This year, International Youth Day was dedicated to celebrating young people’s contributions to inclusion and social justice. Yet there are currently thousands of young people living in the UK who are both denied justice and prevented from fully contributing to the country they call home. Thousands will have grown up in the UK, been educated here, and think of themselves as British but are ‘undocumented’: living here without regular immigration status.
Five years ago the University of Oxford estimated that there were 120,000 undocumented children in the UK, 65,000 of whom were born here. A person who is undocumented cannot work, cannot access mainstream benefits, cannot open a bank account, or hold a driving licence. Children are often shielded from the harshest consequences of not having regular status, but as they grow up, they become more aware of the limits imposed by their lack of papers. What may start as making excuses for not being able to go on school trips develops into not being able to go to college or university.
Coram Children’s Legal Centre’s recent report, ‘This is my home’, found that since 2012 fewer than 15% of the estimated number of undocumented children have been able to regularise their status. The system is complex, fees are high, and there is no free legal advice and support. Being born in the UK does not automatically make you British and the challenges in making immigration applications push more people into undocumented status every year.
Even if their application is accepted, a young person usually will be granted just two and a half years’ ‘leave’ (permission) to remain in the UK. They must then wait ten years until they can apply for indefinite leave to remain. In that time they will have to make another four applications and pay over £8,000 in fees and charges alone. A further application and fee is required for British citizenship.
These children and young people are your friends and neighbours, attending schools, churches and youth clubs, but they are not given the permanence needed to plan for their futures and contribute to the society that is their home.
Agnes is 20-year-old and has been in the UK since she was nine. She had lawful leave to remain for around nine years, had gone through the education system and was making plans to attend university. But her family could not afford legal advice and representation when she was turning 18 and needed to renew her visa. Her application was rejected and her leave ran out. Although she was later granted leave again, by that point she had been through a period of being undocumented, which means she now must wait another ten years before she can get permanent status. She has an offer of a place to study biochemistry, but has been blocked from going to university because her status means she cannot access student finance.
Omar arrived in the UK as a young boy and was taken into local authority care, following his mother’s death, at the age of 8. Nothing was done to address the Omar’s immigration status by the local authority as his corporate parents until he was 15. Despite living in the UK for over ten years, with no family to return to, Omar was only granted limited leave to remain for 2½ years. He doesn’t feel ‘safe’ in the UK due to his temporary status.
So what needs to change? The government must introduce a shorter route to permanence for children and young people who have grown up here and whose futures lie in the UK, with lower fees and a simpler fee-waiver system. They must also be able to access free, quality legal advice for immigration issues. Assistance in accessing routes to regularisation should be made available through (for example) confidential support at college and within local authorities. The system must be fair, affordable and accountable.
As Brexit negotiations continue, and we wait to understand fully the fate of EU children and families in the UK, it is more important than ever that we ensure those who have grown up here are able to engage with the immigration system and build their futures in this country. Then we will all benefit from the full contribution of the motivated young people in our communities, and can truly celebrate inclusion and justice in this country.