like that

– Terry, 21, M, Zimbabwean

However, for some, to build friendship with ‘documented’ people from their own country is equally difficult, as the difference of legal status makes their aspirations, plans and opportunities very different:

Perhaps there is a difference between those who have some documents here… They have a different view of life, you know… They build their future plans about school, children, university, and things like that. But you can’t plan those things. You plan, how they say, you live from day to day, let’s put it like that

– Natalia, 26, F, Ukrainian

An interesting example of this is also offered by Ciwan, who explains how difficult is for an undocumented person to marry someone documented from his or her community:

Let’s say if you like a Turkish or Kurdish girl here, I mean you genuinely like her and would like to marry her, and people knows that you are undocumented and she has the passport or residency. They would say that he does not like her genuinely and the only reason he wants to be with the girl is because of his status. I know a lot of people around me had same problem and they could not marry because of such problem

– Ciwan, 28, M, Kurd from Turkey

Rojhan, a young man of 27, had in fact married an English woman and had been married for three years, though he is no longer with her. During that time, he experienced problems with her family and did not apply for naturalisation:

I start having problems with her brothers. They knew that I did not have documents and they were telling me mean things when they see me somewhere. They were saying that I have married to their sister for the passport. I was working in Domino’s that time and they came there to depreciate me front of my friends. They were telling me to leave their sister and told me to fuck off you dirty man, dirty Kurd or Turk. They were racist. They did not like foreigners. The sister was different. They did not even come to the wedding. So there has been some pressure from there as well on my decision to not to make such application. I did not want anybody to think that I am using somebody’s status or abusing somebody feeling or trust and taking advantages

– Rojhan, 27, M, Kurd from Turkey

Meanwhile, some young people find forming relationships with a documented person from another country difficult:

I have a girlfriend who is from Germany; I’ve been with her for two years. She does not want to have anything serious with me due to whom I am. She said it, she made it clear… I try to convince her, but the situation is more complicated than the pleasure I give her

– Fernando, 27, M, Brazilian

Echoing the views on the distance between documented – including both migrants and British citizens – and undocumented people, Dmytro and Trish explain how much easier it is to be friends with someone who has gone through the experience of migration and being undocumented:

All who I socialise with are all Ukrainians, all undocumented. Those who I socialise [with] at work – they are Russians, Lithuanians, Latvians or Romanians. They have also been, sometimes ago, illegal and they understand us

– Dmytro, 22, M, Ukrainian

I have too much baggage, my problems are too much… I want to associate with people who understand my plight… people who will be sensitive towards me when they see me behaving in a certain way. The British friends that I make do not understand so I end up being frustrated and the friendship becomes meaningless

– Trish, 25, F, Zimbabwean

Secrets and lies are daily currency in the lives of undocumented migrants. Being forced to lie or to hide one’s name and identity makes respondents feel ‘uncomfortable’, ‘ashamed’ and ‘guilty’. Misleading friends and colleagues raises difficult ethical dilemmas for respondents. Tanaka has concealed her status from her friends and feels that she has had to deceive herself and deny her self-worth in order to protect her lack of status:

Especially when you are moving towards completing college, they’ll be talking… ‘oh I’m going Birmingham for my Uni, I’m going London, I’m going Leeds’… you keep quiet, but at times it pushes you to also lie and claim you are also going somewhere, like… er… ‘I’m going [to] Luton for my Uni’

– Tanaka, 22, F, Zimbabwean

Tanaka’s concealment and self-denial compares to the way Colin philosophically contemplates, with remarkable candour, how his relationship with his friends affects his demeanour and his morality:

People see you smile every day but they really don’t see what you really go through. You try to force yourself. You know you live a life that is not true, a life full of lies, you make a lot of friends, but… the friends that you make… they trust you in everything but you can’t really be who you really are because you are restricted by those things (lack of status) and it feels bad because one day if they do find out, you do not only lose a job, but you lose friends as well that you have made over the years because they think, ‘… but we trusted this person’ all along… you have to lie about your identity just to survive for one more extra day… that is how it is

– Colin 23, M, Zimbabwean

For others, this sense of alienation and social exclusion is expressed in dramatic and disturbing ways:

Socially you see yourself [as] the lowest human being ever

– Botan, 29, M, Kurd from Turkey

Interacting with people and building durable relationships becomes difficult. Interestingly, there seems to be no difference among newcomers, as the quotes from Diana and Sergiy, who both arrived less than a year ago, and long-term residents Uliana and Tracy, who have been in the UK respectively for 9 and 10 years, illustrate:

