No easy answers: Britain’s immigration dilemma

ITV News' Investigations Editor Daniel Hewitt has been exploring the biggest issues impacting people ahead of the General Election - including immigration.

Immigration is complicated and contentious. That is no truer than in Liverpool.

The River Mersey once welcomed the world’s trade - of goods and of people. A port of Empire, a city of migrants as well as merchants.

Today Liverpool has become a sanctuary for lost souls, seeking shelter and safety. More asylum seekers live in Liverpool than almost any other area of Britain.

Arriving in the city with next to nothing, usually sent up from the south of England by Home Office contractors, for many asylum seekers St Anne’s church just outside of the city centre is one of the first places they visit.

A giant red and blue sign hangs above reception: “City of Sanctuary.” This is the home of Asylum Link, a charity supporting asylum seekers and refugees. Here people find food, friendship, help and information while they await their fate.

I spent a few days here at the end of May and start of June.

Some of the staff are former asylum seekers who have been granted “leave to remain” (their application to stay in the UK was successful), and others are current asylum seekers who are volunteering (asylum seekers cannot work while they await a decision on their case).

Some of the stories are harrowing, none more so than a young woman we met from North Africa.

She arrived in the UK two months ago on a tourist visa, but she had no intention of returning home.

She is pregnant, she tells us, after being raped by her own brother. She says he had abused her for most of her childhood, and the abuse continued into adulthood.

We are protecting her identity.

“If he (my brother) knew that I am pregnant, he would kill my baby and kill me, absolutely,” she said.

“There is no one who can help me. I feel safe here. I hope to start a new life here. I hope to change everything in my life, I can’t leave.

“I would sacrifice my life for my baby.”

She must now wait to see if she is granted asylum in the UK.

Credit: ITV News

The majority of asylum seekers that come through the doors of Asylum Link are men.

I meet a man who fled Iran nearly three years ago. He converted from Islam to Christianity, an illegal act with severe consequences.

He was recently granted leave to remain in the UK. We are also protecting his identity.

“They would arrest me, torture me, and persecute me,” he told me. “That is why I had to leave."

He tells me he didn’t choose to come to the UK specifically. He paid a smuggler £20,000, not knowing where he would end up.

“I was looking for a safe country, and you had to deal with the smuggler and they choose where you go. This was not my choice.”

House of Commons data shows there were officially 104,517 asylum seekers receiving support in the UK. 2,065 asylum seekers are living in Liverpool.

Only Hillingdon in West London and Birmingham are housing more in England.

Those seeking asylum are not evenly spread around the UK. They are concentrated, placed by contractors hired by the Home Office in areas with low cost accommodation.

Credit: ITV News

While the majority of the asylum seekers we spoke to said Liverpool had been a welcoming place, not everyone is happy about their presence.

In February last year, protests outside the Suites Hotel in Knowsley where asylum seekers were being housed descended into violence, with attacks on police officers and a police van being set on hire.

Earlier this year, eight men were convicted of violent disorder.

Ewan Roberts, who runs Asylum Link, said he was shocked by the level of violence shown that night, but said the asylum system breeds “resentment” and “fear” in the local population.

When I ask him to describe the way asylum seekers are supported, he says it is “chaotic, utter chaos.”

“One of the main reasons is nobody's given an explanation of why these people have arrived here.

“So a new neighbour moves in next door, they don't speak to you. They don't talk to you. I think ‘there's something wrong with that neighbour. I don't like that.’ And automatically there you've got a kind of a conflict.

“The same thing has happened with asylum seekers. The local authorities don’t get a choice in this, it is central contracts with the government, and then people are placed in these areas, and people just get put in overnight.

“No word of an explanation, no preparation. And of course, if you don't talk to the local population and explain why this is happening, why we should be looking after these people, then you get all the myth and the room for lies and untruths.

“Fundamentally the asylum system is rotten in this country and it needs to be torn down and rebuilt.”

Net migration to the UK has almost trebled since the Brexit vote in 2016 to 685,000.

The vast majority are legal migrants coming to work or study.

Four miles from the hotel where protests took place, we visited a coffee shop in the centre of Huyton in Knowsley to get a sense of what impact local people felt increased migration had had on the area.

Our poll was by no means scientific, but it revealed an overwhelming concern with levels of immigration, with particular fears about access to housing, medical appointments and employment.

A pensioner told us: " Look at your hospitals, for a start. They have to be seen to, as well as us.”

When I pointed out many hospitals are reliant on migrant workers, he said:

"They’re people who are coming legally, for jobs. No one’s complaining about those coming legally for jobs.

"But the way that they’re coming in, they can’t have jobs, they’re living off the state. There’s no work for them."

Another woman was sitting having lunch with her daughter, who had recently graduated.

“It’s the housing. They’re coming and getting everything, aren’t they really?

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“She [her daughter] came out of college, and she couldn’t get a house. And then you’ve got all the immigrants coming over, they took all over the hotels and everything.”

An older lady said she had enormous sympathy for those seeking asylum, but questioned whether the UK had the means to care for them.

“There’s too many coming in, and they’re dying, aren’t they, on the way in? Going into the sea. It’s worrying.

“I feel sorry for them, but at the same time, we’ve got to look after us, haven’t we? The state we’re in.

While the vast majority of people we spoke to felt immigration was too high, their other two main concerns were the National Health Service and the UK economy, both of which are right now dependent on migrant labour.

A report by the Resolution Foundation suggested what little growth the UK economy has enjoyed since 2010 has largely been driven by immigration.

It says population growth averaged 0.7% a year in the last 14 years, and has been the primary contributor to economic growth.

Vahid Nagori came to the UK from India in 2010 to study. He stayed in Liverpool, and set up his own eco-packaging business, which has boomed in recent years. He’s heavily reliant on workers from abroad – and fears any clampdown on numbers.

“What we’re looking for, we can’t find it locally. That’s why we’re looking abroad,” he says.

“Half our team is immigrants. They bring the skills required which we are lacking. I think it would be very hard to manage and find the right person if we can’t bring people from abroad.”

Have you heard our new podcast Talking Politics? Every day in the run-up to the election Tom, Robert and Anushka dig into the biggest issues dominating the political agenda…

Both the Conservatives and Labour have vowed to bring down levels of immigration if elected, but neither have set out how they would improve productivity in the long term with fewer people arriving.

Reform UK argue that net migration should be zero - to allow the UK to improve access to the NHS, housing and other public services for the current population.

Whichever party forms the next government has the unenviable challenge of cutting migration numbers to please voters, while also growing the economy and improving the NHS.

In the short term, those two wants seem incompatible.