Statusless and Stateless Chinese Migrants in the UK

Siyu Luo, Doctoral Candidate in Criminology at the University of Manchester, UK.
/ 5 mins read

This blog was first published by Border Criminologies in April 2021. We are re-posting it now to highlight the issues raised.

Chinatown, Manchester
Chinatown, Manchester

In the UK, irregular Chinese migration raised policy and public concerns about the hazards of human smuggling and labour exploitation following the 2000 Dover tragedy, in which 58 Chinese people were suffocated in a lorry trailer while attempting to reach the UK, and the 2004 Morecambe Bay tragedy, in which 23 undocumented Chinese were drowned in rising tides while working as cockle pickers. The memory of the two tragedies was so vivid that the 39 Vietnamese, who were found dead in a lorry trailer in Essex in 2019, were initially identified as Chinese nationals. My PhD research explores the lives of irregular, or in their own terms, “statusless” Chinese migrants in the UK. I conducted two years’ fieldwork among the Chinese community in Manchester, UK between 2017 and 2019 and interviewed fifteen statusless Chinese migrants.

Some of the research participants were not only statusless, without the right to stay in the UK, but also stateless, without the right to return to China. As Bosworth revealed, there are significant numbers of Chinese nationals detained in the UK’s removal centres awaiting deportation, though, some cannot be returned to China. This is because, the Chinese government refuses to readmit those without papers that certify their nationality. Roig and Huddleston have also found that many countries of origin are reluctant to readmit their nationals who remain extra-legally in the EU. Being rejected by both countries of origin and destination, these individuals may be subject to indefinite and repeated detention and become what Bhatia and Canning have called “cash cows” for Britain’s detention industry. The experience of a research participant, who had remained undocumented in the UK for twenty-two years and had been detained on four occasions for a total period of five years, illustrates the plights facing statusless and stateless individuals.

Wen (pseudonym), male, aged 56, came to the UK from China in 1997 by using a forged passport. Making a living as a delivery driver, he was arrested for unlicensed driving in 2007. (Wen was disqualified from obtaining a driver’s licence by virtue of his immigration status.) After serving three months in a prison, Wen was detained pending deportation. The Home Office, however, failed to deport Wen due to his lack of a Chinese passport and the Chinese embassy’s refusal to re-document him. Wen narrated his experience: “I was taken to see the police officials from China. They took a photo of me and checked if it matched any photo in their system. I had left China in 1997 before the second-generation national ID cards came into being, so they couldn’t find my photo in the system. They said they couldn’t confirm my nationality so they couldn’t issue me with a travel document. ... I was asked to see two different groups of Chinese police officials but got the same answer”.

Not able to return to China or stay in the UK lawfully, Wen was held in removal centres for three years and seven months. After his release, Wen sued the Home Office for unlawfully detaining him and won. Nevertheless, the Home Office detained him three more times in the following three years, in which he was held for seven months, four months and four weeks respectively. Wen’s long and repeated detention could hardly be seen as simply a preparatory step for enforcing deportation. Rather it served “punitive” “deterrent”, “incapacitative” and “retributive” purposes, as Weber and Bowling note; thus, preventing him from integrating into society and ultimately undermining the legal and moral grounds for his continued residence in the UK (see work by Gibney).

The situation of being statusless and stateless can first be attributed to a lack of cooperation from countries of origin. It also stems from the humanitarian paradox inherent in the UK and other liberal democracies. The humanitarian paradox denotes a contradiction between human rights norms that obligate states to grant fundamental human rights to everyone regardless of their immigration status and the political needs that push states to be tough on (irregular) immigration to reassert their capabilities of upholding border security and protecting national identity.

On the one hand, the UK state is restrained by human rights norms from expelling irregular migrants arbitrarily. In this case, Wen was protected by the 1954 UN Convention that bars governments from expelling a person with nowhere for him to go. The European Convention of Human Rights may also suspend, though not preclude, the expulsion of irregular migrants who have exceptional reasons for not being removed. For example, two of my research participants whose children were born in the UK had their removals suspended under the provisions of Article 8 Right to respect for private and family life.

On the other hand, the British government has been perennially and increasingly hostile towards (irregular) migrants to reassert the nation-state’s sovereignty and identity and to pander to the growing anti-immigration sentiment (see work by Bosworth & Guild). Under the humanitarian paradox, the statusless and stateless individuals are often non-removable in practice but face an imminent threat of detention and removal; their human rights are protected by law but are often violated by law enforcement; some of them are finally regularised while others are deported after years of struggling.

Among my research participants, Wen was recognised as a stateless person after having remained undocumented for twenty-two years. Unable to travel to China, Lan, a tough fifty-year-old man, cried for not being able to see his mother alive for the last time. After leaving her then thirteen-month-old child for ten years, Mei finally regularised her status and reunited with her child, who, however, had become too estranged from her to call her mum. Yu, with her three children born in the UK, was caught at home in the early morning and escorted onto a flight leaving the country. Not matching the extreme circumstances highlighted by the 2000 and 2004 tragedies, the stories of the fifteen people I interviewed, however, reveal the less sensational yet more commonplace plights facing large numbers of statusless and stateless migrants in the UK.

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