A relatively unknown part of the U.K. immigration system means hundreds of thousands of people are living under a second-class set of residency conditions. These people have to wait far longer, and pay much more, for a secure status, even as human rights law ensures they can’t be deported. And according to numbers from Oxford University’s Migration Observatory, the number of these people has doubled in less than five years.
In the U.K. there are a number of pathways to permanent residence (known as indefinite leave to remain, or ILR). Typically, someone on a skilled-worker visa, or a few other less-common types of visa, will qualify after five years. If they’ve been bouncing around different visas, however, and therefore might not have a ‘clean’ five years, a 10-year route exists as a kind of backup.
Sounds sensible enough. There are however a number of other pathways that make you wait the full ten years from the outset. There are also certain conditions that may change a 5-year visa to a 10-year one midway through.
To begin with, there a number of paths to residency outside of the standard immigration rules for the U.K. These relate to situations where someone does not have a legal right stay in the country as such, say they’ve overstayed their visa, but a removal order might produce “unjustifiably harsh consequences for the applicant, their partner or a relevant child.” These consequences could be something like separating a parent from their children, or sending someone who came to the U.K. at a very young age back to a country they have little hope of integrating into.
All these people are for the most part protected from deportation by the European Convention on Human Rights, but the U.K. is still free to put them on the longer, and more expensive, ten-year route.
On top of that, people who were on the normal 5-year track can find themselves suddenly on the 10-year track if their conditions change. During the pandemic, for instance, a number of destitute people were petitioning the government for access to the welfare system, which migrants with limited status are normally barred from. For many people, that exemption was literally lifesaving, but it often came with the hidden cost of being placed on the ten-year track. Likewise, foreign partners of people who found themselves out of work due to Covid were also at risk of changing to the longer path.
Putting all these different groups together, today’s briefing from the Migration Observatory at Oxford University shows that the number of people who are now on a 10-year pathway has doubled since 2017.
Madeleine Sumption, Director of the Migration Observatory said: “While few people know much about the 10-year routes to settlement, they are far from being a niche part of the immigration system. Our analysis shows that they have become a large and growing component of the U.K. immigration system, with roughly 170,000 people holding this status in early 2021.”
The 10-year routes are problematic for a number of reasons. It’s not just about the wait-time, though that in itself can be a burden on people—a decade being a very long time to live without a secure status. It’s also much more expensive, as the process requires more visa renewal application fees, which also come with a number of extra fees for processing, appointments, etc. This course of fees can be over £11,000 for a child, and almost £24,000 for a parent and child together.
“Ten-year routes give some migrants a legal status they would otherwise lack, including the right to work and access the (health service).” said Madeleine Sumption. “But this does not extend to equal treatment with people in the mainstream visa system. The system effectively penalizes people here on human rights grounds with higher costs and bureaucracy, and a longer period before they get the security of settlement.”
The government’s rationale for this system is not particularly clear. Based on a 2014 court of appeals judgement, however, the argument seems to be that it would be unfair for people who managed to stay in the U.K. outside of the standard rules to be able to ‘jump the queue’ and get permanent status at the same time as someone who did it ‘by the book.’ It would then also, the thinking goes, incentivize people not to bother with the proper process.
“To grant ILR immediately would discourage the use of lawful routes to residence and undermines the (Home Secretary’s) ability to manage migration in a manner which she considers to be in the best interests of society as a whole,” reads the judgement.
Minnie Rahman, Campaigns Director at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, doesn’t think any justification could warrant such a burdensome process.
“The Government has made this system needlessly long, complex and expensive,” says Rahman. “It creates such hardship that many are pushed into debt or fall through the gaps and become undocumented. There is no justification for keeping migrants in precarity for such a long length of time and the government must urgently rethink routes to settlement.”