It affects because we are not very open to each other, you know I am very reserved. I think a lot about answering many of the things I’m asked, like, it’s not the same thing in relation to trust, to share things. We live well together, respect each other, are polite but you don’t tell much

– Diana, 28, F, Brazilian

You try not to tell things to someone, telling them less. It’s all related

– Sergiy, 27, M, Ukrainian

What are the first questions when you meet someone? How [are you] and what you do, and so on. And when you tell what you do… But they have more questions. And if you tell them that you are a student, then it is all clear. But if you are not a student, then you are ’doing’ something. You tell that you are working at… Well, it’s not always coming out nicely. Or you try to hide everything to make it look better

– Uliana, 29, F, Ukrainian

The fact that I am undocumented means that I don’t feel comfortable socialising because I am conscious of my status and I do not want people to know. I am not free to work as much as I would like, if I was I would be more confident. Being undocumented takes away from your confidence because you are limited in the things you want to do and the things that you can do

– Tracy, 29, F, Zimbabwean

The lack of legal status can lead, ultimately, to the break-up of partnerships and friendships, as in the case of Amed who, confronted with a direct question regarding his legal status and unwilling to live in deception, could not see any alternative but to split up and cut all contacts with his girlfriend:

One day my girlfriend came and said, ’Can I ask you a question?’ I said, ‘why?’ She said she would like to know something. She asked me, ‘Why we are fighting? What are our problems?’ She asked me if it is the same with English and Irish conflict. She asked me my immigration status in this country. Then I think she realised that I am undocumented. Then I have finished the relationship with her, changed my mobile number

– Amed, 29, M, Kurd from Turkey

Formal and informal support networks

Here in England, you need other people

– Daniel, 28, M, Brazilian

 Daniel’s concise statement captures the importance of social networks for migrants; it emphasises how being away from ‘home’ makes having a support network even more important. This section focuses on the informal and formal support networks used by undocumented migrants. In all five country-of-origin groups, family and friends are not only the main points of reference in young undocumented migrants’ social lives, but also the main source of advice and support:

We talked, had a chat. [My friend] told me how to get a job here, to get accommodation, and everything

– Celso, 28, M, Brazilian

My brother helped me a lot. He allowed me to stay in his house, he also helped me to get a job, he will still help me if I need help in any sort of situation. I didn’t come here and start from scratch, my brother was settled already so I was in a good position to start my life with his help

– Ciwan, 28, M, Kurd from Turkey

However, this can sometimes put a burden on family relations and friendships. In the interviews, we encountered several cases of conflict, separation and violence due, in part, to the circumstances of undocumented migration. Avashin, a single parent in a situation of extreme destitution, relies almost exclusively on fellow Kurds’ for support. However, the feeling of ‘being a burden’ on other people causes great distress to her and her child:

Nobody wants to see you. They perceive you as burden. No one wants to look after you

– Avashin, 29, F, Kurd from Turkey

The interviews and testimonies showed that the longer young people are in the UK, the more established their social network became. For some, even a few months were enough to begin to feel at home in the UK, as in the case of Sergiy who arrived less than a year ago:

I know a lot of people. Well, relatively a lot. I had almost no one when I first came here

– Sergiy, 27, M, Ukrainian

As well as the kind of support needed, the range and opportunities to access support varied according to the different stages of migration. First, the demography and geography of each community is important as they indicate the extent to which co-ethnic networks may exist. Secondly, the history of migration and settlement of the five communities affect access to support, not only in terms of length of stay, but also in relation to broader community relations and diversity of employment sectors. Thirdly, the existence of community organisations and faith groups which provide support and advice to undocumented migrants varied between the groups and in the different localities. Often, where young undocumented migrants accessed community organisations, agencies and services, it was because family and friends had provided them with information.

