Amid the celebratory public discourse about India in recent years – how Indians create jobs and how trade with India is important in a post-Brexit situation - an issue that is rarely mentioned is the presence of illegal migrants in Britain.
The other side of the feel-good discourse is that India is among the top countries whose citizens are in Britain illegally, either overstaying after visas run out, or entering through hazardous routes of human trafficking or remaining after asylum applications are rejected.
Prime Minister Theresa May brought up the issue at the highest level in New Delhi, standing beside her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi, just as many were expecting some good news about relaxing increasing tough visa conditions for Indian students and others.
“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”, May said on Monday, referring to one of the most contentious issues between the two countries.
Illegal Indians are said to be in the thousands and are part of a large number of foreign nationals without the right to remain, but manage to get by working clandestinely in restaurants or other establishments.
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.”
Officials in London said that since the UK-India Returns Memorandum of Understanding was not renewed by the Manmohan Singh government in 2011, cooperation on returns has “lacked a formal framework”.
“The current process cannot deliver emergency travel documents in sufficient number or at sufficient speed. We assess that Indian nationals are one of the top nationalities remaining in the UK illegally,” the official said.
The process involves police in India confirming the identity of those suspected to be illegal migrants in Britain, which can take weeks, if not months. There have also been instances when Pakistanis and Bangladeshis were sought to be repatriated to India, which was averted after the process established they were not Indians.
The Indian high commission issues travel documents (Emergency Certificates) to those whose Indian identity is confirmed. ECs are also issued to those who seek to return voluntarily, but do not have identification.
On any day, many such individuals can be seen huddled together in parts of London and towns with a significant presence of Indian-origin people, such as Leicester, Birmingham and Manchester, seeking odd jobs for a small sum or simply food for the day.
Pejoratively called ‘faujis’, they often frequent gurdwaras and charity organisations for 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 such “modern day shanty towns”.
Savyasaachi Jain, a Swansea-based filmmaker who produced the acclaimed documentary Door Kinare (Shores Far Away), highlighting the plight of Indians who make dangerous journeys across countries and continents for a better life, told Hindustan Times that those who had their dreams shattered wanted to warn others “not to be mad” to try and come here.
He said: “When I was making my film, I met many men who were destitute. They were living on the fringes of British society, homeless and sleeping rough. They weren’t making any progress here, and neither were they able to go back. To return home without having been successful would mean a huge loss of face, apart from the loss of the amount invested in travel.”
Jain added: “It’s a very desperate and stressful situation, and drug and alcohol abuse is common. These people are not criminals, they are enterprising young men who set out to make their fortune. But in this country they have no social capital, nobody to turn to. They don’t have the support networks that they would have in their villages back home.”