Thousands of Indian citizens who either entered the United Kingdom illegally or overstayed their visas over the years are returning home, reflecting difficult economic conditions here and the tight curbs that make it difficult for them to seek work and access civic services.
Britain has long been the destination of illegal migrants, who believe the streets of London are paved with gold but a hostile environment in recent years for such people and rapidly changing conditions in countries such as India has reversed some routes.
For the first time, official figures for 2016 show the highest number of “voluntary returns” (of those not under police investigation or in detention) was for Indian nationals: 5,365, or 22% of the total returns from the UK, marking a new point in the discourse.
“These are people who feel they don’t have a future here. It is the UK government’s humanitarian gesture, to help those who want to return voluntarily, by providing them air fare and some assistance to resettle back home,” senior Labour Party MP Virendra Sharma told Hindustan Times.
The MP for Ealing Southall, with a large population of Indian origin, added: “Their return is a reflection of a combination of factors. India is also progressing rapidly, they may feel that it is better to be back among family and friends.”
Those without the right to remain in Britain are unable to work, open bank accounts, obtain driving licences or access other services. Recent curbs make it mandatory for landlords to check prospective tenants’ immigration status.
“Conditions are bad here. They don’t get social security, can’t work. Rather than sit in poverty here, they prefer to return. Many such people have some land or other assets back home. There have also been very few asylum seekers from India in the last 10 years,” said Jasdev Singh Rai, director of the Sikh Human Rights Forum.
The home office believes that “Indian nationals are one of the top nationalities remaining in the UK illegally”.
The issue of returning the illegals is central to India-UK talks over visas. As Prime Minister Theresa May said in New Delhi in November, “(The) UK will consider further improvements to our visa offer if at the same time we can step up the speed and volume of returns of Indians with no right to remain in the UK.”
The nationality of the 5,365 voluntary returnees may not have been in question but the home office and Indian authorities have been debating the complex issue of verifying the identity of many more whose Indian citizenship needs to be established before they are sent home.
A home office official told Hindustan Times: “A major barrier for removal is the current process for obtaining travel documentation for those without a current passport. While we are grateful for the cooperation of the Indian government, the current process – which may involve checks in India at state level – can be quite lengthy and often relies on the cooperation of the individual concerned.
“We are therefore seeking to expedite the process for those individuals for whom we have indisputable evidence that they are Indian nationals from the passport which they submitted as part of their UK visa application.
“Since the UK-India Returns Memorandum of Understanding was not renewed by the previous Indian government in 2011, our cooperation on returns has lacked a formal framework. The current process cannot deliver emergency travel documents in sufficient number or at sufficient speed.”
However, the Indian view is that the nationality of an individual can be established only through an investigation conducted by Indian agencies, and not on the basis of information provided by UK authorities.
The investigation involves police in India confirming the identity of those suspected to be illegal in Britain, which can take weeks, if not months. There have also been instances when Pakistani and Bangladeshi citizens were sought to be sent to India, which was averted after investigations established they were not Indians.
The Indian high commission in London issues travel documents (Emergency Certificates) to those whose Indian identity is confirmed. In 2016, 582 such certificates were issued, but the home office believes there is much scope for speeding up the process.
The illegal Indians are pejoratively called 'faujis', who often frequent gurdwaras and charity organisations that offer free food. Many end up in cramped, unhygienic “beds in sheds” in gardens of houses, let out illegally. In recent years, several councils and immigration officials have launched drives to clear what the tabloid press calls “modern day shanty towns”.