For more than 10 years gross immigration into the UK has totalled about 500,000 each year. Proportionally, this is a higher aggregate inflow of foreign immigrants than arrive in the USA annually. Public disquiet about these headline numbers has been growing in recent years and has been compounded by the economic difficulties faced by the UK as it struggles to emerge from the recession.
The UK’s coalition government proposes to set immigration targets which are to be achieved by the imposition of a cap on immigration. This was due to come into effect on 6 April 2011 but there have already been restrictions on the number of UK visas being made available. The UK’s immigration cap comes with an associated pledge to reduce the level of net immigration to “tens of thousands” per year by the end of the current parliament. This would represent a substantial reduction from the current level of net immigration which is about 200,000 per year.
Visa Over-Stayers and the UK
The types of visitors that arrive in any country may be broadly divided into two groups: those that leave the country within the time period set by their visa, or other travel documents, and those who stay in the country after their visa has expired. ‘Overstaying’ a visa in any country is an offence. Technically, remaining in a country on an expired visa means that the offending individual becomes an illegal immigrant – even if they initially entered and remained in the country legally.
The problem of visa over-stayers is by no means unique to the UK. In fact, immigration officials in Australia report that it is travellers from the UK who constitute the country’s single largest number of visa over-stayers. The majority of these are apparently English men under the age of 25 who find that they enjoy life in Australia too much to leave. The most popular tourist visa for Australia permits a stay of three months at one time. People who overstay their visa by more than 28 days become subject to an exclusion period that prevents them from visiting Australia again for three years. However, it is believed that most visa over-stayers in Australia manage to avoid this penalty by leaving the country within two weeks of their visa’s expiration.
What Sort of People Overstay Their Visas in the UK?
Making demographic generalizations about visa over-stayers in the UK is not such a simple task. (However, young Australians do make up some of the numbers – perhaps as a form of revenge for all the British people illegally staying in Australia). Immigration statistics can be unreliable at the best of times – the numbers often vary widely depending on the identity – and political agenda – of the compiler. However, as soon as an attempt is made to compile figures for those who have fallen foul of the immigration laws the job becomes even more difficult.
Newspaper reports have claimed that the number of visa over-stayers in the UK has been rising ever since exit controls at British airports and ports were abolished. This may well be correct but the abolition of exit controls also means that it is virtually impossible to get a truly accurate picture of the number of people who remain in the UK after their travel documents expire. People who have contravened the terms of their visa are unlikely to want to publicise the fact and, if nobody is counting the numbers who leave the UK, many of the statistics are likely to be extrapolated or based on anecdotal evidence.
One immigration campaigning group recently claimed that there are more than one million illegal immigrants in the UK and that the number of visa over-stayers is increasing by at least 60,000 per year. (However, these figures come from a group which takes a generally anti-immigration stance.) According to investigative news reports, some 90% of asylum seekers remain in the UK even if their applications for asylum are initially rejected. With the number of asylum-seekers in the UK ranging from 30,000 to 60,000 per year this could represent a substantial proportion of the campaign group’s “visa” over-stayers.
What Happens to Visa Over-Stayers Who are Caught?
Those illegal immigrants who are identified by the immigration authorities may be banished from the UK for periods of one to ten years. However, visa over-stayers may avoid these banishment penalties if they leave the UK within 28 days of their visa expiring. UK citizens who sponsor or assist immigration offences are liable to face steep fines and even imprisonment.