For Brazilians and Ukrainians, there is little in the way of established communities and community-based organisations outside London. Even in London, there is a limited network of support. A sense of isolation is evident among some interviewees, and more so among women and younger migrants. This quote from Diana, who is living in London and has been in the UK for seven months, conveys this sense of self-sufficiency:

I’ve created a skin to protect myself because, like, it’s only me, if anything happens I have to deal with by myself. Nobody is going to help me, so I kind of grew this skin, closed myself down not to be affected, to avoid problems as much as possible

– Diana, 28, F, Brazilian

There are long-established networks of Chinese community organisations in the three areas of study, as well as long standing Chinese communities in these areas. However, young undocumented migrants from China appear to have little or no contact with these community organisations, which are often led by Cantonese speakers:

I don’t like going there [Chinese community centres]. I didn’t go to such places… I don’t speak Cantonese. Why should I ask them for help? So far I don’t need to ask them for anything. Also, I don’t really know what they are doing there. I don’t know anything about them

– Mei Chen, 24, F, Chinese

For Zimbabwean and Kurdish migrants, there are well-established and active community organisations, although, for Kurdish migrants, these are only in London, reflecting the geographic clustering of this group. The network of Zimbabwean organisations is national, reflecting their geographic dispersal. Community organisations seem to provide not only an important point of reference for some undocumented migrants, but also practical assistance:

The Kurdish association had an agreement with a bank. According to the agreement, with your Turkish ID card you can open an account at that bank. They publicised that on the Telgraf newspaper [a Kurdish local newspaper]. Some people opened the account, some did not. Some believed in news, some did not. I was one of the first to open such account

– Ciwan, 28, M, Kurd from Turkey

I live on help from well wishes and help from organisations like the Zimbabwe Association

– Bob, 31, M, Zimbabwean

However, not everyone wants to use community-based organisations for fear of their status being revealed, or anxiety about spies in the community:

I don’t want to go community centres. You do not know who are there. It is dangerous to go to the Kurdish associations because these communities could be under surveillance. I know a lot of undocumented friends and they all think the same

– Amed, 29, M, Kurd from Turkey

Community organisations tend to work with asylum seekers or refugees more than undocumented migrants, and the interviews showed that those undocumented migrants who had been through the asylum process were more likely to access these organisations than others. During the fieldwork, we met staff and volunteers working in community organisations, large advocacy groups, drop in centres and night shelters. They provided insightful grass roots perspectives, not only on the situation of young undocumented migrants, but also on the scope of their involvement with this group of people and the kind of resources which would help to improve their relations. In relation to the activities and resources of the organisations that are supporting or are in contact with young undocumented migrants, interviewees pointed out that in order to support rejected asylum seekers, resources needed to be diverted from other projects. For those organisations that were heavily dependent on Home Office funding, this was not an option.

Another avenue for support accessed by some young undocumented migrants is faith groups. These are used more by Zimbabwean, Brazilian and Ukrainian young people than by Kurdish and Chinese interviewees. Church-funded organisations cater for many of the basic needs of undocumented migrants, offering shelter and food, as well as invaluable social and work contacts. Their moral credentials make them trustworthy for undocumented migrants. Lower running costs, a larger degree of autonomy from state funding, and the capacity to raise money independently are among the reasons that church-funded organisations are able to thrive. In the following quotes, David recalls the positive experience that his cousin had upon his arrival in the UK, and Tanaka explains how she met a lawyer at her church:

When my cousin arrived, he arrived not knowing a single word in English, nothing, nothing, nothing. On his first Sunday here, he went to the church, because in Brazil he already attended it, he is a real church-goer, it’s so much so that here he goes regularly. Then he went there, boy, on his first day there, on Sunday he went there. When the mass finished, the priest asked, ‘Is there anybody here who needs work and needs help?’ He [cousin] put his hand up. The priest said, ‘Please come here. Talk to this man here’. The other man said, ‘Look, do you need [help]? Fine, my restaurant need blah-blah-blah’. He got it. He went to the restaurant and it was the same restaurant where he found a job for me later. That’s where everybody got a job for everybody else. That’s how everything started

– David, 29, M, Brazilian

At my church there’s a member who is a lawyers, he updates us on a lot of issues. I talked to him about my situation and he has told me advice and said, ‘Do this’. I’ve been to the Mayor in Swindon and explained all my problem to him and the problems I’m facing with my education

– Tanaka, 22, F, Zimbabwean

In each of the three regions there are also other organisations that work with migrants. Legal assistance is one of the main support needs of undocumented migrants, but advocacy and ‘mainstream’ non-governmental organisations do not appear to play a significant role for them. Some migrants come from countries where these kinds of organisations either do not exist, or have a different role, and so the migrants do not understand the kind of help these organisations may be able to provide. Young undocumented migrants, especially more recent arrivals and those who have not been through the asylum system, are less familiar with the role of non-governmental organisations and how they can support or assist them. The following quote captures this confusion:

