Media Release

Use cash to help illegal migrants leave Britain

All illegal immigrants should be offered cash and other support to voluntarily leave Britain and rebuild their lives and set up businesses in their home countries, a think-tank tank recommends today.

The Social Market Foundation said that “assisted voluntary return” (AVR) was the best way to deal with what it forecasts will be a rising number of unauthorised migrants in the UK in the coming years.

Instead of more hardline enforcement and removal policies such as the “hostile environment” approach linked to the Windrush scandal, Britain should take a more active and co-operative approach to reducing illegal migrant numbers, the SMF said.

Home Office-led AVR schemes that have been scaled back in recent years should be significantly reformed and expanded, the SMF said in a new report. Trusted charities or bodies such as the International Organization of Migration should be delegated by the Home Office to run the scheme, it added.  

AVR schemes typically see migrants offered up to £2,000 of cash incentives, as well as travel costs, to return home. The SMF said that full assistance under a “rebooted” AVR programme should be open to all unauthorised migrants, not just restricted as currently to those with families and failed asylum claimants.

An enhanced package of support for migrants leaving the UK voluntarily should include help with resettlement in their home country, including support in starting up a new business there.

There are no official figures for the unauthorised migrant population of the UK, but independent estimates range between 500,000 and 1.2 million.  Enforcement policies based on tough-sounding rhetoric aren’t working, the SMF said.

Home Office figures show that fewer than 40,000 unauthorised migrants leave or are removed from the UK every year. “Enforced returns” are now at the lowest level on record: 7,624 people were forcibly removed from the UK in the year to September 2019. (Note 1)

It costs taxpayers £90 per day to hold someone in detention pending removal, equal to more than £32,000 a year. The Home Office spends more than £100 million a year on immigration detention and the cost of an enforced removal has been estimated at around £15,000.

By contrast, the Home Office’s own estimates show that the cost of helping someone leave the UK under an AVR scheme is between £2,700 and £3,100. (Note 2)

The SMF said that if Britain leaves the EU and ends free movement, illegal immigration will grow and voters are likely to demand action in response.

The public outcry over the Windrush scandal – where the Home Office wrongly detained and deported people who were legally entitled to be in the UK – shows that hard-line enforcement policies cannot command public confidence, meaning a new approach is needed, the SMF said.

Jonathan Thomas, SMF migration researcher, said:

“To respond to irregular migration with a regime that works and commands public support, Britain will have to choose from a list of difficult options. A much bigger assisted voluntary returns scheme makes sense.”

The SMF report argues that because the UK has, by international standards, relatively weak “in-country controls”, any attempt to step up removal and enforcement would require potentially controversial policies. 

Jonathan Thomas said:

“Britain needs to step up its response to irregular migration, but almost all the potential responses are likely to prove unattractive to a large portion of the public. So we are going to need to be smarter about how to do this.” 

“What are the options? A ratcheting up of forced deportations and an even more hostile environment? Combined with a local area registration regime or a population-wide ID card scheme? Or at the other end of the scale amnesties to allow irregular immigrants to stay? All are likely to be controversial with voters. By comparison, more financial help for people who want to leave might be easier to swallow.”

While acknowledging why some pro-immigration campaigners view voluntary returns schemes with suspicion, the report also urges migrant rights groups to engage more constructively with AVR programmes.

Jonathan Thomas said:

“Evidence suggests many migrants do not want to stay in the UK permanently and some are genuinely helped by assisted return schemes to return and rebuild their lives in their home country. Migrant rights groups opposed to assisted returns on a blanket basis therefore need to consider whose best interests they are serving, and whether migrants’ interests could be better served by those groups engaging with a reformed programme rather than sitting on the sidelines.”



1 Removal figures taken from this Home Office release:

2 Cost of AVR taken from this Impact Assessment:


For a full copy of the report or to arrange an interview, contact the SMF:

Barbara Lambert, SMF media officer –

James Kirkup, SMF director – – 07815 706 601

About the SMF:

The Social Market Foundation (SMF) is a non-partisan think tank. We believe that fair markets, complemented by open public services, increase prosperity and help people to live well. We conduct research and run events looking at a wide range of economic and social policy areas, focusing on economic prosperity, public services and consumer markets.  The SMF is resolutely independent, and the range of backgrounds and opinions among our staff, trustees and advisory board reflects this.


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