Page last updated at 08:54 GMT, Wednesday, 5 May 2010 09:54 UK

What illegal migrants think about the general election

By Dominic Casciani
BBC News

Women holding hands at the Crossroads Women's Centre in London
In it together: Women at the Crossroads Centre

One of the top issues of the general election campaign has been the argument over how to deal with illegal immigration. So what do these people - who have neither a vote nor a legal place in the UK - think?

Amid the bedlam of north London's Crossroads Women's Centre, there is a huddle of African women who call each other sister.

Out in multicultural London's streets, they are invisible - they just merge into the background of a world city. But they're also invisible because they've been illegally here for years, quietly getting on with their lives out of view. And none of them have any intention of going home.

Agatha, from Nigeria, has spent a decade living on the fringes of legality.

She initially turned to the Nigerian church community in London for help after arriving in the UK and was offered a bed by a woman from Bromley in Kent.

The arrangement was that she would run the family house for a week's undeclared, untaxed wages.

We have been doing the jobs that other people don't do - it's a contribution to the economy that nobody sees
Bira from Rwanda

Very quickly the woman was controlling her life and paying her virtually nothing. Agatha slept in an unheated box room on a gym mat.

"She wasn't rich. But she was middle class and knew very well that I didn't have papers to be in the UK. But, being an African family, she said she knew that if I worked for her for at least 10 years then I would be clear to stay in the country."

After three months of this, another family at the same church threatened to expose the employer as an immoral hypocrite. Agatha was given help by other Nigerians to find other work and a place of her own.

She went on to work as a cleaner in London's office blocks for about £2.75 an hour.

The pay was low because the job legally belonged to someone else. They subcontracted it out to Agatha and pocketed the rest. But, she says, she accepted it because it was better than going home.

Separated family

Bira arrived eight years ago, saying she was fleeing Rwanda after her husband was killed for political reasons.

IMMIGRATION: PARTY POSITIONS
Labour:
Tightly-controlled points-based system
Opposes amnesty for illegals
Conservatives:
Points system plus cap on non-EU migration
Opposes amnesty for illegals
Liberal Democrats:
Regionalised points-based system
Earned amnesty for illegals

Her three children found safety elsewhere. They are now in their mid to late teens and it was five years before she was able to find them and speak to them from the UK.

Like many African women who are smuggled by agents into the UK, she went "underground" after being refused asylum in 2005.

Thanks to community contacts, Bira was also taken in as a housekeeper by a reasonably well-to-do family.

"They knew their children were safe," she said. "I looked after them and with the little money that I made, I found a way of looking after my own [back in Rwanda]."

She was initially offered £100 a week but rarely got paid more than £50 - and there were plenty of occasions when her pay was even less.

"You can't complain. Who can you complain to?" she says. "You become a slave. It happened to me, it happens to others.

"Politicians like Nick Clegg talk about illegal immigrants doing some kind of voluntary work to make up for the past," she says.

"What do they think we are doing already? We have been doing the jobs that other people don't do. It's a contribution to the economy that nobody sees."

The 14-year rule

Bira was recently told she was one of more than 70,000 asylum seekers who can now legally stay as part of a backlog clearing programme - although officials insist this has not been an amnesty.

HOW MANY ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS IN THE UK?
Nobody knows because you can't count them
Low estimate of 417,000
High estimate of 863,000
Best expert guess of 618,000

But despite the row over the Liberal Democrat's proposals, there is a long-standing immigration rule which states a migrant who has been in the UK illegally for 14 years can be allowed to stay - something senior judges have already called an amnesty.

"Rule 276B" won't be a term well-known to illegal immigrants - but the 14-year deadline it represents is.

But using it to become legal depends on avoiding a criminal record - and Agatha's mistake was to try to work in the legal economy.

She turned to a contact who said he could supply a false passport for £4,000. Her friends raised the deposit and she paid off the rest in regular instalments. The document was her gateway to proper work.

She joined the books of a nursing agency, began studying and eventually ended up employed in a major London hospital.

"I loved it, I loved my work," she says. "I spent five years like this, paying a little each month for the passport. I bought my own flat. But then they discovered what was going on."

Agatha doesn't know how she was found out, but in 2008 she was called to the hospital's personnel department and sacked.

As she was escorted from the hospital with a legal P45 in her hand, two police officers were waiting to arrest her for working as an illegal immigrant. She was jailed for 12 months. Released last year, she has now submitted an asylum claim and, while it is being considered, is living again on the charity of others.

Disappearing act

Aliya used people smugglers to get out of Somalia and arrived in Liverpool in 2006. She claimed asylum and was immediately taken into immigration detention.

But her claim was refused on the grounds that she was probably Kenyan. But the Kenyan authorities said she wasn't - so the UK Border Agency could not deport her.

She was released from immigration detention and given three weeks' stay in a hostel before all support was cut off.

Aliya had the option of being helped to voluntarily return to Africa - but she chose to disappear instead. She has survived ever since with the help of church well-wishers.

"We're all migrants - but we are all in different situations," she says. "But I think British people have to ask themselves what kind of person makes themselves homeless other than someone who is seeking help."

Would any of the parties get her support, were she allowed to vote? Would she come forward if there were a more general amnesty?

"People are afraid to come forward," said Aliya. "They would think it's a trick."



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04 May 10 |  UK election

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