Controlling immigration: an Asian perspective

In August 2013, UK Home Office officials, with British police officers in tow, conducted a series of checks, mainly at railway stations, as they sought to find immigrants illegally living in the UK. As well as the spot checks at transport hubs there were raids on workplaces, targeting employers who offer work to illegal immigrants. The Home Office officials’ actions followed the rollout of a number of vans displaying signs encouraging illegal immigrants to ‘go home’ in a Home Office pilot scheme, which was deemed ‘stupid and offensive’ by Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat business secretary, although conversely a 10 Downing Street spokesperson stated that the posters 
and leaflets were attracting a ‘great deal 
of interest’. 

The dispute then escalated with Dr Martin Ruhs, a longstanding member of the UK government’s Migration Advisory Committee, stating that:

‘In liberal democracies generally we don’t want to do the kinds of things that are commonplace in Singapore or maybe the Middle East’.

The question then arises of how the UK policy on tackling illegal immigration compares with that of Singapore, and an examination of the measures each nation intends to implement in order to control immigration in the coming years.


Earlier this year, the Home Office stated that there had been:

‘… 228 immigration street operations since 2008 and that there were 9,000 arrests in 2012 for suspected immigration abuse’.

As part of the enforcement efforts, employers (who have also been subject to s15 of the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006 (the Act) since February 2008, which allows the Home Office to issue Civil Penalties for employers who use illegal migrant workers) have seen increased requirements through the introduction of the points-based system (PBS).

Many employers in the UK are now required to make regular immigration compliance checks on their overseas employees, and are also facing constant increases in the UK government fees for obtaining the authorisation to use foreign workers. According to the Home Office, the rationale behind this is that ‘those who use the system must pay for the system’.

It has been noted, however, that with respect to s15 of the Act, two thirds of the fines imposed on employers of illegal workers have been uncollected in the past five years, with only £25m of the £80m of fines issued collected.


The Immigration & Checkpoints Authority in Singapore (the Authority) recently released their mid-year report for 2013. The Authority, as the lead agency in Singaporean border security and identification, deal with the examination of passengers and vehicles at checkpoints and administer tough laws on illegal immigrants (and employers and homeowners who harbour illegal immigrants) by working closely with their strategic partners, namely the police and the Ministry of Manpower.

The mid-year report for 2013 stated that the total number of immigration offenders arrested by the Authority showed a 0.5% decline (1,311) for the period January to June in 2013, compared to the same period in 2012 (1,318)1. Of the 1,311 immigration offenders arrested in 2013, 315 were illegal immigrants and 996 were overstayers, registering a fall of 22.8% and an increase of 9.5% respectively, compared to 2012.

The Ministry of Manpower, who govern the Singaporean work pass scheme, reviewed the administrative fees for all work passes and increased the administrative fees for most work passes on 1 April 2013. Similar 
to the UK government’s stance, this was in line with the Singapore government’s financial principle that the full cost of providing a public service should be 
borne by users of the service, rather 
than taxpayers in general.

The mid-year report also stated that there were 111 harbourers and 55 employers arrested between January and June 2013. However, it should be noted that all investigative and associated functions for harbouring and employment cases were transferred from the Singapore police force to the Authority on 1 July 2012. This, as published by the Authority, ensures a centralised management of all immigration offences at the Authority, which allows the Authority to co-ordinate enforcement effects against potential harbourers and employers.

Singapore also maintains strict penalties for those who seek to abuse the system. Employers who fail to undertake or maintain adequate compliance controls may see fines of up to S$15,000 for the first offence, with those who are deemed to be ‘key appointment holders’ liable to detention of up to six months.


Since taking responsibility for immigration offences in July 2012, the Authority has adopted a targeted approach in its public education efforts to reach out to potential harbourers. Some of the target audience include housing agents, grassroots leaders, students and senior citizens. In similar actions to those seen by the UK government, as noted above, flyers in Thai were distributed to workers on Thai Labour Day outlining the potential consequences and penalties of overstaying and illegal entry.

Under Singapore’s Immigration Act, a homeowner is liable to be charged for harbouring overstayers and/or illegal immigrants if investigations reveal that they have not exercised due diligence as required by law. Under Singaporean law, homeowners who wish to rent their premises to foreigners are required to check the status of their prospective foreign tenants to ensure that they are living in Singapore legally. Homeowners are required to check either an original immigration pass or a work pass, to cross-check the particulars on the pass against those on the original passport, and verify the validity of the pass by checking with the issuing authority, ie the Authority or the Ministry of Manpower. If the homeowner is found guilty of recklessly (ie failing to carry out all three due diligence checks or carrying out only one of these checks) or knowingly harbouring overstayers and/or illegal immigrants, they may be sentenced to imprisonment of not less than six months and not more than two years and a fine not exceeding S$6,000; or if a homeowner is found guilty of negligently (ie carrying out only two of the three due diligence checks) harbouring overstayers and/or illegal immigrants, they may be liable to a fine not exceeding S$6,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months, or to both.


Similarly, the Home Office has adopted a targeted approach in its public education efforts. A recent consultation by the Home Office examined proposals to impose a new requirement on landlords to conduct immigration checks on prospective tenants, with penalties for those who provide rented accommodation to illegal non-EEA migrants.

As part of this consultation, the Home Office stated that they do not expect private landlords to be experts in immigration. The proposal is for a limited list of documents to be available for private landlords, which they are expected to accept in making the checks. In addition, the Home Office will publish guidance so that landlords can easily recognise documents that are presented to them by comparing them with specimens presented in the guidance. Similar to Singapore’s efforts on housing above, private landlords will be subject to fines if they fail or negligently apply these checks. The proposed requirements are said to be modelled on existing controls, which apply to the employment of illegal workers.

This consultation was run in conjunction with another consultation on proposals to change the basis on which migrants access health services. These proposals, as outlined in the Queens’ Speech to Parliament, are said to make it more difficult for illegal migrants to live in the UK and ensure that legal migrants make a proper financial contribution to key public services.

The UK government has stated that they will not allow the growth of a shadow economy for illegal migrants, whether it is employment or housing. Similar to those rules in place in Singapore, the proposed regulations will make it more difficult for illegal migrants to find accommodation and benefit communities said to be blighted with illegal structures and overcrowded houses.


Singapore is an island state comprising 
of around 5.3 million residents, on the other 
hand the UK is an island comprising of 
63 million residents. Singaporean and British residents are both seeing the benefits 
and the disadvantages of immigration. 
The British prime minister, David Cameron, and the Singaporean prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, have both stated that immigration needs to be ‘properly controlled’ and both are acutely aware of the perception of immigration to the voting public, which means the ‘tough’ approach to employers, homeowners and immigrants in both Singapore and the UK is most likely to last.

By Mark Chowdhry, 
managing associate, Magrath Global.



  1. ‘Immigration offenders’ refers to both illegal immigrants and overstayers