Young Paperless Lives: Understanding ‘illegality’ through the experiences of young undocumented migrants

Young Paperless Lives: Understanding ‘illegality’ through the experiences of young undocumented migrants

Alice Bloch (University of Manchester), Nando Sigona (University of Birmingham) and Roger Zetter (University of Oxford)

Most European media have recently reported the arrival of two cargo ships, Ezadeen and Blue Sky M, at the Italian shore. These old cargo ships were used by human smugglers to transport migrants from Syria and Kurdistan across the Mediterranean at a cost of over $5,000 per person. To many it was just a further confirmation that the alleged invasion of Europe continues. Moral panic on immigration pervades the public debate in many EU member states. Over the last thirteen months, since the death at sea of hundreds of migrants near Lampedusa, images of migrants in overcrowded boats crossing the Mediterranean in search of humanitarian protection or better opportunities have become so familiar that many in Europe simply assume that all irregular migrants came to Europe through that route. Immigration enforcement acts on those stereotypical representations of ‘the illegal’ and contributes to reifying them. But the reality is very different. There are multiple ways in which people become undocumented including refused asylum seekers who have not or cannot be returned, visa over-stayers or being born to parents without status. Arguably, it is state policies that make people ‘illegal’ though it is not necessarily a static situation as there is movement in and out of different immigration statuses.  Moreover, research also shows the enormous variety of groups of undocumented migrants, although the majority are young, and the different degrees of poverty, vulnerability and exploitation among them.

Amongst the diversity, our research has focused on young undocumented migrants in Britain, and we reported some aspects of their stories and experiences in our book Sans Papiers: The Social and Economic Lives of Young Undocumented Migrants. The book draws on data from 75 in-depth interviews with young people aged 18 to 31 who were living irregularly, without any legal rights to reside in the UK at the time of their interview. Interviews were carried out with migrants from China, Brazil, Ukraine and Zimbabwe, and with Kurds from Turkey in the West Midlands, the North West and Greater London. Central to our analysis is the nexus between migration, status and youth. In this short piece our intention is to highlight some of the main themes in the book and to reflect on the current policy framework in relation to undocumented migrants.

Reasons for coming to the UK varied and these motives impacted on strategies once in the UK. For example: those who came for an adventure or to acquire new experiences and skills were less anxious about being caught and deported than those who had accrued large debts making their journey; those who feared persecution and/or had dependents in the country; and those who relied on remittances. The relationship between status and risk starts with the reasons for migration and pervades the whole experience from the time of arrival onwards. On arrival, it was surprising how ill prepared many were for what lay ahead; even those that had pre-existing contacts already living in the UK who had provided them with information, seemed to be surprised and disappointed at the disjuncture between what they had expected to find and the harsh realities of life. Very quickly young people became socialised into being undocumented with all its limitations and exclusions, learning how to survive and be resilient to their circumstances, finding places to live, building social networks and finding jobs.

Undocumented migrants are excluded from any social assistance and so finding work and staying in work was an imperative. A minority carried out unpaid domestic exchanges (food and board for child care and cleaning), had others to support them, or were able to use savings in times of unemployment. We found that many of the young undocumented migrants we interviewed were in precarious work with poor terms and conditions, that informal labour markets were gendered, and that the undocumented migrants interviewed in our study were for the most part working within ethnic enclaves such as restaurants or ethnic minority dominated sectors such as cleaning. However, alongside the obvious disadvantages we also discovered examples of agency, resilience and resistance to the barriers created by not having a regular status, such as using constructed documents to enter more formal parts of the labour market, not disclosing status, or moving on from jobs when documents were requested.  Everyone was aware of what they could and could not do and operated within self-imposed boundaries, carefully weighing up the costs and benefits of decisions relating to work but also other aspects of everyday life, such as social contacts, relationships and mobility around the city.

