The economist magazine


The Economist magazine of March 14th-20th 2009 included an article called "All sins forgiven?" [1], which talked about the illegal immigration issue in Britain and how 'a report on the scale of undocumented working sparks called for an amnesty'. The author of this article proposes an amnesty as the solution to the problem of illegal immigration.

I will investigate why illegal immigration is considered a problem and whether or not it is a real problem. To do that, I will focus on how the mass media affect people's ways of thinking and perception of life. Then, I will need to determine whether the illegal immigration in the UK is actually a problem by looking at the advantages and disadvantages of it and, in the case of an affirmative answer, I will need to evaluate different possible solutions to the issue. Only then I will be able to give a thoughtful and fair answer to the initial question.

According to a study conducted by the London School of Economics (LSE) the number of 'undocumented residents' went from 430,000 in 2004 to 725,000 in 2007[2]?. The study also calculated that most of them are people who have claimed asylum but have been rejected it and haven't returned home yet.

The Role of the Media:

When reporting about immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers, most of the times the mass media exchange these three terms as if they were the same; but not all illegal immigrants are refugees or asylum seekers, as well as not all asylum seekers can be considered illegal immigrants.

The website gives three different definitions for each of them:

Illegal immigrant: a foreigner who has entered or resides in a country unlawfully or without the country's authorization[3]

Refugee: a person who flees for refuge or safety, especially to a foreign country, as in time of political upheaval, war, etc[4]

Asylum seeker: an individual who seeks refuge, especially political asylum, in a foreign country[5]

So, considering the information provided by these definitions, we can see that an asylum seeker is not synonymum with an illegal immigrant. Asylum seekers can only be considered illegal or irregular immigrants once they have been denied asylum. At this point that person is called failed asylum seeker, or else, illegal immigrant. The exact same thing happens when referring to refugees as illegal immigrants. Refugees are initially legal immigrants as they go to a new country looking for "refuge or safety". Once they are denied it or their permission to stay in the country expires, they start to be illegal immigrants.

People consider the mass media as reliable sources of information. Therefore, whatever they report is what people believe is true. In a certain way we could say that they have the power to persuade us, to make us believe what they want us to believe.

The vocabulary they use therefore has a big effect on the way people see and understand a story: if they interchange the three different terms abovementioned, people will start to confuse them as well, getting the wrong ideas about what they really mean and about what the issue really is. This is a psychological technique successfully used by journalists very often.

A big question arises when talking about mass media: who should we trust? Different newspapers show different news and different data according to what they want their readers to believe. The main differences can be found between The Guardian and The Mail. In both newspapers online version, when searching 'asylum seeker' in the newspaper's archive and ordering the results by relevance, there is a clear difference between the titles of the news found. In The Guardian, a liberal newspaper, the titles clearly show a feeling of compassion towards the asylum seekers, they refer to them as what they are, not as what they want other people to believe they are. An example is the article 'The hell of being an asylum seeker' which appeared in 'The Observer', sister paper of The Guardian, on the 15th June 2008. In this article they talk about the horrors asylum seekers go through in their everyday life.

On the other hand, The Mail's (a very conservative paper) most relevant articles which talked about asylum seekers refer to rapes ('Adult asylum seeker 'raped girl, 13, after he lied about age and was placed in children's home'[6]), murders (Asylum seeker who killed girl, 12, in hit and run walks free despite judge recommending deportation)[7], and the damage they do and are doing to the country.

By considering those news the most relevant, 'The Guardian' is clearly hiding the bad parts of asylum seekers, giving importance to the fact that they don't deserve the way they are being treated. On the other hand, 'The Mail' is doing the exact opposite thing: they are giving importance to the bad actions the asylum seekers commit, without mentioning the conditions in which they live or any good action they may have performed.

The same thing happens with TV Broadcasts and every other mass communication medium. The mass media can control our ways of looking at others. And not only they can, but they do.

The mass media do not only affect the way people look at other people, for example the way immigrants are seen, but also the way those immigrants live. The media has created such a bad image and reputation of them that they now live submerged in fear; they have to hide if they don't want to be victims of insults, hateful looks and other kinds of mental and physical violence.

