Ministers urged to offer migrants amnesty

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Tony Blair will be urged today to lift the threat of deportation from all illegal immigrants who have been in Britain for at least two years, and offer them the chance to remain permanently.

The plea from the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) follows growing calls for ministers to offer a one-off amnesty to hundreds of thousands of "irregular" workers known to be in the country. The council argues there are "pressing human rights reasons" for the dramatic move, which would tackle exploitation of migrant workers and improve community relations.

The group also maintains that the step would boost the economy by saving the country the cost of deportations, and bringing illegal workers into the tax system.

The most recent Home Office estimate suggested there could be between 310,000 and 570,000 unauthorised migrants, including failed asylum-seekers, people who have overstayed work or student visas and trafficking victims. However, a senior immigration officer sparked uproar in May when he confessed he did not have the "faintest idea" how many there were.

In its report, to be debated at a parliamentary meeting tomorrow, the JCWI calls for the Government to consider a "one-off regularisation". It suggests migrants who have lived in Britain for seven years and do not have a serious criminal record should be granted automatic indefinite leave to remain.

Those who lived here at least two years, and can prove they are in work or have family links, should get five years' temporary permission to stay, with the eventual prospect of indefinite leave to remain.

Habib Rahman, chief executive of the JCWI, said: said: "The starting point must be rights for all migrants. In the end a system that denies full rights to all migrants in the UK is both socially unjust and is creating losers all round."

The Transport and General Workers' Union welcomed the proposals. Jack Dromey, the union's deputy general secretary, said: "Our country and our economy need migrant workers. It is impractical and immoral to suggest that we deport half a million people."

Last week, however, a poll by the pressure group Migrationwatch found that more than 70 per cent of people disagreed with an amnesty for illegal immigrants. The idea has also been fiercely opposed by the Conservatives, despite the launch yesterday of a major national consultation aimed at dropping the party's hardline rhetoric on immigration in favour of a "civilised" policy.