Undocumented migrants form their own social networks, often comprised of others without a legal status to reside in the UK and often from the same country of origin, ethnic and linguistic background. These networks are not only perceived as safe spaces but also offer information and advice about jobs, housing and life in the UK and support and social interactions. Social lives and activities are limited by status, not just because of the long hours worked and the poor remuneration, but the need to remain hidden and to carefully evaluate the risks involved in any activities and engagements. Of course strategies are not uniform and fears are differently experienced. At one extreme, some young people we interviewed from Zimbabwe and Kurds from Turkey with asylum backgrounds lived in almost perpetual terror of being caught and responded to their situations by being as isolated as possible within the boundaries of their financial situations. In contrast, some of the Ukrainians and Brazilians we interviewed took calculated risks that enabled more diverse and less hidden lives outside of work.

Focused on young people, our research found a highly calculated existence within a limited status to be a significant dimension of their experiences, not just in terms of their motives for migration and their aspirations for the migration project, but also in terms of the ways in which they lived and understood the limitations of their status. A minority already had partners and children and a smaller minority were supporting transnational families. For most though, status acted as a barrier to relationships and family formation, and was one of the considerations about longer-term decision making among those who could return to their country of origin. While being young and undocumented seemed a feasible way of living, having a family and growing older without status was deemed to be much more challenging. Interestingly, what for many started as a temporary sojourn, had extended into years of living as an undocumented migrant with all the limitations, barriers and feelings of stagnation. Time and opportunities to develop, obtain an education, a career, and a family were gradually passing by and this was something our interviewees were very conscious of and concerned by.

We encountered a group of young people whose lives are shaped by their status, leaving them to occupy marginal spaces, and unable to gain access to the basic rights and futures that others in society enjoy. These young people were engaged in a means of survival that required considerable physical and emotional strength. And the paradoxes of their existence were readily apparent. Britain was perceived as a land of opportunities and an upholder of human rights. Yet, it marginalised and excluded vulnerable people from realising economic and educational opportunities, and from accessing even the most basic of human rights.

The interviews with young people reported on in ‘Sans Papiers’ (1) pre-dates the most recent immigration legislation – the Immigration Act 2014 – which has further extended the state apparatus of internal immigration control into civil society.  It is difficult to judge what exactly the consequences will be for undocumented migrants – both intended and unintended – though it is likely to affect employment practices leading to greater vulnerability, poorer terms and conditions at work, and limited access to accommodation and quality of housing.  A group of marginalised migrants already unable to realise their employment rights are likely to be pushed further into the margins of informal work. As young people who once had aspirations, and in some cases still do, their exclusion can be especially painful on a personal level. But systemic exclusion is also destructive for society as a whole, due to the increasing social and economic divisions that are brought about by differential rights. We end our book by reflecting on Bauman’s (2) description of ‘wasted lives’. While this may seem negative in light of the agency and resilience shown by some young undocumented migrants, the reality is that the divisions and barriers encountered by those living without status are acutely felt, and permeate all aspects of life.


Alice Bloch, Nando Sigona and Roger Zetter, Sans Papiers: The Social and Economic Lives of Young Undocumented Migrants’ (Pluto Press, 2014).
Zygmunt Bauman, Wasted Lives: Modernity and its Outcasts (Polity, 2004).


Alice Bloch is Professor of Sociology at the University of Manchester. Recent publications include:  ‘Employer sanctions: The impact of workplace raids and fines on undocumented migrants and ethnic enclave employers’, Critical Social Policy, (2015, with Leena Kumarappan and Sonia McKay), ‘Employment, social networks and undocumented migrants: The employer perspective’, Sociology, (2014, with Sonia McKay) and Race, Multiculture and Social Policy, (2013 with Sarah Neal and John Solomos). Nando Sigona (@nandosigona) is Birmingham Fellow and Lecturer at the University of Birmingham. He is an Associate Editor of the journal Migration Studies. Recent publications include: ‘Campzenship: Reimagining the camp as a social and political space’, Citizenship Studies (2015), Ethnography, diversity and urban space, Routledge (2014 with Mette Berg and Ben Gidley) and The Oxford Handbook of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies (OUP, 2014 with Elena Fiddian Qasmiyeh, Gil Loescher and Katy Long). Roger Zetter is Emeritus Professor at the University of Oxford, and former Director of the Refugee Studies Centre, 2006-2010. Roger is the author of a number of seminal books and his paper Labelling Refugees: Forming and Transforming a Bureaucratic Identity, is one of the most highly cited papers in the field of refugee studies.