The Children of Destitute Migrants in the UK are Suffering

Scene illustrating the poverty of the Foy family, Aldersgate, London, patronised by J.C. Lettsom in December 1799. Source: Wellcome Images

Migrant children are suffering from destitution through no fault of their own. Urgent intervention is needed to address this crisis.

The children of migrants are suffering through no fault of their own. Migrants who enter the UK to start a new life tend to suffer from destitution, especially when they are undocumented or continue to stay in the country after the expiration of their visa. Such migrants do not receive permission to work in the UK and are excluded from accessing both welfare benefits and public housing. 

Whilst initial causes of destitution amongst these individuals are endless and complex, and identifying the loopholes within the UK immigration system is up for a separate debate, there is an urgent need for intervention into the plight of destitute migrant children. Some of these children hold British citizenship. Others are undocumented. However, they are finding themselves in extremely bleak situations due to the immigration status of their parents. The children of migrants are given barely any consideration in decision-making processes, and concerning numbers are experiencing street homelessness, food poverty and abject destitution.

Migrant families with NRPF condition

The fundamental issue that both compounds and prolongs poverty is the absence of adequate support from the UK government, in particular, the “No Recourse to Public Funds” (NRPF) condition. NRPF is a clause attached to a variety of different immigration statuses, ranging from those with time-limited leave to remain to asylum seekers who are ‘Appeal Rights Exhausted’. If they are classed as a ‘Person Subject to Immigration Control’ (PSIC), they are excluded from public funds. Obtaining support despite having NRPF can be hugely difficult to achieve. Considerable amounts of evidence and paperwork are required, something many vulnerable migrant families are unable to provide due to language barriers and financial obstacles. 

Cracks within Section 17 support

The only avenue of support left to migrant families is through Section 17 of the 1989 Children Act. Local authorities are obliged to provide subsistence and housing to all destitute children in their area. Research found that 5,900 children from families with NRPF received Section 17 support from 2012 to 2013. Nonetheless, there are hostile gatekeeping methods in place that create obstacles for those in need, preventing them from accessing such support. In fact, Project 17- an organisation that works with NRPF migrants- discovered that up to 60% of its clients were unfairly refused assistance when they initially approached their local authority. The increasingly gruelling assessment processes deter families from attempting to access Section 17 support. Immigration officials have been embedded into a number of different assessment teams, and the fear of deportation or detention prevents many parents from proceeding. The lack of sufficient support has, lamentably, resulted in devastating consequences. 

“The death by starvation of Lillian Oluk and her daughter Lynne Mutumba in March 2016, while being supported by a local authority under Section 17 of the Children Act (1989), illustrates the consequences of inadequate support for undocumented migrant families in the hostile environment”.

Andy Jolly, a social worker and researcher.

Children’s experiences of living in NRPF families continue to go unheard. The voices of children are heavily ignored in the public domain, and are neglected and shown no form of empathy by decision-makers. The Children’s Society discovered that some migrant families received lower than the standard asylum support rate of £36.50 per person per week- a breach of human rights law. Furthermore, up to 82% of children interviewed by the charity stated that they did not have enough money, while 94% of children reported not having enough space or privacy. Children also raised a number of issues about the conditions of housing provided under Section 17. These include living with rats, cockroach infestations, no access to cooking or washing facilities and anti-social behaviour from other residents in shared accommodations. The insufficiency of housing support is clear. 

One of the fundamental reasons for the cracks and injustice found in the UK’s public funding system is the government’s definition of destitution. As set out in the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 and the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, a person and their dependents are destitute “if they do not have and cannot obtain both (a) adequate accommodation, and (b) food and other essential items.” However, the Children’s Society argue that it is rather regular access to adequate accommodation and essential needs that are required, and that informal support networks providing short-term support is not sufficient for migrant families. Other organisations postulate that destitution deals with more than just economic or material hardships, and that it applies to those without any legitimate status, basic rights or entitlements. 

Emotional impact on children

In such traumatic situations, the fragile mental and emotional state of destitute children is most concerning. When vulnerable families face relationship breakdowns, financial poverty, crisis in the family- such as a death of the main earner- homelessness or the threat of eviction, there is a profound emotional impact on children. Many children interviewed reported feeling socially isolated, different from their peers, and ashamed. They felt discriminated against based on their immigration status, and were not able to do the same things as their friends due to a lack of money. Research found that over two thirds of the children in Project 17’s study described feeling sad about issues such as accommodation and the emotional state of their parents. 

Children also reported feeling angry with the way social services dealt with their families, as well as feeling ashamed that their families relied heavily on support from charity organisations and other networks. Additionally, many children reported feeling stressed and unsafe due to homelessness or living with strangers. This was found to have a negative impact on their schoolwork and their relationships with friends and family.

All these factors call for urgent intervention to put a halt to such misery faced by the children of migrants. Children are the future, and excluding them from housing and welfare benefits will only hinder their success and ability to achieve their full potential in life. The voice of the child continues to be ignored in the Section 17 assessment process. Therefore, there is a considerable amount of work to do to ensure that it is heard above all else. Decision-making must prioritise child welfare, ensuring that the right level of subsistence and housing is provided. It is only then that children a positive start to a successful life.  

Pia Subramaniam is a content writer for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration solicitors that help undocumented migrants to regulate their immigration status. 

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