By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine
British backpackers make up the largest nationality of illegal workers in Australia. Why?
Dear Mum.....Not coming home yet
When British people think of illegal immigrants, they don't usually consider their own countrymen and women in that light.
But figures from the Australian Immigration department reveal UK citizens are propping up their labour underworld. Among a total of 51,000 people who had overstayed their visas at June 2004, 5,500 were from the UK.
The report says: "Many people who are recorded as overstayers are simply extending their stay in Australia by a few days or weeks, and leave of their own accord in a short period."
There's a "huge culture" of working illegally, says Conor McCormick, 33, who spent two years doing just that after his working holiday visa expired in 1997.
Enjoying himself too much to go back to his native Northern Ireland, he falsely declared himself a resident on his new tax form and continued doing agency work and a bar job. When his employers asked for his new visa, he just made excuses.
"I was surprised how easy it was, it was so simple. What I did fooled everyone. I had become a resident and no-one questioned that at all."
There were nervous moments, like being interviewed by police as witness to a fight in the pub or when friends of his were deported for staying illegally. And of course, when he finally decided to leave the country.
A few days before his flight home, Conor declared himself to the Darwin authorities, who interviewed him for 90 minutes. They then issued a new short-stay visa for Conor to leave the country and gave him a three-year ban.
"The questioning was far from hostile, they gave me a cup of tea and asked me why I overstayed. I told them I had met someone, who is now my wife, and didn't want to go back. They asked me where I worked but never asked for names or addresses."
Too much fun
Eighteen months after leaving Australia, Conor returned, halfway through his ban. He says they let him in because he had applied for residency. Now he's an Australian citizen.
Although his method for staying on even fooled the tax office, most illegal workers get paid in cash.
Jane, now a 32-year-old teacher in the UK, was forced to leave Australia due to a bereavement, so by the time she returned, her working visa had expired and the authorities refused to extend it.
"I got cash-in-hand jobs, in a restaurant, fast food, a sandwich shop. They didn't know I didn't have a working visa but they didn't ask either.
"I knew not to go to the larger companies in the city centre, where they do check, so I went to the corner shops near where I lived. All the people I knew had working visas but my circumstances were different."
The main reason for the number of illegal British workers is they're having far too much fun to leave, says Emily Brummitt, a legitimate worker at a backpackers' hostel in Surfers Paradise, Queensland.
TOP FIVE 'OVERSTAYERS'
PR China: 3,900
Rep of Korea: 2,800
SOURCE: Australian Immigration Dept
"I've found that many backpackers visiting on tourist visas, especially those who like to drink, simply run out of money long before they're ready to go back home.
"I also think many underestimate the scale of the country and the numerous places to see. Cost of travel is not cheap, even with backpacker or student discounts, and distances are great."
For cash-in-hand workers, there's fruit-picking or labouring on farms, plus working as "glassies" in bars or waitressing, she says.
"They don't offer great pay, but enough to live off and save a little. While cash-in-hand jobs are not openly promoted here, it's well known that they're available."
So what does this mean for Britain, cast in the unusual role of exporter of illegal workers?
For a start, we could take this on board and see immigration in a different light, says Rhian Beynon of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants.
"This shows that international immigration is a very natural, normal and human process. People are moving around the globe for settlement, travel or work. Hopefully this makes people think differently about what typical immigrants are."
We should also question whether it's easier for white immigrants, either in the UK or in Australia, to overstay, says Keith Best of the Immigration Advisory Service.
The previous home secretary, David Blunkett, reformed a "racist" immigration policy which had favoured white immigrants since 1971, Mr Best says, and instead fairly based entry on economic and social need. But attitudes need to change as well as rules.
"There's a legitimacy that comes with a white face and people tend not to question these people, but not if you're from Africa or the Indian subcontinent, where people wrongly regard second or third generations as immigrants."
The Australian Immigration Department says it caught 20,000 overstayers in the last financial year and has introduced a number of measures, including an immigration "Dob-in" phone line, to deal with it. British illegal workers are viewed as "low risk" because they make up a small fraction of their total visas.
Immigration is a huge issue in Australia, where the population has doubled in the last 50 years. It operates a carefully controlled migration system, based on a series of quotas - an idea adopted by the Conservatives in the UK.
Here is a selection of your comments. Thanks for contributing to the debate.
