By: Vanessa Hughes, Research Officer
Over the past few weeks the issue of child detention has once again reached the headlines of the British press. Despite the government’s promise that this ugly practice has stopped, the Refugee Council found that children continue to be detained by wrongly classifying them as adults. Such a classification is usually the end result of a procedure known as “age-disputes”.
Disputing the age of an asylum-seeking child is a controversial practice in itself, not least because there is no certain way of establishing someone’s age by their physical and biological features. Now it seems the UKBA are taking this practice one step further, by using it to rid themselves of any responsibilities towards the protection of children who also happen to be migrants. It seems to remain true, that for the UKBA children in the immigration system remain migrants first, and are children only second.
The debate on ending child detention also reveals something else. This debate, valuable and important though it is, shows that child migrants are still mainly thought of either as vulnerable, or as adults in disguise trying to “play the system”. However, the picture of child migrants in the UK is significantly more complex. My colleague Dr Nando Sigona and I are trying to add other experiences, voices and issues to this debate with our recently published report “No Way Out, No Way In”. In the report we explore the every day lives of migrant children without legal immigration status and their families in the UK.
Little is known about this hidden population and even this study can only be explorative. Yet, it sheds an important light on some of the issues these children face. One of the main findings of the report is that we estimate that there are 120,000 children living in the UK without legal immigration status. More than half of these children were born in the UK and another large proportion of them have lived in the UK most of their lives.
Considering the numbers of other child migrants in the UK, this number is quite significant. For example, there were only 1,717 new asylum applications by unaccompanied minors in 2010 and in 2009 there were 1,120 children, mainly dependant, detained for immigration purposes (Sigona and Hughes, 2012:8). This is not to say that every child put in detention is not one too many, but it helps to place the number of migrant children without legal immigration status in the UK into context. However, it is not just the size of this group of children that should persuade us to open our eyes to them, but also their experiences in the UK.
Everyday experiences of fear and confusion
These are children who are trapped between laws protecting children and the enforcement of migration control, where the rules themselves are often contradictory and change frequently. So far neither of these policies have resulted in the achievement of its respective goals, that is to protect children or “be tough on immigration”. Instead, they have created a situation where a large number of children in the UK find themselves at risk of destitution, exploitation and social exclusion simply because of their immigration status – a situation most are not even responsible for or aware of.
For many children with irregular migration status, it is the every day things they struggle with, things that most of us probably take for granted. Such as for example when they are refused to register with a GP, being discharged from hospital together with a bill of several thousands of pounds, or being turned away from a school for not having the right passport. An all-penetrating fear of deportation often means that the police force is not seen as trustworthy and so is not approached, even in such serious circumstances as non-payment of wages or an abusive partner or parent.
These are services and protections that the British government usually values highly and credits itself for. So how come that they are only available to some children and not all?
Shifting the debate
The difficulty of shifting the debate was once more illustrated by the answer given to Baroness Hamwee, when asking a question based on our report in a debate in the House of Lords last week: “My Lords, the Question relates just to those seeking asylum. Obviously there are other means of dealing with those who have failed to get asylum status […] However, I think that my noble friend’s question is wide of the Question on the Order Paper.” It will be hard to ever ask a question about these children and the government’s response to this situation in either Houses of Parliament, if no debate on the topic will be scheduled.
Unless we see migrant children, whatever their immigration status, for what they are – children – the government will continue to fail in delivering its commitments to the protection of all children in the UK. There is a reason why there is a universal convention just on the rights for children, signed by all bar two countries in the world. It is that children have special rights and needs for protection because they are children. However, when children are also migrants in the UK, their immigration status still seems to play the dominant role, rather than the fact that they are children.
It is time to broaden the debate on migrant children in the UK, to include all children resident in the UK and to make sure that the government keeps its commitments according to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Children. This commitment to children must be, and remain, the first priority. If not, we create a risk of producing a generation of disenfranchised youth, non-deportable and yet excluded from citizenship and society.