The 2016 Immigration Act, rolled out last spring, is part of the government’s policy of creating a ‘hostile environment’ for illegal immigrants. The act makes it much more difficult for illegal immigrants to access employment markets and a ‘variety of services in the UK, including housing, banking, and public sector-facing employment roles’, according to a recent publication on the government policy. It also effectively turns ordinary citizens into border guards by making it the responsibility of citizens working in such industries to prevent illegal immigrants accessing their services. Landlords, for example, are now required by law to evict any illegal immigrants from their properties. There is also increasing pressure on teachers and doctors to play similar ‘border control’ roles in their workplaces.
It is against this backdrop that I spoke to C, a Body & Soul member who was scammed by a bogus immigration solicitor last year. C arrived in the UK in 2002. She received a work permit and continued to work in the UK until 2008, when she fell ill due to HIV-related complications. In 2010 she applied for Leave to Remain which was granted to her until 2015.
In June of that year, C was looking to apply for a renewal of her Leave to Remain and was recommended a solicitor by a friend. She told me that she was impressed by his manner, his smart appearance and his professional office near Tower Bridge in London. He was well spoken and wore a suit. She told me that he was very insistent on everything being done ‘as soon as possible’. Unfortunately for C, there was nothing to indicate that he was in fact a fake solicitor. She gave him the necessary £2,000 to start the application.
It took four months for C to realise that something was amiss since she had not received a letter from either her supposed solicitor or the Home Office acknowledging that her application for Leave to Remain had been received. After liaising with her MP, she received a letter nearly a year later stating that she did not ‘have any outstanding immigration application or representations’ with the Home Office. She told me that she was ‘devastated, crazy, manic, depressed’ on hearing the news. She has subsequently needed support from a psychiatrist, who outlined her extreme stress ‘concerning her immigration status and lack of action from her solicitor’.
According to the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s Risk Outlook report published in July 2015, the number of bogus solicitors reported to them is on the rise. For example, in 2014, they received 701 reports of bogus solicitors – a 28% increase on 2013 and a 101% increase on 2012. Cases similar to C’s are therefore becoming more common throughout Britain.
It is not possible to draw a concrete link between the government’s policy of creating a hostile environment for illegal migrants and tragic cases such as C’s, but we should not ignore the concerns many have about the consequences of current government policy. The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, for instance, has said that the ‘Immigration Act 2016 introduces a vast number of draconian, unaccountable and poorly thought out powers and offences that will have a huge impact on the lives of both migrants and British citizens, particularly those in black and minority ethnic communities’.
This assessment is borne out by the work we do at Body & Soul, where many of our most vulnerable members are immigrants. While there is a reasonable need for the government to control immigration and prevent illegal immigration, creating policies that deliberately make life difficult for the most vulnerable in our society cannot be a wholly sensible approach. It leaves people isolated, trapped and open to exploitation.
Having wasted £2,000 on a solicitor, C found herself with no money to pay for another application. She does not have the right to work or live anywhere. She has a daughter she cannot support and is effectively homeless, staying at various friends’ houses, trapped by the system with no obvious way out. We at Body & Soul are supporting her in her efforts to rectify this situation by submitting another application to the Home Office.