Executive summary

Aims, objectives and methodology

What does it mean to be young and undocumented in contemporary Britain? How do young migrants cope with life in Britain at a time of economic downturn and the introduction of the government’s ‘tough touch’ on undocumented migrants? Built around the voices of 75 migrants from five different countries (Brazil, China, Kurds from Turkey, Ukraine and Zimbabwe), this research captures a complex reality; it moves between the uniqueness of the individual experience and the search for patterns and commonalities across migrants’ accounts of their everyday lives and experiences.

This study was commissioned by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation (PHF), under its Social Justice Programme. It explores the social and economic lives, motivations and aspirations of undocumented young migrants in England. It is based on in- depth interviews and testimonies collected between August and December 2008 from 75 young people (35 women and 40 men) living in London, the North West and the West Midlands. Interviews were carried out in first languages by field researchers with the requisite language skills. Just fewer than half the interviewees are aged between 18 and 24 years old, and the remainder are between 25 and 31. Their length of stay in Britain varies between a few months and ten years, with just under half living in Britain for less than three years.

Key findings

Being undocumented has significant practical, social and economic impacts and permeates the everyday lives and decisions of young people. These impacts can have an effect on jobs and job search, social networks and friendships, housing and access to medical help and justice. Being undocumented often creates a transitory and insecure identity. Lack of status is an all-encompassing experience, producing distinctive forms of social marginality with significant impacts such as ‘enforced’ mobility in the search for accommodation, for work or to avoid detection.

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

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

– Uliana, 29, F, Ukrainian

Motivations for migration differed between country of origin groups depending on their social, economic and political circumstances prior to migration. These differences affected the aspirations and hopes of young people, their plans for the future and their fears of return. Migration by Zimbabweans resulted from the political and economic situation in Zimbabwe and among Kurdish people it was often due to ethnic discrimination: these factors make both groups fearful of return and permeate their experiences and decisions. Chinese young people were motivated by economic factors and had often incurred large debts financing their journey, which in turn impacted on their choices and decisions. Ukrainians were also largely motivated by economic factors, although for some it was an adventure or the chance to learn English. Brazilians were also motivated by economic factors, but social networks, friendship ties, learning a new language and experiencing a new culture were also important factors. Overall, Brazilians seem to experience relatively easier access routes and show less fear of deportation than other migrant groups.

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

– Amed, 29, M, Turkish Kurd.

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

– Jessy Chang, 21, F, Chinese.

London for me wasn’t a dream. It wasn’t my dream. But it’s not by chance either… I ended up having a relationship, a cool friendship with a crowd who always talked about living abroad… I became very close to this girl my classmate. We lived in the same town, we shared plans and then she said ‘Let’s go to London. Let’s go to London. It’s cool there.’

– Custódia, 25, F, Brazilian

The reasons why people choose Britain as a destination are based on economic considerations, social and kinship networks, historical, political and cultural ties and/or perceptions about human rights in Britain. In reality though, the migrants knew little about Britain before arrival and there was little systematic effort to collect reliable information.

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

– Avashin, 29, F, Kurd from Turkey

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

– Jessy Chang, 21, F, Chinese

Many young undocumented migrants come to Britain to work. The interviews reveal low pay, clustering in a few, generally low skilled, employment sectors, lack of progression and exploitation in the labour market. Employment is crucial for survival, and at the time of the interviews, 55 out of 75 young people were working. Among those not working, or in occasional work, 16 were women, of which six had young children and three were pregnant. Chinese young people were working or had worked in Chinese takeaways and Chinese restaurants, usually as kitchen porters. They were often paid less than other members of staff. Kurdish people also worked in food outlets, usually fast food like kebab shops, but also co-ethnically owned off licences and supermarkets. The experiences of working in co-ethnically owned business were often not positive. Ukrainians tend to work in construction and cleaning, Brazilians in cleaning, bars and shops while Zimbabweans work in more diverse sectors, due to their English language fluency. Migrant work is characterised by low pay, long and often unsocial hours, as well as exploitation.

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

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

Increasingly restrictive immigration controls and the impact of the economic crisis are acutely felt by migrants. These conditions are reinforced by anti-immigrant political comments. Not surprisingly, trying to get some kind of status in the UK is a dominant aspiration. The effect of punitive immigration measures, including raids on businesses thought to be employing migrants without permission to work, has lowered wages and increased vulnerability.

