A lesson in Symbolic Politics: Plans to Evict 'illegal' Immigrants in the UK

This post, by Christina Boswell, originally appeared on her personal blog.

This week the government announced plans to facilitate the eviction of tenants illegally resident in the UK. As part of their drive to ‘create a hostile environment for illegal migrants’, the government will remove legal obstacles to evicting non-nationals who do not have legal residency status. They will also introduce penalties for landlords who fail to enforce the new provisions.

This measure doesn’t make sense on any practical level. First, those evicted are likely to end up homeless or in overcrowded accommodation. They will be vulnerable to exploitation by ruthless landlords operating outside the rules – indeed the measure is likely to lead to a growth in the irregular property letting market.

Second, as pilots of this scheme have already shown, landlords are likely to be more cautious about letting to non-nationals, or even British nationals who cannot produce the relevant documentation. Certain ethnic minority groups already face discrimination in accessing accommodation, and this measure can only make matters worse.

Thirdly, it’s far from clear how evicting people from their property will facilitate the ‘removal’ of those who’ve overstayed their legal residency. One group targeted by the new measure is asylum applicants whose cases have been rejected. We know how challenging it has been for consecutive governments to remove people in this situation. Labour had a series of targets for removal of rejected asylum-seekers, which they rarely met. The current government has hardly done better. So why would the Home Office want to make it more difficult to keep track of this group by evicting them from known addresses?

Fourthly, it’s simply not credible that this provision will deter those who are seeking to reside and work in the UK without legal status. There will be ways of finding accommodation through friends and informal networks – or living rough. Access to the legal property market is likely to be pretty low down on the list of considerations for those fleeing persecution or poverty and seeking a better life in the UK.

But of course, the measure is not about practical considerations. It’s not seriously designed to reduce the incentives of potential migrants to move to the UK, or to encourage the return of those already resident.  It’s far more all about signaling to target voters that the government is tough on immigration; that it is taking action to tackle illegal entry and stay, especially given its problems grappling with problems at Calais.

In an earlier blog I wrote about the risks of this form of symbolic politics. Cosmetic adjustments can easily catch governments out, once it becomes clear that they are not having any substantive effect. This has been the fate of the net migration target, which the government has been unable to meet.

But governments are less likely to run this risk in the area of illegal immigration. By definition, illegal immigrants attempt to remain invisible to official structures. And while researchers have produced various methods for ‘guesstimating’ the size of the illegally resident population, it is impossible to produce accurate figures. This implies that the impact of government measures to control and limit irregular migration will be difficult to gauge. The only things that can be reliably measured are incidents captured by official data, such as the number of evictions,  or prosecutions of landlords. But we will never know whether the measure has had an impact on the size of the illegal population in Britain, let alone whether it has altered the incentives of would-be migrants. These features make the initiative ideal as an instance of symbolic politics: rhetorically stringent; while in practice, ineffectual or possibly counter-productive.