Children not outcasts: PICUM conference on undocumented migrant children in the UK

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By Ruth Grove-White (MRN)

In the same week that Theresa May restated her commitment to restricting the human rights of people liable for deportation, the Brussels-based charity PICUM held a conference which highlighted the desperate reality of irregular status for many children in the UK.

The conference, organised jointly by charities PICUM and Praxis, was called Building Strategies to Protect Children in an Irregular Migration Situation in Europe’. It drew together local authorities, public service providers and charities to highlight the available evidence about undocumented migrant children in the UK. In particular the focus was on the estimated 100-150,000 undocumented migrant children in the UK.

The information presented by researchers, lawyers and front-line community workers once again exposed the limitations of the government’s approach to irregular migration. May and other ministers appear to believe that destitution and eventual deportation is the best solution for undocumented migrants, including children. The government seems set to continue its restrictive direction of travel on this issue, focusing currently on how human rights can be suspended for some irregular migrants in order to remove them from the UK.

But this conference heard about the children whose lives are being damaged by the lack of a more long-term and realistic approach to these issues. The blurred status of these children confounds the ‘illegal/legal’ distinction drawn by the government – according to Oxford University’s Nando Sigona, around half of undocumented children here are estimated not to technically be ‘migrants’ at all, but to have been born in the UK to parents with irregular status. Most undocumented migrant children are unlikely to be deported but instead lead their lives in limbo in the UK. Increasing difficulties in accessing education, healthcare or adequate housing are reported to lead, for some, to physical and mental health problems. In particular the plight of Afghani and Somali children in the UK was highlighted by front-line workers.

According to this conference, the situation of children without regular status has worsened over the past five years or so, as UKBA has developed a more active presence in local communities. Government spending cuts are limiting public services for hard to reach groups, and making legal aid more difficult to secure for those children who would otherwise have a legal remedy available to protect their rights or secure regular leave to remain.

Amid all these challenges, the conference produced some big messages for advocates of undocumented migrant children about how to mount challenges against these widespread and compelling difficulties. The first is that a great deal of work is underway in support of children with irregular status, and that commitment to continuing this work is unwavering among many. We heard many examples of local projects and support initiatives such as Salusbury World, which are doing admirable work to reach out to these children. There was also welcome commitment from some local authorities such as Tower Hamlets to continue their out-reach work in this area into the future.

Building this support is more challenging, especially in the current political climate. It was agreed that calls for government to address their situation in wider strategies seeking to promote family life or alleviate child poverty should not be abandoned. This will require new partnerships to be built, including with mainstream children’s charities, teachers, healthcare professionals and housing providers.

There were useful pointers from local authority representatives around the need for civil society to gather a robust evidence base on the situation of undocumented migrant children in local areas. As the pressure on their budgets increases, local authorities will particularly need to be able to clearly evidence the financial benefits of securing early access for undocumented children to public services or targeted support.

It will also be important to link to European fora that can highlight the difficulties of undocumented migrant children. PICUM is currently leading a pan-European project on undocumented migrant children, and the EU Fundamental Rights Agency will this November focus a major conference on irregular migrants in Europe. Both are opportunities to highlight the UK situation at European level.

So, although there was a clear acknowledgement of the increasing pressures likely to fall on undocumented migrant children (and on groups supporting them) in the UK, the mood at yesterday’s conference was that there is plenty of work that can still be done to advocate alternative approaches. The job now will be to take this forward together.

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