E-petition 567681 calls on the Government to grant an urgent amnesty to undocumented migrants with no criminal record living in the UK:

Undocumented Migrants are suffering in silence, with no access to adequate Financial support, or any help. The Government should grant an urgent Amnesty of 5years to those with no criminal record so that they could live their lives as normal human beings and pay tax to help the UK economy.

The current pandemic has created a more hostile environment for undocumented migrants. The Government should grant an immediate Amnesty to the Undocumented Migrants with no criminal record, to enable them to live their lives as decent human beings and help the Country economically. Since the migrants are already in the UK, it would not only be cost effective but would make sense to keep them in the UK and grant them citizenship so that they are granted their basic human rights.

The petition closed on 14 July 2021, having received over 103,000 signatures.

In March 2021, the Home Office published a response to the petition stating that the UK’s Immigration Rules already provide for undocumented migrants to regularise their status where appropriate. It argued that the provisions the petition called for would “unduly reward those who have not complied with immigration law”.

Current routes to regularisation

Under the UK’s Immigration Rules, most undocumented adults are required to demonstrate 20 years of continuous residence in the UK in order to be eligible to apply for temporary leave to remain and regularise their immigration status. Successful applicants are typically granted temporary leave for a period of 2.5 years (30 months), which can be renewed. After they have completed 10 continuous years with temporary leave, they can apply for indefinite leave to remain. Each application is subject to a fee.

There are different regularisation routes for children. For example, depending on their circumstances, a child or young person can be required to demonstrate a minimum of seven years of continuous residence or having lived half of their lifetime in the UK to be eligible to regularise their immigration status under the Immigration Rules. Some children may also have routes to acquire British citizenship through the British Nationality Act 1981.

The ‘hostile environment’

Since 2012, some further measures have been introduced to make life difficult for people who do not have a valid immigration status, as part of the Government’s ‘hostile/compliant environment’ policy. Undocumented migrants are subject to restrictions on the right to work, rent property, open a bank account, get a driving license, and access welfare and public services. The intention behind this is to deter people without immigration permission from entering the UK and to encourage those already here to leave. Several of these powers derive from the Immigration Act 2014 and Immigration Act 2016.

The impact of the pandemic

Concerns have been raised towards undocumented migrants’ inability to access health and support services in the context of the coronavirus pandemic.

A group of UK and Irish migrants’ rights organisations have called on the UK and Irish Governments to grant immigration leave to remain to “all undocumented, destitute and migrant people in the legal process in both the UK and Ireland”. In their related open letter to the Prime Minister and Irish Taoiseach, the signatories argued that:

It is imperative – being in everyone’s best interests – that the basic needs of all are met.

People living in extreme poverty and/or destitution and/or without immigration status in the UK or Ireland and/or without access to the NHS or the Irish Health System:

  • Are unable to socially isolate as needed

  • Cannot access health care, and income and other social support

  • Cannot contribute openly and without fear, to making the population as safe as possible, alongside everyone else.

The Irish Government has since announced plans for a new pathway to regularisation for undocumented migrants who have a period of 4 years residence in the State.

The size of the irregular migrant population

The total number of undocumented or irregular migrants currently living in the UK is unknown. There have been two attempts to estimate the size of this population produced or commissioned by government bodies in recent years. Both these estimates are expressed within wide margins of error, which reflect the uncertainty that surrounds them.

In 2005, a Home Office study estimated the number of irregular migrants that were living in the UK in 2001, by measuring the discrepancy between Census estimates of the total foreign-born population and estimates of the lawfully resident foreign-born population based on migration records.[1] The study concluded that the total irregular migrant population (including failed asylum seekers) living in the UK in April 2001 was approximately 430,000, within a range of 310,000 to 570,000. Note that this estimate did not include the children of irregular migrants born in the UK.

In 2009, the London School of Economics published a study commissioned by the Mayor of London that updated the earlier Home Office figures in order to estimate the unauthorised migrant population at the end of 2007.[2] The study produced two estimates: one for the number of irregular migrants and another for the number of irregular residents. The first figure is comparable with the earlier Home Office estimate, while the second figure includes the children of unauthorised migrants born in the UK.

The study concluded that at the end of 2007:

  • There were approximately 533,000 irregular migrants living in the UK, within a range of 373,000 to 719,000.
  • There were approximately 618,000 irregular residents living in the UK, within a range of 417,000 to 863,000.

The study found that the majority of the irregular resident population was living in London, with a central estimate of 442,000 irregular residents living in the capital. This was around 70% of the estimated irregular resident population at the end of 2007.

The reports from which these statistics are taken are not available online, but Members and their staff can request them from the House of Commons Library.

A report by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee on Immigration Enforcement, published in September 2020, concluded that, “Despite years of public debate and interest in immigration, the Department still does not know the size of the illegal population or have a clear grasp of the harm the illegal population causes.” It recommended that: 

The Department should undertake work to improve its understanding of the illegal population in the UK. This should include analysis by age, length of time in the UK, and whether they originally entered the UK legally or illegally… The Department should write to us within three months of this report to set out us what steps it is taking to increase its understanding, including how it is working with other government departments, academics and other interested groups to establish what might be possible.[3]

The Government’s response to this recommendation was as follows:

The Home Office (the Department) has a significant programme of work underway to enhance its understanding of the illegal population within the UK. This includes the development of a database that brings together the detailed records of every visa overstayer, failed asylum seeker and Foreign National Offender (FNO) in the UK. This database will include the level of harm presented by each of these individuals, together with their level of vulnerability, as well as more conventional demographic details. Taken together with wider transformation of its immigration enforcement capabilities this will give the department more insight, and therefore strengthen its operational effectiveness, in tackling illegal migration and the harm it causes.[4]

It set a target to implement this recommendation by Spring 2022.

Further reading:

JCWI, Westminster Hall debate on undocumented migrants – 19 July 2021, July 2021

Regularise, Undocumented migrants and the 20 year rule on long residence, May 2021

JCWI, We are here: Routes to regularisation for the UK’s undocumented population, April 2021

Caritas Europa, Demystifying the Regularisation of Undocumented Migrants”, March 2021

IPPR, Beyond the hostile environment, February 2021

Migration Observatory, Recent estimates of the UK’s irregular migrant population, 11 September 2020

Migration Observatory, Irregular migration in the UK, 11 September 2020

Migration Observatory, Policies to tackle UK irregular migration are based on a data black hole, 11 September 2020

Free Movement, Comment: Ireland’s immigration amnesty shows British campaigners the way, 12 September 2018


[1] Woodbridge J (2005), “Sizing the unauthorised (illegal) migrant population in the United Kingdom in 2001”, Home Office Online Report 29/05 (attached)

[2] Gordon, I and Scanlon, K and Travers, T and Whitehead, C M E (2009), “Economic impact on the London and UK economy of an earned regularisation of irregular migrants to the UK”, GLA Economics, GLA (attached)

[3] House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, Seventeenth Report – Immigration enforcement, 18 September 2020

[4] HM Treasury, Government response to the Committee of Public Accounts on the Seventeenth report from Session 2019-21, November 2020

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