I think for this kind of job in a takeaway shop, normally it should be paid £280, £290 or even up to £300 [a week]. Instead I got £210. He paid less because he said I had no residential status

– Gao Zeng, 24, M, Chinese

There’s always a fear, I’m always watching over my shoulder as to could I get caught working here? There’s always a fear, could a phone call come through, could I get called to the office anytime now as to, ‘We’ve found something out’. ‘You are not legitimate’

Ray, 21 M. Zimbabwean

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

Social, community and faith group networks are crucial to the social and economic lives of young undocumented migrants. We found that there was little contact with people from outside of the immediate country of origin and linguistic groups. Social networks from the same country-of-origin group were the main ways of finding jobs, although a minority also paid deposits or bought jobs. However, this varies according to the size and settlement patterns among the five groups and is affected by the extent to which community and faith-based groups existed in the UK. Moreover, even when they were present, not all young people elected to use these more formal support organisations and groups, preferring instead to remain hidden and separate.

All who I socialise with are all Ukrainians, all undocumented

– Dmytro, 22, M, Ukrainian

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

The social world of young undocumented migrants is the result of a continuous interplay between their needs and aspirations and the constraints they face due to their lack of status. These constraints affect young undocumented migrants differently and the principal factors that produce differences are country of origin, ethnic group, gender and pre-migration experiences, as well as their experiences in the UK. The issue of trust is central in the creation of social networks among young undocumented migrants.

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

– Tracy, 29, F, Zimbabwean

English language proficiency is an important factor that influences interactions with people from different countries of origin, the chances to expand their social networks and to diversify employment. Many did not speak English or had limited language skills that limited their employment and social networks.

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

Being undocumented limits aspirations and many migrants talked about being trapped, unfulfilled and unable to make plans. For some, life means simply existing; for others it is a temporary phase; some are considering return. Feelings, adjustments, coping strategies and aspirations of young undocumented migrants intersect with gender, country of origin and life courses to shape their experiences and responses. ‘Undocumentedness’ invades personal and emotional space, which often leads to a shadow existence, a lack of self worth, a lack of trust in others and often the internalisation of fear for migrants and families. Yet the demands of everyday life produce adaptation and adjustment strategies – trying to get documented or adapting to changing social situations with children and personal aspirations. Nevertheless, there is an ever-present sense of feeling trapped in a situation where marginality cannot be resolved and a future cannot be constructed. Thus, making plans for the future – a crucial part of the optimism of youth – is constantly appraised against the possibility of being arrested and deported.

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

– Rojhan, M, 27, Turkish Kurd

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

– Huadi Zhang, 29, M, Chinese

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

– Custódia, 25, F, Brazilian

In spite of this, most interviewees affirmed that the overall experience had been worth it. Being able to survive and cope is a source of pride. There are some general differences between the five groups of the study. For Kurdish migrants, the experience is worthwhile as much for the discrimination and oppression they have left behind as the freedom they have gained. Ukrainian migrants, overall, regard their experience positively. This is reflected in a clear sense of achievement and viewing migration as an important stage of transition in their life courses. Similar attitudes mark the responses of Brazilians who, overall, are perhaps the most positive of the five groups in presenting a picture of a youthful sense of adventure. Among Zimbabwean migrants, positive and negative views are more balanced. Blocked aspirations are a predominant feature of their reflections, mediated by affirmations of what life has to offer young people in Britain. Living a more ‘closed’ life, the measure of success for most Chinese interviewees is their ability to earn money.

Nowadays I like it here. Nowadays I tell everybody that I don’t want to leave. I really don’t. And the money isn’t the most important thing

– Celso, 28, M, Brazilian

At the beginning I came to earn but with the time… of course I wanted to go back home but I would postpone [departure] again and again… then, I didn’t want… let’s do another year… but now I simply want to live here like other people

– Semen, 28, M, Ukrainian

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

– Yao Xiaomin, 25, F, Chinese

The research was carried out by Alice Bloch, Department of Sociology, City University London, and Nando Sigona and Roger Zetter, Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford.