A vast hidden army of illegal immigrants ensures that each day thousands of offices and homes are cleaned, streets are swept and drinks are served in Britain's pubs and clubs.
From London's building sites to farms in East Anglia, and from late-night takeaways to the treacherous sands of Morecambe Bay, they generally fill the jobs deemed too menial or too hazardous by UK nationals. If discovered, they face deportation. But according to a radical new study published today, an amnesty on their status could be worth up to £6bn to the economy.
By giving the hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants in Britain a promise that they will not be deported, at least £1bn a year would be raised in taxes, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has calculated. The left-leaning think-tank, which has the ear of Downing Street, also warns that government plans to tighten restrictions on bona fide migrants could have the perverse effect of driving more "illegals" underground.
The most recent Home Office estimate suggested there could be between 310,000 and 570,000 unauthorised migrants in Britain, with ministers admitting it is impossible to be more precise.
The IPPR says most are "likely to be doing jobs that could be characterised as dirty, difficult and dangerous", including work in construction, agriculture, cleaning and residential care. It concludes that deporting hundreds of thousands of "irregular migrants", as it describes them, is "simply not feasible".
Citing the success of immigration amnesties in the US and Spain, it urges the British Government to "regularise their work status". It contrasts the estimated boost to the public coffers with the potential £4.7bn cost of deporting all of them.
The IPPR also warns that a new government drive to give priority to skilled foreign workers "may provide incentives for those ineligible under the proposed system to migrate without permission". It argues that tighter controls on the US-Mexico border could have had the unintended effect of keeping in the US migrants that it wants to shut out.
Nick Pearce, the director of the IPPR, said: "We need proper border controls and managed legal migration. But immigrants also need to be given a chance to play by the book. There are thousands of people in Britain who work day in, day out, in often atrocious conditions for pitiful pay. They would love to pay taxes, earn the minimum wage and travel in and out of the country legally. London's economy in particular rests on their labour.
"It is inconceivable that these people will all be deported, even in the wildest fantasies of the anti-immigration right. The Immigration Service has more than enough on its hands policing our borders and removing newly arrived failed asylum-seekers. To go round the country finding, detaining and then deporting up to half a million people who don't have regular status simply will not happen."
Its report came after Home Office figures suggested racial tension is growing in several parts of the country. The number of racist incidents recorded by police in England and Wales jumped by 12 per cent to more than 59,000 last year, with even sharper rises in shire counties such as Hertfordshire, Hampshire and North Yorkshire. Many of the attacks take place against a backdrop of relentlessly negative coverage of migrant workers, portrayed as "spongers" on the British state.
The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants backed calls for an amnesty for workers who were making a positive contribution to the nation.
Habib Rahman, its chief executive, said: "As long as migrants' presence and contribution is not officially recognised, they are without rights and without a stakehold in society. As events at Morecambe Bay have demonstrated all too tragically, this leaves them open to exploitation."
Tony Woodley, the general secretary of the T&G union, said: "Workers worried about their immigration status are among the most exploited in our workplaces. Global criminal operations extort their money, while in the workplace unscrupulous employers can intimidate them without fear of reproach.
"The only way to end this exploitation is to end the isolation these workers experience."
Tony McNulty, the Immigration minister, said: "Illegal immigration is not something the Government is simply going to accept and is taking steps wherever possible to tackle this issue." He said the Government's points-based approach would be "robust against those seeking to abuse the system, while welcoming workers who have the skills needed to benefit the UK economy".
Immigration: The facts we are never told
* There are between 310,000 and 570,000 illegal immigrants in the UK, according to Home Office estimates
* If allowed to live legally, they would pay more than £1bn in tax each year
* Deporting them would cost £4.7bn and leave acute shortages of cleaners, care workers and hotel staff cIf allowed to stay, the net benefit of nearly £6bn would pay for 300 new schools, 12 district hospitals or 200,000 new nurses
* Nearly 50% of foreign-born immigrants leave Britain within five years
* Migrants fill 90% of low-paid jobs in London and account for 29% of the capital's workforce. London is the UK's fastest-growing region
* Legal migrants comprise 8.7% of the population, but contribute 10.2% of all taxes. Each immigrant pays an average of £7,203 in tax, compared with £6,861 for non-migrant workers
* There were 25,715 people claiming asylum last year. If allowed to work, they would generate £123m for the Treasury
'We have been betrayed, cheated and robbed'
* "Charles", a nursing assistant from Brazil, came to Britain to visit his mother.
Once here, he paid £500 for fake Portuguese identity papers enabling him to work. He said: "These are made in London very quickly." He travelled to Leicester, bought a false national insurance certificate for £100, and signed up with an employment agency with arelaxed attitude to false paperwork. A gangmaster posing as a supervisor was given another £200 and Charles soon landed a job producing salad, fruit pies, fruit juice and jellies for high- street stores. He worked six days a week, getting up at 3.30am to catch the agency bus which took the "illegals" to work. He was paid £4.50 an hour.
He was picked up in an immigration raid. "Our supervisor had denounced us, and the agency washed its hands. We were locked in cells. We have been betrayed, cheated and robbed," he said. He has recently been deported.
* "Alfred" left his family behind in Nigeria five years ago. He arrived on a student visa but stayed on after it ran out.
Instead of studying for a degree, he took work involving cleaning up after undergraduates at a well-known London college.
Although Alfred and his fellow workers - many of whom were also in Britain illegally - were paid the minimum wage, they worked in appalling conditions and suffered routine verbal abuse.
His patience finally ran out and he started protesting about their treatment.
A friend of Alfred's said: "Everyone was being exploited, whether they were legal or not.
"When he started to make a fuss, he was told that if he didn't keep quiet he would be reported to immigration."
Alfred left the job soon afterwards and has since disappeared.Reuse content