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The subject for the debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee. The motion is in the name of Dame Andrea Jenkyns MP.

Unauthorised migrants’ rights and entitlements

It is a longstanding UK government policy to restrict access to work, welfare support, and services to people who are lawful residents and entitled to access them as a condition of their immigration status.

Unauthorised migrants in the UK don’t have permission to work and are largely ineligible for publicly funded support. Subject to some limited exceptions, they are:

Some publicly funded services are available regardless of a person’s immigration status. These include state education for children of compulsory school age, primary care and accident and emergency treatment, and some local authority social services, such as services provided by children’s social care. Adult social care services can only be provided to unauthorised migrants if necessary to avoid a breach of their human rights.

Unauthorised migrants may be eligible for discretionary forms of support, such as food/clothes/baby banks and accommodation schemes operated by charitable, faith-based or community organisations.

Estimates of costs

Immigration enforcement

Immigration Enforcement, a Home Office directorate, has lead responsibility for addressing illegal migration in the UK. In 2023-24, the Home Office expects to spend £482 million in resource spending on immigration enforcement. This includes work to detect and prevent irregular migration, to locate unauthorised persons within the UK, and to remove them. This does not include spending on the Border Force, but spending in that area primarily relates to managing regular border flows.

Public services

In 2013, a report published by the Department of Health found that the average annual unit cost of an irregular migrant to the NHS was £570.

Costs could result for the education system from the attendance of unauthorised resident children, but information which would allow the number of these pupils to be identified isn’t collected. Similarly, no information is available as to the cost of providing prevention of homelessness services to people who don’t have the right to live in the UK, or the possible scale or costs of cases where benefits are obtained fraudulently by people who are not authorised to live in the UK.

The economy as a whole

One of the difficulties when it comes to trying to estimate potential costs is that the size of the unauthorised resident population is not known. Another is that most costs which might result from the presence of this population are likely to be indirect, which makes them hard to measure.

It is also not a given that a person’s unauthorised presence results in a cost to the public purse. This would depend on circumstances and could vary widely. There is also the question of whether the presence of unauthorised persons in the UK results in a cost or loss to the economy as a whole. This is something to which there is no straightforward answer and which would rely on a great many assumptions to estimate.

The Government’s Impact Assessment of the Illegal Migration Act 2023 provides an estimate of the average cost per person of providing public services to a UK national aged 20-64. This is around £12,000 per year and includes health costs, welfare payments and things like public transport, waste management and police and fire services.

The actual cost of providing public services for an unauthorised migrant may well be different, but no estimates are available and are dependent on an individual’s characteristics.

These figures do not include the financial contribution that an individual provides through paying taxation, including via direct taxes such as income tax and indirect taxes such as VAT.

Other impacts

The existence of a largely hidden and marginalised population has negative consequences for the individual migrants as well as the broader society they live in. 

Research into the experiences of unauthorised migrants in the UK has highlighted the precarious nature of their existence and identified a range of difficulties they face because of their lack of immigration status and exclusion from support and services. More broadly, the parallel existence of an unquantified unauthorised population may be seen as a social ill, detrimental to community cohesion and broader government priorities for example in terms of addressing poverty, inequality and discrimination.

Recent governments have argued that unauthorised immigration is counter to the national interest, suggesting that there is an overlap between people smuggling networks and other criminal activity, and that it is in the UK’s moral interest to prevent illegal entry by unsafe methods. They have also argued that it undermines the integrity of the immigration system and results in unfairness for people who “play by the rules”, such as people who use legal migration channels.

Public opinion polling has identified irregular immigration as a factor affecting public confidence in the immigration system and politicians’ ability to address their concerns. It has also been associated with public concerns about security and safety.

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