A proposal floated by Boris Johnson to introduce an amnesty for undocumented migrants – which he previously said would help prevent another Windrush scandal – has been quietly scrapped by the government.
The prime minister, who initially advocated the idea when he was London mayor as an “earned amnesty” for illegal immigrants, reiterated his support for the move on becoming leader of the country last July, telling MPs that his government would consider bringing in such a policy.
However, when asked about the plans by Labour MP Dr Rosena Allin-Khan in a parliamentary question this month, Home Office minister Victoria Atkins appeared to shoot them down, saying the immigration rules “already provide for undocumented migrants to regularise their status”.
Ms Atkins said: “The government remains committed to an immigration policy which welcomes and celebrates people to the UK through safe and legal routes but deters illegal immigration.”
Campaigners said rowing back on the proposal would leave migrant workers without “vital protection”, which they said would be increasingly important after Brexit in order to prevent labour exploitation, and accused the prime minister of “posturing”.
Lucila Granada, chief executive of Focus on Labour Exploitation (Flex), said: “Brexit is prompting a redesign of our immigration system. Undocumented people are at far greater risk of severe exploitation, including modern slavery offences. An amnesty for those without correct paperwork would provide vital protection.”
Omar Khan, director of the Runnymede Trust, said he was “not surprised” that the prime minister appeared to be shelving the plan, adding: “He supported amnesty in words, but like all politicians he should be judged for his actions.
“Current policy on undocumented migrants is a failure. Politicians may like the sound of talking tough, but they’re ignoring the obvious reality that current policy hasn’t been working for years, while continuing to cause harm to many people.
“It’s long past time for a grown-up, realistic debate and policy on undocumented migrants rather than blustering and posturing.”
Sonia Lenegan, head of legal policy at the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association, said: “As we have seen with Windrush, it is difficult for people to provide evidence of their life in the UK when the hostile environment is designed to ensure that those without status are unable to get the paperwork the Home Office expects to see.”
She added that she was concerned by the “lack of consideration” in these announcements for the people who would be affected by such an amnesty, saying: “Every time this is mentioned, hopes are raised before inevitably being dashed again.”
Mr Johnson first advocated the creation of an amnesty for illegal immigrants as London mayor in 2008, when he announced that his office would consider the feasibility of granting an amnesty to an estimated 400,000 people living illegally in the capital.
Eight years later, as foreign secretary, he called for an amnesty for undocumented immigrants who had lived in the UK for longer than 10 years, saying this would be the “economically rational” thing to do as it would allow them to start working lawfully and contributing tax income.
The day after he became prime minister in July 2019, Mr Johnson was asked by Labour MP Rupa Huq whether he was a “man of his word” on his previous support for an amnesty.
He answered: “I do think we need to look at our arrangements for people who have lived and worked here for a long time, unable to enter the economy, unable to participate properly or pay taxes, without documents.
“We should look at the economic advantage and disadvantages of going ahead with the policy that she describes and which I think she and I share.”
Mr Johnson described as “anomalous” the current policy of deporting anyone who “doesn’t have the correct papers, and who may have been living and working here for many years without being involved in any criminal activity at all”.
“And we saw difficulties that that kind of problem occasioned in the Windrush fiasco. We know the difficulties that can be caused,” he added.
While many welcomed his comments at the time, others responded with anger, describing the idea of introducing an amnesty as an “absurd proposal”.
Following the exchange in the Commons, a parliamentary petition was created, calling on ministers to “rule out” any prospect of granting an amnesty on illegal immigration, and has since garnered more than 35,500 signatures.
The Home Office was contacted but declined to comment.