Linda was brought to UK from Nigeria to join her mother in the UK when she was four. The visa on which she travelled was, like her mother’s, a visitor visa, and so she became an overstayer as a child. Linda’s mother died when she was 12 and she was initially looked after by extended family members, being passed from one aunt to another. No one seemed to realise that Linda had no status in the UK.
Linda was 18 when she had to leave home because her aunt’s partner had become abusive. She was no longer entitled to support from social services as a child. Neither could she access benefits or work. Linda was homeless. The only route open to her was to apply to the Home Office based on the length of time she had been in the UK, but she didn’t understand the law, the application was complicated and she had no money to pay for an immigration solicitor in order to make it.
Eventually Linda was referred to the Migrant Children’s Project at Coram Children’s Legal Centre and she was able to get help, free of charge, and ensure that she could regularise her status and plan for her future.
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Linda’s case is not an unusual one. University of Oxford research has estimated that there are 120,000 undocumented migrant children in the UK, 65,000 of whom were born in this country.
These children, who live in the UK without regular immigration status, are often unable to progress in education and access basic social rights including healthcare and support as a result of their immigration status, leaving them extremely vulnerable and in many cases facing extreme poverty.
At the same time, they are often unable to take the necessary steps to regularise their status, even when they have very strong claims for remaining in the UK.
This may be due to lack of awareness of their legal options in an ever more complex immigration system, inadequate or unavailable legal advice, or prohibitive Home Office application fees. In some cases, they may be at risk if they were to return to their country of nationality. As a result, “unreturnable” children and young people who are long-term, settled residents of their communities are left in limbo.
Public concern about immigration has fuelled a policy approach based on the notion that creating a “hostile environment” for migrants like Linda is an effective means of encouraging them to leave, in the belief that it is Britain’s “generosity” to migrants that attracts them to the UK.
The past few years have already seen the refusal to increase asylum support levels in line with inflation, the removal of legal aid for almost all immigration cases, the tightening of immigration rules on long residence, restrictions on access to private housing and proposals to severely restrict access to healthcare.
In 2008, MP Ian Duncan Smith, in opposition, noted that the then government was “using forced destitution as a means of encouraging people to leave voluntarily” and that this “failed policy” was “driven by the thesis, clearly falsified, that we can encourage people to leave by being nasty”. In 2012, the Education Select Committee asserted that “it would be outrageous if destitution were to be used as a weapon against children because of their immigration status”. Yet, as we approach 2015, this is still the risk.
Coram Children’s Legal Centre’s research and experience, documented in a 2013 report: “Growing up in a hostile environment: the rights of undocumented children in the UK”, shows that such a policy approach is having a significant and damaging impact on children in the UK, pushing many into poverty.
And as well as the consequences for children, many of the changes implemented as part of this “hostile environment” agenda have resulted in a shifting of responsibility and costs onto already stretched local authorities, who for many people are the last remaining safety net when destitute and desperate. For example, homeless families with children have to turn to their local authority if they are homeless, placing increasing pressure on local government resources.
There have long been calls on the Home Office to provide a robust and effective immigration system, and one that incentivises compliance with the rules. But such a system must also address historical failings and deal properly with those who have strong claims to stay in the UK rather than wasting precious resources trying to pursue enforcement action in clear violation of the established rights and best interests of children and young people. This includes children who have grown up in the UK, go to school in the UK, and feel themselves to be British.
Undocumented migrant children and young people are among the most vulnerable in the UK and the most at risk of exceptional poverty and destitution. A fair, effective immigration system is one that upholds the rights of these children.
Kamena Dorling is policy and programmes manager at Coram Children’s Legal Centre.