When talking about the immigration issue in the United Kingdom, ARTCILE 19, a defence of human rights organization which focuses specially on the freedom of expression, published a report in August 2003 in which they looked in detail at the way the media talked about immigration in the UK. The publication is called 'Media Coverage of Asylum Seekers: What's the Story?'[8] The idea for this report came up after the newspaper The Times carried out a survey of the British population to determine whether they were able to answer general knowledge questions on British history, culture, etc. In this study they found out that most of the people interviewed answered wrong the same question: what is the number of people that seek asylum in the UK each year? Both British citizens and immigrants gave a highly amplified number. They realized that something was happening. How was it possible that nobody had been able to give an estimate number of asylum seekers, not even the asylum seekers themselves? As a result of this and having recognized the media as a major influential element of our lives, ARTICLE 19 decided to investigate their role in the immigration, refugees and asylum seekers issue, focusing on what the media decide to report, the vocabulary they use and the main differences between different newspapers and TV broadcasts.

The way they did this is they monitored both the national print and the broadcast media. They decided to focus on these two mediums of communication because they reckoned that they were the most used ones and also the ones people trusted the most.

For the print monitoring, they focused on the most read newspapers (such as The Mail, The Guardian, The Sun, etc) over a period of 12 weeks, at the end of 2002.

For the broadcast monitoring they took a bit longer, examining three different months spread over the whole of 2002 and the first quarter of 2003.

They used the same coding scheme for both media: they coded any item that referred to the words asylum seeker or refugee, and then analysed them.

The main findings they did were about how imprecise and offensive the use of the language was when describing both asylum seekers and refugees, using pejorative adjectives such as 'illegal' or 'asylum cheat'; how often they were unsuccessful to accurately distinguish between 'economic migrants' and 'asylum seekers'; the fact that the statistics used had no reliable source and there were many different results, depending on what aspects of an issue they wanted to highlight; how asylum seekers' opinions were rarely taken into account and instead the opinions of politicians and influential people were reported; the fact that only pictures of men are shown in papers and TV broadcasts, ignoring women and children (probably because they would cause a feeling of pity to the people, which is not what the media want); after interviewing asylum seekers and refugees, they discovered that they live in fear, that they would like to complain about the way they are portrayed in the media but they don't find the ways of doing it: they are afraid the media won't take them in consideration or, even worse, that they will make fun of them.

It is clear therefore that the mass media play a huge role in our day to day lives and on the way we consider other people. The media are heavily responsible for the way illegal immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees are treated due to the way they manipulate the facts.

Trend of immigration:

The book "Bloody Foreigners: The story of immigration to Britain" written by the English Robert Winder, talks about the task immigrants have had throughout the history of Britain, and it reckons how England is a "land of immigrants", mainly because it was founded by them. The author of the book believes that "we are all from somewhere else; it just depends how far back you go"[9]. With this he wants to say that immigration is not something new: it has always existed and it will surely exist forever.

The book narrates the history of immigration to England from the origins of the world to the present times. From the chapter called "Little England" onwards, the book focuses on the England post-1979, since the rise of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to power to the recent years. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher did not leave any British indifferent. She changed a lot of people's minds.

As the book says, "before her remarks, only 9% of British citizens felt that there were too many immigrants; afterwards, 21% admitted they were too worried"[10].

It then says that "it was easy to forget that at this time immigrants amounted to 4% of the population. How was it possible for so small a minority to 'swamp' a mighty imperial nation?"[11].

People never share the same opinion about politicians, and the same thing happens when asking people and talking about ex-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. She was chosen by the conservative party as their leader in 1975. Four years later, in 1979, she went on to become the first woman Prime Minister.

It was during her term of office when the British government approved the "British Nationality Act 1981"[12]. This Act changed the definition of a British citizen: a distinction was made between 'British citizenship', 'British dependent territories citizenship' and 'British overseas citizenship. This gave the opportunity to a lot of people to have a British passport if they fulfilled some requisites.

The "Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act" of 2002 contributed some other changes in the law. The latest version is the "Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006"[13] which states that a British national can also be deprived of their nationality unless by doing so the person becomes a stateless (i.e. a person with no nationality).

In the last few years, the rate of increase of net migration (i.e. the difference between the number of emigrants and the number of immigrants) has decreased[14]. This means that although there is always a greater immigration that there is emmigration and this difference is constantly increasing, the pace at which it increases is reducing. This is due to the fact that more British citizens are moving out of Britain. However, the number of people migrating to Britain has gone up[15].

