A new study by the University of Wolverhampton has estimated that over 215,000 children are growing up in the UK without any formal immigration status. Some arrived in the UK as children and over half were born in the UK.
Without their papers, children can access basic healthcare and go to school, but once they become adults they won’t be able to work, study or open a bank account, limiting their opportunities to thrive and fully contribute to the UK, their home.
Commentators and child law experts including Coram, We Belong and Citizens UK say citizenship and immigration policy must integrate these children – as right now, the system to protect these children who are British to all intents and purposes is broken.
Unlike in other countries such as the US, a baby born in the UK is not automatically a citizen. Children born in the UK can become British once they have lived in the UK to the age of ten.
For the children who weren’t born in the UK, many have been in the UK for a long time. Recent research by the Pew Research Center found the majority (57%) of the unauthorised population in the UK are long-term residents who have lived in the UK for five years or longer.
A growing number of children in limbo
The University of Wolverhampton study follows from a 2012 University of Oxford study that estimated the population of undocumented children in 2007 to be 120,000.
It highlights that the system to ensure children are able to flourish in the UK is broken. Children are blocked from being able to progress in the UK, despite often being born here or going through primary and secondary education. This broken system has pushed a further 100,000 children into this situation in ten years.
In response to the latest figures, Kamena Dorling, Head of Policy and Public Affairs at the children’s charity Coram said:
As a society, we see ourselves as people who care for children, who look out for our young people. However, right now in the UK, citizenship and immigration policy is failing a significant number of children who have never known another country. These children are growing up in limbo instead of being citizens in the country they call home.
All the research on child development shows us that children need stability to thrive and this has to include securing their status so they can fully build their lives and contribute to British society.
Without this stability, we’re excluding many of the country’s babies, children and teenagers from an equal start in life, sustaining a citizenship and immigration system that is unfair and not fit for purpose.
Undocumented children become undocumented adults
Undocumented children are unlikely to be forced to leave the UK. In 2017, the government returned just 41 children to another country according to Home Office figures.
Instead, undocumented children can become undocumented adults. The University of Wolverhampton research estimated that there are 117,000 young people aged 18 to 24 without formal immigration status.
Dami Makinde and Chrisann Jarrett, co-CEOs of the campaign charity We Belong said:
We Belong is shocked but not surprised at the number of children who are living in legal limbo, through no fault of their own. We know of many young people who’ve grown up in the UK and are proud to call this country home, but who are denied their legal entitlement to regularise their immigration status because of unforgiving Home Office bureaucracy and spiralling fees. This research should be a wake up call to the new government of the need for a radical overhaul of large parts of the immigration system.
Bethan Tanner, Assistant Principal, St Gabriel’s College and member of Citizens UK said:
Today’s report shows that thousands of children – who have met the strict criteria for citizenship but cannot afford the fee – are being left unable to fully contribute to our society. The costly process could shut eligible but undocumented young people out of going to university, getting a job or being able to vote. There is no excuse for the UK to keep doing this to children. The government should be enabling young people to realise their potential and, as a first step, the Home Office should reduce the by extortionate child citizenship fee of £1,012 and give young people a bright future in the country that is their home.
Being and feeling British
“I want everybody who comes here and makes their lives here to be and to feel British. That’s the most important thing.” So said Boris Johnson at the Conservative Party leadership hustings in July.
The Mayor of London Sadiq Khan also supports the take-up of citizenship, and polling suggests that the British public want people who make their lives in the UK to become British citizens.
Among the large number of children and young people whose lives are here and who feel British but are not British in law, many already have a right to become British. However, they are blocked from taking up this right due to the often unaffordable £1,012 application fee to receive their citizenship. The High Court recently ruled this fee unlawful, putting further pressure on the government to reconsider what it charges children to realise their right.
Fixing the broken system
For children and young people without a right to a passport under existing nationality law, experts are calling for a far quicker and less bureaucratic route to settlement, without application fees and with a grant of permanent status straight away.
Simple changes are possible to ensure the system does not lock 215,000 children into vulnerable situations, unable to work, study or open a bank account because of their lack of status. We Belong, Coram and Citizens UK are calling on the government to review the system in line with advice from legal and children’s welfare experts.