He is short, cuddly and every immigration lawyer’s favourite film star — not quite a person but a cinematic emblem of the human aspect of our work. A new arrival from a distant country devastated by earthquake, he was cared for by his uncle (now missing) and his aunt (now confined to a home for retired bears). His is a familiar plight — and here, tendered pro bono, is my view of where Paddington stands in the eyes of the law.
The legal trouble began at the dockside when the stowaway bear broke the cover of his lifeboat, snuck past the immigration officer’s post and took a full, damp breath of English air. He had been in the Britannic realm for only a few minutes. Yet from that moment on, he would be an outlaw.
“I’m not a criminal,” Paddington has protested hotly, according to his official biographer Michael Bond. His reasoning is disarming: “I’m a bear!”
But Section 33(1) of the Immigration Act 1971 (as amended) lays down a more ominous taxonomy. In the vocabulary of the statute, Paddington is an illegal entrant. That means he has committed a criminal offence — one punishable by a term of no more than six months at Her Majesty’s pleasure.
Paddington is not the only one in legal jeopardy. Mary and Henry Brown, who found the bear at the rail terminus from which he takes his name, have come to love him as their own. For offering him a home — “harbouring” him, as the Home Office puts it — they could face prosecution for assisting unlawful immigration. The maximum sentence is 14 years.
To avoid deportation, Paddington has only one hope: he needs to establish some sort of legal basis of stay. There are few promising options. He may be seeking refuge from a natural disaster but that cuts little ice under the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. If he were being persecuted in his home country for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, then he would be in luck. As it is, asylum is out of the question.
Try a different tack: since his aunt can no longer care for him, the Browns are Paddington’s only family. That, you might think, is a fact of some significance, assuming a bear can claim the right to private and family life under Article 8 of the European Convention on, er, Human Rights.
Not so. The UK’s immigration rules, which are said to incorporate Article 8, would not recognise Paddington as part of the Brown family, nor as having a private life in the UK. Even arguing the point is unwise. Any sign that Paddington has acclimatised to UK society could be used to suggest that he is adaptable — and if he can adapt to Britain, he can jolly well go back and adapt to Peru.
He can appeal, and Paddington’s mastery of the English language weighs in his favour. But everything else — his penurious financial situation, his unlawful immigration status — weighs against him. I would assess Paddington’s prospects of success before an immigration judge as virtually nil.
Paddington seems young; he is smaller than his aunt and uncle and a total naif. Legally speaking, a great deal rests on whether he has yet turned 18. If not, he is entitled to support from the local authority in Westminster, where the Browns are understood to reside. The council would put him in foster care and he would be allowed to stay until he was 17½. After that, he would usually be forced to leave.
His youth may not matter; Paddington would struggle to prove his age. Like many, he brought only provisions (marmalade) and the clothes he wore (a red hat). He carried no documents except a label bearing the inscription, “Please look after this bear”. The Home Office would probably assess his age as being over 18 and treat him as an adult.
A dawn raid on the Browns would put Paddington on an arduous path to unceremonious removal. His first stop would probably be a privately run detention centre. He could throw himself at the mercy of the Peruvian embassy, but unless accepted there, he would languish in his cell indefinitely, costing the exchequer a small fortune. The Home Office would be unable to remove him until his appeals were exhausted. But as a point of principle, they would be unwilling to let him go.
Avoiding detection is hard work: you must attract no suspicion, live inconspicuously and dodge possible raids on your home. Landlords, banks, doctors — all have been enlisted to track the Paddingtons who roam among us. He thought he had found a home, but behind a heartwarming film lies a cold reality. The UK is no longer as welcoming as this bear once believed.
The writer is a barrister at Garden Court Chambers
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