I’ve heard about a place in town where they give free immigration advice. I’ve never actually been there, but I really wanted to go there. I think that’s the only place I’ve heard of and I think that’s the only place I’d turn to for advice at the moment. I think they are voluntary, I forgotten… what are they called? But sometimes they recommend them on the home office papers, I don’t know what they are called, I’ve forgotten

– Taffi, 27, M, Zimbabwean

In localities where there aren’t many community organisations, or they are not involved in assisting undocumented migrants, church-based organisations seem to play a more central role for migrants, particularly for Ukrainians and Brazilians. The interviews show how churches offer not only spiritual guidance and relief from the moral dilemmas of their situation, but also a safe haven for migrants who, for once, do not feel different or discriminated against because of their legal status.

Those who are documented, they don’t even have something to talk [to you]. Ukrainians who are documented, I know few; they think ‘why shall I talk to you?’ There is no common language, but in church, nothing, absolutely nothing [like this]

– Lesya, 29, F, Ukrainian

Moreover, the churches facilitate the settlement of newcomers by offering a safe environment to meet new people, make new friends, to find a job, and sometimes provide financial assistance.

It’s good to go to church. That’s what keeps me going… what gives me strength is God

– Diana, 28, F, Brazilian

We are always with the church group, like, now in the summer, we go to the park, have games, you know, there’s football. We always go to the restaurants too

– Berenice, 23, F, Brazilian

Evangelical churches, in particular, seem to provide young undocumented migrants with the kind of targeted assistance they cannot obtain from other more mainstream churches. They are often organised by nationality or language, and this makes them more accessible to people with limited knowledge of English.

It’s a Zimbabwean church that is based in Slough, so there isn’t [any British person], because it’s in my language, so I wouldn’t expect to see anyone else there Kirsty, 22, F, Zimbabwean

There were differences in terms of attendance and participation among different communities. While there is no difference between the attendance of men and women among Brazilians and Ukrainians, Zimbabwean women are more likely to be attending church than their male counterparts. Among Zimbabweans, the community bonding role of churches, which help to foster and consolidate friendship networks, is important.

I think it’s mainly African people from Zimbabwe, South Africa, Nigeria and there are a few people from the UK, maybe you could count them, maybe five or less and mostly black, with one or two white people and Caribbean, but it’s mostly African people from Southern Africa like Zimbabwe and South Africa

– Colin, 23, M, Zimbabwean

Among Chinese and Ukrainian migrants, it is mainly more recent arrivals that go to church. At church, they access free English classes, informal job opportunities, accommodation and financial support in case of emergency.

When I first came, in London… They told me that the church… the church people would come and would give you… give you [help]… They can speak Chinese… The Brits from the church. They (church people) say that you can go there and learn English and also learn Chinese… You teach them Chinese; they teach you English. When I was in London I did go on a few occasions

– Gao Zeng, 24, M, Chinese

Kurdish respondents do not participate in organised religion but make more use of community groups and associations that are clustered in certain parts of London.


This chapter has explored the social lives and social networks of young undocumented migrants in the UK. The range of social activities that young undocumented migrants engage in is the result of a continuous negotiation between their needs and aspirations, and the constraints they fare due to their lack of status. These constraints affect young undocumented migrants differently, as they are the result of the intersection between their lack of status and their gender, country of origin, and ethnic group, as well as their experiences. English language is also a factor that influences interactions with people from different countries of origin. The focus on space and mobility enabled us to draw a map of safe, accessible or forbidden places – a geography of ‘undocumentedness’ – in which young undocumented migrants develop their social lives.

The issue of trust is central in the creation of social networks among young undocumented migrants. While family and friends are crucial in the lives of our interviewees, these relationships are not without tension, because a lack of status can disempower migrants, which leaves them dependent on others.

Being undocumented can, and does, impact social relations in several ways. Interviewees often mention the difficulty of liaising with others, especially if documented, and the burden of the secrets and lies on which they have to rely to protect themselves.

Finally, we have explored the role of different community and faith groups in the lives of young undocumented migrants. The size and settlement patterns among the five groups affect the extent to which community and faith-based groups existed. Even when they are present, not all young people elect to use these types of more formalised support organisations, preferring instead to remain hidden and separate.