Statistics show that in the period between 1997 and 2004 there were 239,000 asylum claimers failed who were not removed from the UK[16]. This happens every year and it is helping the number of irregular immigration to increase because, as I said before, an asylum seeker who is denied asylum becomes an irregular immigrant as long as he or she stays in the country.

According to UN figures, in 1965 there were about 75 million people living outside their home country, while this figure in the year 2000 became 150 million. This was a demographic phenomenom that had no precedent[17]. Even more surprising is that surveys conducted by international organizations have concluded that currently over 175 million people are living far away from their native countries[18]. According to the International Programs Center, U.S. Census Bureau, the total population of the world, as of 23 of November 2009 is 6,798,915,023 people[19]. By using simple maths we can see that the percentage of people living outside their home countries is only 2.57% of the total world population. This may seem nothing, but comparing it to the population of Brazil, for example, the percentage becomes almost 100%. Therefore we could say that the number of people currently living outside their countries is as much as the total population of Brazil, and keep in mind that this figures consider only legal emmigration. When taking into account illegal immigration, these figures would surely rocket.

Why do people migrate?

Migration has always existed and the reasons for doing it have always been, roughly, the same. The main reasons have to do with internal and external conflicts in a country, such as war. But other reasons for migrating are poverty, lack of food, or difficulty in finding a job. Around two thirds of the world's population live in economically poor countries[20]. People who live in least economically developed countries (LEDCs) find it hard to make ends meet so they are more likely to look for better opportunities in more developed countries, such as the UK.

Another factor to take into account is violence. It is present in a lot of countries. People who live in places full of violence may feel sometimes persecuted by their governments. This pressure makes them escape from their home country and go to safer places where they can find stability.

A major reason for this trend is globalisation. Although it was originally thought that globalisation would have reduced migration by making it easier for companies and for the economy to expand abroad, it has resulted in the exact opposite. Globalisation has made it much easier for everyone to move around the world and each year more and more companies are expanding globally so there is a flow of people moving from country to country. The rich industrialized states are becoming more accessible.

"In 1870 the per capita income in the United States was nine times that in the world's most needy countries; a hundred years later it was fifty times grater, and growing"[21]. From these figures it is easy to see how globalisation is creating more differences between economically developed countries and LEDCs. This difference makes poor people want to migrate to richer countries, which keep increasing this difference: it becomes a vicious circle.

Another reason for this increase in the number of immigrants to the UK may be the increase in the overall world population. It is simply logic to state that the more people there are, the more migrants there will be. Not only immigration to Britain has increased, but also immigration to other countries of Europe has gone up. Since the entrance of new countries in the EU, immigration to existing countries of the EU has increased. In Spain, the number of new arrivals has supposed an increase of 10% in the total population, which obliged the government to grant an amnesty to 700,000 migrants in 2005. Although these figures have to do with all immigrants, the number of illegal immigrants has gone up as well.

Is it really a problem?

To determine wether irregular immigration is really a problem or not, I need to evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of it.

The main advantages of immigration to the UK are the willingness of the immigrants to perform jobs that nobody else wants to do, such as house cleaners, dustmen or waiters. These jobs, although necessary for the community, are not most of the people's first options as they are mainly "dirty" jobs and the wages are low. Illegal immigrants, though, are mostly seeking a job that gives them money, no matter how they get it (within certain limits obviously) or how much they get, and they are more likely to do this kind of jobs.

Also, irregular immigrants can be paid under the minimum wage level. Although illegal, some gangmasters do it. As Professor Christian Dustmann from the University College of London said, "immigrants are prepared to work for much lower wages and 60% less likely to claim benefits"[22].

There are some disadvantages as well. The main one is the cost of maintaining a number of illegal immigrants in a country, which is really high. However, this cost could be drastically reduced if the country granted an amnesty to the illegal immigrants or sent them back home successfully.

Some of the articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are relevant to determine whether illegal immigration is a problem or not.

The 1st article says that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.

Article number 15 says that everyone has the right to a nationality and therefore no one should be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change it.

Article 23 states that everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, and to protection against unemployment. It also says that everyone has the right to equal pay for equal work.

In article number 23 education is mentioned. It states that everyone has the right to education, which shall be free at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. It says as well that education shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups.[23] (where should I put the reference?)

