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There is a key sub-text to the story of Indians illegally in the UK: If British officials claim that Indians top the list of people who have no right to remain in the country, official figures also reveal that Indians often top the list of such people who volunteer to return home. Called ‘voluntary returns’ in official statistics, the figures of Indians heading home are invariably in the thousands. In 2016, Indians topped the list with 5,365 returns; while recent figures say 2,073 returned in 2019 and 1,084 in 2020 (the 2020 returns and overall immigration figures were affected by the Covid-19 pandemic). Since 2014, nearly 25,000 Indians have returned voluntarily.
The figures of the home-bound may be small relative to the number of individuals without legal right to be in the UK, but they reflect increasing dismay and disappointment among those who braved hazardous journeys across continents to get to Europe for a better life. Says Virendra Sharma, senior Labour MP for Ealing Southall: “These are people who feel they don’t have a future here. It is the UK government’s humanitarian gesture, to help those who want to return voluntarily, by providing them air fare and some assistance to resettle back home. Their return is a reflection of a combination of factors. India is also progressing rapidly; they may feel that it is better to be back among family and friends.”
For those volunteering to return home, the UK government offers a support package, including paying for the return ticket and financial incentive of up to £3,000, which they can use to find somewhere to live, find a job or start a business in their home country. The package is open to those in the UK illegally, or have overstayed visa or permission to stay; to those who have withdrawn, or want to withdraw, their applications to stay; to those who have made an asylum claim for asylum; or to those with a letter from immigration authorities confirming that they are a victim of modern slavery. The Indian high commission in London issues travel documents (Emergency Certificates) to those whose Indian identity is confirmed.
“Conditions are bad here. They don’t get social security, can’t work. Rather than sit in poverty here, they prefer to return. Many such people have some land or other assets back home. There have also been very few asylum seekers from India in the last 10 years,” says Jasdev Singh Rai, director of the Sikh Human Rights Forum.
Without legal status, individuals are unable to find proper work, open bank accounts, obtain driving licences or access medical and other services, and end up slogging off-the-books in the parallel economy on a cash basis. If poor health or other reasons prevent them working on cash-in-hand basis, many end up in the streets destitute, living rough, without access to public funds. In the London borough of Redbridge, six such Indians living on the streets died recently, unable to continue in the UK and also unable to return because some of them had destroyed their passports and other papers years ago when they were trafficked into the country.
The Redbridge media highlighted the case of two of them: Sodhi Singh and Kawal. Both were sleeping on the streets for years, before passing away. Singh reportedly came to the UK in 1995, claimed asylum, lost his cash-in-hand job in road construction and developed alcohol addiction. Kawal was keen to return to India, but could not because his papers were destroyed after he was trafficked into the UK in 1996. An injury meant he could no longer work in the parallel economy, when things turned worse; besides, he could not access state support since he did not have legal status.
Instead of facing the prospect of detention as part of tougher laws and low chances of Indians being granted asylum in the UK, it is expected that after confirming nationality and other details under the provisions of the new agreement, it would be easier for such individuals trapped in a limbo for years to find a way out.
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