Chapter 7: conclusions


What does it mean to be young and undocumented in the UK at the start of the 21st century? This report offers an answer, or several answers, to this question. Built around the voices of 75 migrants from five different countries (Brazil, China, Kurds from Turkey, Ukraine and Zimbabwe), with different experiences and expectations, the report moves between the uniqueness of the individual experience and the search for patterns and commonalities across migrants’ accounts of their everyday lives and experiences. One commonality that emerges from the data relates strongly to country of origin. Where people come from not only affects their motivations for migration, but also in turn impacts their aspirations and fears, including those surrounding work and deportation. English language skills, ethnicity, age and life events, including whether or not they have children, permeate their experiences. Gender has particular relevance in terms of the gendered nature of work and childcare responsibilities, but also for some groups – most notably among Kurdish young people – in terms of opportunities.

Summary of the main findings

Motives for migration for many young people, especially those from Ukraine and China and, to a lesser extent, Brazil, are economic, although the debts incurred by Chinese young people in order to migrate create pressure that is not evident among Brazilians and Ukrainians. Kurds from Turkey and Zimbabweans are, for the most part, not in a position to return home and their fear and anxiety surrounding detection and deportation is a strong feature of their narratives and has a significant impact on their decision making.

For undocumented migrants, work is key to survival. It is essential to repay the debts incurred in order to migrate and, for some, it enables them to fulfil their obligations to family members who rely on remittances in their country of origin. Young undocumented migrants work, with the exception of a few, in unregulated sectors of the economy. Low pay, long and unsocial hours, exploitation and vulnerability characterise their employment. Lack of English language fluency and, among some, lack of basic English impacts on the kind of work open to them. Reliance on social networks to find work also limits opportunities and, among some groups, there is a pattern of working in co-ethnically owned businesses. For those not working, social networks provide crucial subsistence support and informal reciprocal arrangements. The importance of informal social networks, mostly from the same country of origin, ethnic or linguistic group was a dominant feature in the lives of young people, though a minority preferred to be isolated due to fears of spies and infiltrators. The report shows how migrants’ lives are suspended in limbo, deprived of the right to think about the future, in a permanent condition of uncertainty, which impacts on their perception of the self and identity. However, migration is also a formative experience – a rite of passage to adulthood, a transition to a new stage of life, and a character-forging experience.

In the narratives which compose this report, we see migrants struggle to make sense of the ambiguities and contradictions of living in the UK – a country with much wealth and opportunity, but also racism and social exclusion. We see them attempting to regain control over their futures and fulfil ambitions and dreams, despite the constraints and limitations of their lack of status. The intersection between their lack of status and their gender, country of origin, life events, migratory projects and current circumstances provides a grid for exploring and analysing migrant narratives.

The voices presented in this report compose a story of everyday resistance, adjustment, adaptation and resilience in today’s UK. They offer a portrait of a group of young people navigating through the economic downturn, widespread anti-migrant rhetoric, and the government’s ‘tough touch’ approach.

Their narratives show how young undocumented migrants skilfully develop a range of coping strategies to deal with these complex uncertainties and their changing aspirations. From subterfuge and concealment (often at great cost to their sense of self-worth and emotional and moral wellbeing) to bold and often risky lifestyles, to giving up jobs without pay when employers start asking for documents, all young undocumented migrants find ways of coping with their lives in the UK.

‘Undocumentedness’ is an all-encompassing phenomena, touching many areas of the lives of migrants – social, economic, personal and religious – as the report illustrates in detail.

In Chapter 2, we show how people’s motivations for migration are a crucial variable for understanding migrants’ experiences in the UK, and provide a means of empathising with their situation, and their assessment of their experiences and aspirations for the future. Youth, we argue, is one the factors behind the decision to migrate. Youth also contributes to, and shapes, the circumstances of migration and the characteristics of migration projects.

The migrants’ arrival and settlement in the UK is discussed in Chapter 3, where we emphasise the role of social networks from the same country-of-origin group in the early stage of settlement. The analysis of the interplay between day-to-day realities and migrants’ reflections on their experiences enable us to explore the impact of length of stay on migrants’ understanding of their migratory experiences. Once again, youth emerges as an important factor in the resilience and capacity to adapt that underpins many of the narratives; it also provides them with motivation and varying degrees of autonomy.

Employment and livelihood strategies are the main focuses of Chapter 4. There are three emerging themes: a lack of choice and uncertainty ran through all the interviews and testimonies; social networks as a vital resource for undocumented migrants, both in terms of job-search strategies and support during periods of unemployment; and economic obligations deriving from migration and their varied impacts on the everyday lives of migrants. Issues of exploitation and racism also surfaced in several migrants’ accounts.

Chapter 5 explored the social lives and social networks of young undocumented migrants in the UK. The issue of trust comes up in most accounts, both in relation to the fear of betrayal which inevitably make people diffident and cautious in their social interactions; and to the sense of guilt that affects their interactions with other people, to whom they cannot open up to completely. Trust also shapes migrants’ relations to space and mobility. From the narratives, a map of safe, accessible and forbidden places – a geography of undocumentedness – emerged, whose shape varies in relation to different individual experiences and dwellings. We also explore the role of different community and faith groups in the lives of young undocumented migrants showing how the size and settlement patterns among the five groups affected the extent to which community and faith-based groups existed.

Finally, Chapter 6 offers an exploration of the impact of being undocumented on migrants’ sense of self and identity, seeking to define and illustrate the ‘condition’ of being undocumented from the words and experiences of young undocumented migrants themselves. Living a life fixed in the present, coping with a condition of extreme precariousness and the fear attached to it, as well as dealing with the stigma of ‘illegality’ and learning to be invisible to the ‘gaze’ of the state and society are all part of the experience and everyday lives of undocumented migrants in the UK. The impact of their undocumented status on changing life events, which has underpinned the narratives in earlier chapters, is highlighted in this chapter in terms of their adaptation and adjustment strategies.

We explore migrants’ dreams for the future, how they are affected by the lack of documents, and how they evaluate their experiences in the UK and the lessons they have learned. The question we ask is a straightforward one: all considered, was it worth it? As chapter 6 shows, responses to this question were mixed, although on the whole, most people are able to reflect on something positive about their experiences.