‘Tough trade-offs’ and the cost of growing up in a hostile environment

BBC Radio 4’s Today programme highlighted the plight of young people who have grown up in the UK who are subject to the hostile environment: being charged ‘international’ fees at university and being denied student loans because they do not have indefinite leave to remain (‘settled status’).

In response to the stories of Agnes Harding and Michelle Ezeuko, Coram’s Youth Rights Training Co-ordinator, the Children’s Minister, Nadhim Zahawi, spoke of ‘tough trade-offs’ and the need for all migrants to go through the necessary processes, missing the fact that since 2012 those processes have got harder, longer and much more expensive.

Rising fees

Zahawi compared the experiences of Harding and Ezeuko to his own experience applying for settled status in the 1980s. However, it was not mentioned that prior to 2003 an application to the Home Office for settled status was free. That same application now costs £2,389 in Home Office fees alone.

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. The University of Oxford estimates that there are 120,000 such children in the UK, 65,000 of whom are thought to have been born here. They will have grown up in the UK, been educated here, and think of themselves as British, but they are ‘undocumented’: living here without regular immigration status. Last year Coram highlighted that less than 15% of children who were living in the UK without papers were actually able to make immigration or nationality applications and leave the legal limbo in which they were trapped.

The hostile environment

For years, campaigners and journalists have highlighted the devastating impact of the ‘hostile environment’, a package of measures designed to make life so difficult for individuals without papers that they would leave the UK. These measures left the Windrush generation cut off from employment, housing and healthcare, and every day they leave a new generation of young people unable to work, unable to open a bank account or drive a car and effectively barred from college, university and secondary healthcare.

The ‘hostile environment’ has turned public servants, teachers, bank clerks and landlords into border guards. But this agenda has also included draconian administrative measures, introduced since 2012, which have derailed and disrupted many young lives. These include increasingly complicated application processes for immigration applications, the toughening of the immigration rules making it harder and more onerous to regularise status based on long residence and the right to a private and family life, drastic cuts to appeal rights, and unprecedented increases to fees for applications.

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 settled status. In that time they will have to make another four applications and pay over £10,000 in fees and charges alone. A further application and fee is required for British citizenship.

Speaking to Radio 4, Agnes Harding said:

We were brought here through no fault of our own. We grew up here, and we’ve taken up the British culture. To all intents and purposes, we would consider ourselves British. But the fact that we’re not given the same opportunities as our peers primarily because of money is hard. With the fees rising every single year, and having to renew every two and a half years, some people can’t afford it – it’s literally tearing families apart.

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. Above all, the system must be fair, affordable and accountable, so that it does not fail young people who have grown up here and whose futures lie in the UK.