LONDON (Reuters) - Thousands of illegal immigrants, backed by religious leaders and politicians, marched through London on Monday calling for fairer treatment by the government and a chance to become “normal” citizens.
An estimated 500,000 illegal immigrants live in Britain, having smuggled themselves into the country, overstayed their visitors’ visas or made asylum applications that have not yet been heard.
Many of them work illegally, with the result that the government loses up to one billion pounds ($2 billion) in uncollected income tax, according to studies.
“These migrant workers are hugely beneficial to the state and hugely beneficial to the economy,” said Austen Ivereigh, the organizer of a campaign called Strangers into Citizens that is trying to win the migrants legal rights.
“Most of them cannot be forcibly removed for practical reasons, but at the same time the government doesn’t want to give them the legal right to remain,” he said.
The Home Office (interior ministry) does repatriate up to 25,000 illegal immigrants a year, but has admitted that it does not have the resources to remove all those in the country.
Strangers into Citizens, which has support from Catholic, Protestant and Muslim leaders, the mayor of London and an array of politicians, wants illegal migrants who have been in Britain for four years or more to be granted a two-year work permit.
After that, and depending on references from their employer, they should be granted leave to remain — a move that would essentially make them regular citizens.
Other countries in the European Union, including Germany and Spain, have carried out such naturalization programs and seen a marked boost to their economies, according to Ivereigh.
But British Immigration Minister Liam Byrne has raised concern that such a move would give a green light to more illegal immigration, on a scale the country could not cope with.
In recent years, Britain has benefited hugely from a flood of legal migrants from eastern and central Europe, a result of the expansion of the European Union. There are now estimated to be 600,000 Poles living in Britain.
But the influx has led to social tensions in some areas and Byrne has expressed fears that unchecked immigration could exacerbate those tensions. Britain now plans to introduce a points-based system to regulate the flow of immigrants.
The illegal migrants marching on Monday, many of them waving small British flags, hail from all corners of the world — Asia, Africa, Latin America and non-EU eastern Europe.
“The idea that deportation is a solution to illegal immigration is a nonsense,” Ivereigh said. “These people are a huge benefit to the country.”