Hi I am a newly arrived "Pom" permanent resident who arrived in OZ just under 18 months ago. The immigration system here is superb. Unlike the UK, Australia knows what it wants for its labour market and to live on its shores. It is in the position where it can select skilled workers with proven experience in their fields. The selection process is very stringent, involving police checks, medical tests and skills assessments. I can't believe that the Oz government knowingly "tolerates" any overstayers. I say one thing to the overstayers ... Go home and come here legally!! Why ? Because the peace of mind that being a permanent resident brings adds to the quality of the life and makes the sky even bluer.
Graham, Central Coast, NSW
I am currently living and working in New Zealand (on a 1 year working holiday visa), though I am from the UK. Working illegally in Australia is much more difficult than it used to be, and if you, or the person who employs you, are found out, there are serious consequences. Beware, if the authorities find out (and believe me, they do regularly, especially in the bigger cities ), your work premises may get raided, you may get chucked in a detention centre and then be asked to leave (at your own cost, on a flight of the authorities' choosing). It DOES happen, you have been warned...
Natasha, New Zealand
People know the law and breaking it by overstaying is illegal and I dont see why people think they are immune to government legislation. If the government in Oz or the UK wanted people to stay they would offer them a visa extension. Wake up and get real.
Jonny, UK living as a temporary resident in Australia
Being of SE Asian descent, I was treated immediately with suspicion and contempt even though I was just a tourist in Australia. The influx of Asian immigrants into Australia has not helped and it is disturbing that politicians like Pauline Hanson have strong support for an all white, all Christian Australia. To me all Australians are immigrants be they white, black etc. The true natives are the Aborogines.
Brenda, Bedford, UK
It's unfair that ozzi backpackers get two-year working visas for the UK and we can only a one-year visa for Oz. Maybe if we could stay there for two years less, people would overstay their visa.
Louise F, England
People should be able to move wherever they like, the markets can decide whether they are needed or not
Speaking as a legal permanent resident of almost 2 years. I find it incredible that anyone would want to live here illegally. The cost of living is so high and the earnings so low - I can't imagine actually seeking to scrape a living on cash jobs, whilst dodging the authorities. Or if they ever do decide to join the rat race, they will find 47% top rate tax a bit of a shock! 'It's life Jim, but not as we know it!" Come for a holiday, then go home ot civilisation!!
Richard Williams, Australia
I was born and bred in the UK, but still get considered to be an immigrant, simply because of the colour of my skin. Britain is obsessed with the immigration issue and making people here more aware that Brits abroad who are "illegals" might make people realise the UK is not so hard done by.
I've lived in the UK legally for six years, yet still get the continual comments from people about how all the Aussies are "over here" - and the implication that a lot of us are dodgy and working for cash in pubs. Hopefully this story will enforce the fact that its not all one-way traffic!
The difference is, as your article mentioned, the British eventually leave Australia and come home. They don't claim political asylum and demand free medical treatment, free accommodation and benefits.
While backpacking in Australia I met a few white English who were living and working there illegally. As this report says they were treated well when they left. Also I met an Indian who was found out to be working illegally. He was taken from his work to a detention centre where he was not allowed visitors before he was deported a few weeks later. He was not claiming benefit and was paying his taxes the same way the English were.
I'm an Australian citizen working on an extended work permit here in the UK and lived here now for five years. I've met some Aussies and Kiwis who have over stayed their work visas here in the UK. It's interesting that they continued to get paid into their British bank accounts and still paid tax, still received NHS medical treatment etc. My opinion is that as long as they continue paying taxes to the UK government and are productive within the UK, i.e. improving the economy, the government seems to be alright about them overstaying. It seems as though your article shows the Australian government is of a similar opinion which I think is a good thing.
Patrick Conroy, UK
These "illegal" workers are putting most of their earnings back into the economy and although not paying tax, they are not claiming benefits. That's why they are tolerated.
Kath Soanes, England
The issue is so simple. Immigration has a colour. It is always the black face that is unwanted. Whites can stay anyway in the world without any check whatsoever but if a black face pops up, then the checks begin. I very much agree that there's legitimacy that comes with a white face.
I wonder how many of the "not in my back yard" immigration-a-phobes have a son or daughter overstaying Down Under or somewhere similar?
Sadly though the irony is probably lost on them...oh well.
Winston Churchill said it's an Englishman's God-given right to live whevever he d**n well chooses. I've got a lot of time for him.