Since the late 1990s, developed nations have become more determined to exercise strict control over which migrants come to their territory. Governments have adopted a range of policies to achieve that end, among them the crude but seemingly effective method of deportation.
The annual number of deportations doubled between 1997 and 2002 in the UK, and tripled between 1997 and 2008 in the United States.
But how effective is it really? As the turn to deportation has become more pronounced, another trend has become apparent: most governments are unable to remove many of the immigrants they’ve decided should leave the country.
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The result is what researchers have called the “deportation gap”. That phrase described the growing population of migrants who can’t access social support but are still in the country that’s denied them legal status, often living in near-total destitution.
Not keeping up
Across the European Union, most countries struggle to deport even migrants who they’ve identified and ordered to leave. Data from Eurostat shows the large gap between orders to depart and actual removals.
Immigration cases can cross several calendar years, and deportations take time to process, so the numbers can’t be expected to match in every individual year. But the data shows that for almost all countries — Germany is a notable exception — there is a sizeable gap every year.
In the EU as a whole, the rate of returns has consistently hovered just above 40% of orders to depart each year since 2008.
The upshot: a continually growing number of people who have no secure status but, in many cases, remain in the country anyway. It’s very likely that some have left the country without being deported and without notifying the authorities. But the scale of the accumulating gap is striking.
Refused asylum seekers
Data from the UK on asylum seekers can provide some more granular insight. Asylum statistics give a broader view of the deportation gap, because they count all the people whose applications for legal status have been refused — not just those actively ordered to leave by immigration authorities.
The British authorities also track whether refused asylum seekers leave the country voluntarily without notifying them, for example by using data provided by airlines. So estimates are more likely to represent the actual population of people living precariously after their claims for legal status were denied.
At the same time, the picture is only partial because many immigrants liable to be deported never made asylum claims in the first place. They may instead have entered the country and worked clandestinely, or been issued a deportation order after overstaying another kind of visa.
Nonetheless, the size of the gap for asylum seekers alone is very large. In 2004, the UK’s National Audit Office estimated that up to 283,500 people who’d been refused asylum between 1994 and 2004 could still be in the country.
The same methodology suggests that, since 2004, almost 109,000 more people whose asylum claims were unsuccessful may have remained in the UK anyway.
Asylum seekers in the UK are eligible for limited kinds of welfare while their claims are being processed. Under certain circumstances they can continue to access this support even if they’re refused — but typically only after showing that they’re making arrangements to leave the country.
A 2006 report from Amnesty International suggested that most denied asylum seekers instead rely on friends and charities to survive.
Looking at the nationalities of asylum claimants provides some clue to the underlying drivers of the deportation gap. Overall the UK has deported 39.8% of people whose protection claims it refused between 2004 and 2016. But the rates for some countries are much lower.
That’s because even when asylum claims are denied, there are still constraints on deportation. Human rights rules sometimes bar forcibly returning someone — even if they’re not entitled to refugee status — to a country where they would be in serious danger. And governments often need cooperation from the country of origin to effectively carry out deportation.
As a result, rates of return to countries with unstable or highly repressive governments are very low.
The removal rate to Iraq and Eritrea has steadily fallen, from above average to well below, as conditions in those countries have deteriorated. Myanmar saw a rise as its general political environment improved in the late 2000s, but then a sharp fall as persecution of the Rohingya minority became especially intense.
Compounding the issue, deteriorating conditions typically also mean more asylum seekers coming from a country in the first place — who then, even if the government denies them status, are difficult to return.
That suggests the deportation gap is unlikely to go away any time soon. In the UK, immigration authorities set themselves a target in 2004: to remove unsuccessful asylum seekers as fast as new refusals were being issued. They’ve come nowhere close to achieving that.
The problem of this population of vulnerable people, who governments decide not to help but leave destitute on their territory nonetheless, looks likely to remain. — Fergus Peace
(Picture credit: Flickr/BBC World Service)