This article has been written by Aaron Gates-Lincoln who is a correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service.
The UK government has not been shy about its use of hostile environment policies to deter people from entering the UK over the past decade. These policies are a set of legislative measures designed to make staying in the UK as difficult as possible without ‘leave to remain’ status, in the hopes it will make migrants ‘voluntarily leave’. However, it is becoming clear that now more than ever, these policies are having a direct, negative impact upon the lives of migrant children in the UK.
It is being estimated that thousands of children of EU nationals who are now in the UK care system are going to be put at risk by flaws in the EU Settlement Scheme. The scheme, introduced after Brexit, allows EU citizens to apply to receive indefinite leave to remain status within the UK. For children in care, applications for the scheme must be submitted and paid for by the local authority in which they are situated in. It was expected that this process would be the easiest and most effective method in ensuring all children are accounted for under the EU Settlement Scheme.
However, a Freedom of Information request by the Children’s Society has found that so far, fewer than 40% of the 3,700 or so known eligible children in care have had their applications submitted. Numbers may be significantly higher than this, as many local authorities do not keep nationality data for children in care. These low numbers can be attributed to the failures of local authorities, as they are responsible for ensuring the applications are completed and submitted. Furthermore, with care leavers and other children not directly in the care system, they are required to offer support and guidance in submitting applications which in many cases they are not doing. Care leavers and some children do have the power to submit their own applications, but for some, the application process may be complex and require professional guidance, which should be the responsibility of the local authorities to offer. With the deadline for applications now less than 3 months away, this is extremely worrying for the stability, safety and well-being of this group of children.
Concerns are being raised that the issue could mirror that of the Windrush scandal of 2018, in which thousands of Commonwealth citizens were wrongly detained and deported due to problems surrounding documentation. With this in mind, it could be estimated that the group may apply for housing or employment in the future and only then discover their irregular status. This could seriously put them at the risk of unjust detainment and deportation, exploitation and abject poverty.
The EU Settlement Scheme has emerged and exposed itself as a covert element of the UK government’s hostile environment policies. It is unethical for children in care to be robbed of their secure residence status due to the failures of local authorities to act on their behalf, and support their best interests. The government itself has ignored calls from MPs to fast-track children in care through the process, instead opting to place the responsibility on struggling local authorities. Most of their struggle’s stem from underfunding, which leads to overstretched staff with high workloads, contributing to children in care not receiving as much support as they should be.
It is also unjust that local authorities have been encouraged by the government to place children in care on this immigration track. Evidence has shown that for children of EU nationals in care, most, if not all, could have the rights to citizenship. Instead, the children who actually have applications submitted are placed on a scheme that would offer them nowhere near the same number of rights and entitlements.
It is vital that this group of children are given the opportunity to gain the citizenship that they are entitled to. Children born in the UK, who have parents with settled status, or have lived the first 10 years of their life there, have the right to register to be a citizen. The Home Secretary also has a discretionary power to grant any child UK citizenship when it is evident that their future lies in the UK.
In most cases, children in care are not taken down these pathways due to extortionate citizenship fees. For each application, local authorities have to pay £1,000, £640 of which is direct profit to the Home Office (respectively approximately EUR 1,160 and EUR 745). These fees were recently found unlawful in a judgment by the High Court, requiring the Home Office to rethink the need for the fees. However, they have still not been reduced, prompting petitions and other pressures to be applied against the Home Office to suggest that they do so. Due to current laws, if children in care are not put on the citizenship pathway before they turn 18, they will lose their right to citizenship when they reach this age.
Migrant children are being subjected to a system that is rigged against their favour, and exposed to hostile policies that are cruel and unethical. It is clear that the UK government has not learned anything from the injustices the Windrush generation had to face, and are setting themselves up for a repetition. It is vital that the UK government changes the structural causes of the issues discussed here, by making applications for such schemes easier for children, care leavers and their guardians. This would remove pressures on local authorities to submit applications and give power back to the children, their guardians, families and surrounding professionals to obtain a secure residence status. It is also essential that the UK government lowers the costs of citizenship fees, to ensure that children in care are placed on the citizenship pathway more often, to grant them the stability and security in the UK they need.
Cover: Adobe Stock – Mongkolchon