From these articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights it is obvious that illegal immigrants are not enjoying the rights they should enjoy. This contributes to the problem they already imply to the country in which they are living. Although this violation of the human rights is not the country's fault, it is the government's duty to put an end to it, by for example making agreements with the other countries' governments.

Having said that, I believe illegal immigration is a huge problem to any country. Although it is not directly the country's fault, they are still somehow responsible for them so they need to find a solution. In the case of the UK, where estimates say there is nearly one million of them, it is not less of a problem.


There are several ways of becoming a British citizen, such as marrying a UK citizen, but not all illegal immigrants can enjoy those solutions. There are three main alternative solutions to the problem of illegal immigration that take into account all irregular immigrants: an amnesty, sending the immigrants back to their home countries and avoiding them from coming into the country. I will now evaluate the three of them to try and find the most suitable one.

An amnesty:

It consists in giving a British passport to the illegal immigrants residing in the UK.

The main advantage of an amnesty is that the illegal immigrants granted the amnesty would pay taxes and contribute to the GDP and economy of the UK as if they were British born citizens.

On the other hand, there are some disadvantages. Research has found that an amnesty would cost some 130bn during the lifetime of the immigrants.[24] Also, granting an amnesty would encourage further illegal immigration to the UK as potential immigrants would see it easy to get an amnesty. Clear examples of this disadvantage are Italy and Spain. Since 2002, spain has granted three amnesties, getting each time twice as many people as the previous one.

The way the UK would deal with it is that the government would need to specify the requisites for obtaining the above-mentioned amnesty, such as the number of years the person need to have lived in the country, whether they had a job or they could easily get one, etc.

In my opinion, this solution would be successful but, as mentioned before, it has a really big weakness: it would encourage future immigration.

Sending the irregular immigrants back to their home countries:

The advantages of this solution are that the UK would forget about the problem and that, although there is a high cost for doing it, this is probably less than the cost of maintaining them forever.

The main disadvantage of it is that it would result in a bad image worlwide of the UK. People might see the UK government as one that does not care enough about their internal issues and just solves them with the easiest way. There have been already some attemps to applying this solution, but they haven't worked. In october 2009, "a plane carrying 30 Iraqi deportees was forced to turn around and bring them back to Britain after they were refused entry into Baghdad"[25]

The way the UK government with deal with this solution is they would first determine where all the irregular immigrants come from and then use private jets or other vehicles to send them all to where they come from.

In my opinion, if the government was able to locate all the illegal immigrants and mangaed to send them back, it could be a good solution. The main weaknesses are the fact that it is almost impossible to locate them all, and that it would be seen very badly from outside the country. Also, this solution does not avoid future irregular immigration.

Avoiding them from coming into the country:

The clear advantage of this solution is that, once the current immigration problem was solved, it would result in a zero illegal immigration.

The disadvantages are the high expenses to the government as there would be need for coastguards all around the country, as well as more control at the airports and at the English Channel. Another disadvantage is that this solution does not tak einto account existing immigrants.

In order to proceed with this solution, the UK government would need to increase the number of border guards in every point of access to the UK (e.g. airports, English Channel tunnel, coasts, etc)

From my point of view this solution could be successful although it does not take into account existing immigrants, which should be treated in a different way.

Conclusion of this evaluation:

Having looked at different possible solutions to the problem of irregular immigration and considered each one's advantages, disadvantages and procedure ways, I think the best solution to take is first to make sure no more irregular immigrants come into the UK. Then, with the existing ones, I think the UK should grant them an amnesty.

Conclusion of the essay:

In conclusion, after looking at how the mass media portray the illegal immigration issue and how this affects the way people see them, having looked at the trend of immigration over the past years, the reasons of immigration, determined that it was a problem according to the advantages and disadvantages and the violation of the human rights illegal immigration means, and evaluated three possible solutions to the issue, I can say that in my opinion the best way forward would be to provide the borders and ways of access to the country with more surveillance in order to reduce the maximum possible the number of people illegally entering the country. Then, it could be a good idea to provide an amnesty to the current illegal immigrants as it would be seen in a good way from outside the country and it would improve the UK's relationship with other countries. Furthermore, it would not encourage further immigration since the borders would be blocked.

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