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An immigration lawyer reviews Paddington 2: life in the hostile environment

An immigration lawyer reviews Paddington 2: life in the hostile environment

Warning: contains spoilers. And information about the plot too.

Let me say at the outset that Paddington 2 is a deeply unrealistic film. As a Paddington fan and father of two young children I had no problem suspending my disbelief to allow for a talking bear. I was, for the duration of the film at least, relaxed about the idea that an elegant crescent near Portobello Road might be populated by actual living, working Londoners. The absence of electronic screens from Brown family life seemed natural. It did not cross my mind, at the time, how improbable was the existence of multiple functioning red telephone boxes.

I could even accept, despite being a man who is now entirely self-sufficient in marmalade, that Paddington might somehow come by a shed load of Seville oranges both in prison and out of season.

As an immigration lawyer by profession, though, I can tell you that the portrayal of life in the UK as an illegal immigrant in Paddington 2 was utterly unreal.

It would be kind to start with the bits the film makers got right. The whole premise of Paddington 2 is that Aunt Lucy cannot come to London. All Paddington can do is send her letters about his new life in London. It is true that as an unaccompanied asylum seeking child — as he would be designated in the bureaucratic and dehumanizing language of the Home Office — he has no right to bring parents, adoptive or otherwise, to the UK. There is a major campaign underway to change that, if you are interested.

Even if Paddington had somehow managed to obtain lawful residence, despite my predictions to the contrary back in 2014, there is still no way he could sponsor Aunt Lucy to come and live in London. She would be treated as an adult dependent relative, a route that was basically shut down in 2012. To afford the application fee, Paddington would need to save over six times as much as he does for the pop-up book around which the plot revolves. For that application to succeed, he would need to prove that Aunt Lucy “as a result of age, illness or disability require long-term personal care to perform everyday tasks” and that there is no-one in Peru to provide such care or it is not affordable.

The Home Office would say that she can continue to live in her Home For Retired Bears in Lima, no matter what her or Paddington’s emotional needs might be. Every day, this inhuman immigration rule creates almost unimaginable anguish for many migrant families around the UK.

Where the film about our ursine hero really enters the realms of fantasy is in its portrayal of Paddington’s everyday existence.

Paddington is, assuming my predictions were correct, without immigration status. He is already committing a criminal offence by simply remaining in the UK. Our betters and masters have seen fit to layer illegality on illegality, though, and virtually anything else Paddington does over and above breathing attracts additional criminal and civil penalties. These affect not only Paddington himself but also those who come into contact with him.

This is what the Home Office and Theresa May have proudly called “the hostile environment”, almost as if they were setting out to create a war zone. Recent attempts have been made to rebrand it the “complaint environment” but, frankly, I think the Home Office might need some better PR people if they think that sounds any less sinister.

Paddington gets a job. He tries his hand as a barber then as a window cleaner. As of 12 July 2016, Paddington is committing a criminal offence by working, under section 26A of the Immigration Act 1971, as amended by the Immigration Act 2016.

These are classic cash in hand jobs, which is uncharacteristically savvy of the young bear. Keeping his money in a large jar is a wise move. Were Paddington to attempt to bank his hard earned cash, the bank or building society would, under obligations imposed by the Immigration Act 2014, have to check his immigration status before opening a new account. From 1 January 2018 any existing account Paddington had already set up would also be at risk of closure. The money he earns could be frozen and seized.

Paddington’s window cleaning business was clearly self-employed in nature. His work as a barber, however brief, would be regarded by the authorities as employed work. This is a real problem for the unfortunate shop owner, who faces a fine of up to £20,000. I’ve come across several cases in my own work where a migrant was “encountered” in a shop, claiming to be minding the till temporarily or just hanging out with friends, but where a hefty civil penalty was imposed on the employer anyway.

Paddington lodges with the Browns in their elegant home at 32 Windsor Gardens. If Paddington pays any contribution towards his accommodation – perhaps a share of the weekly shopping, or even payment in marmalade – that would bring these living arrangements within the “right to rent” scheme created by the Immigration Act 2014. The Brown family would face a civil penalty of up to £5,000 for allowing Paddington to live with them, and could even be prosecuted if they knew about or “had reasonable cause” to know about his unlawful immigration status.

Finally, we see Paddington have a brush with the law. His immigration status would be one of the first things police officers would check, under Operation Nexus. Under this joint working operation between police and immigration officials, even victims of crime have been threatened with removal. As a defendant in a trial, as of 13 November 2017 Paddington will need to provide his nationality or face further criminal charges.

Paddington is destined to end his time in the UK as a Foreign National Offender, another of the bureaucratic labels officials use to distance themselves from the real people whose lives they govern. Any sentence of 12 months or over attracts automatic deportation. As the recipient of a ten-year sentence, Paddington would have virtually no hope of winning any appeal. In prison, he would be constantly badgered by immigration officials to agree to an early removal.

After all he would have gone through, early removal from the UK’s hostile environment back to Darkest Peru would seem like a very attractive option.

I am happy to report, though, that none of that unpleasantness features in this lovely, heartwarming film about a stranger welcomed in a land that is kinder and more compassionate than our own.

Colin Yeo

Immigration and asylum barrister, blogger, writer and consultant at Garden Court Chambers in London and founder and editor of the Free Movement immigration law website.

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