Unknown, unimportant, and undocumented: the life of irregular migrant children in the UK
“People want dignity, not charity.” According to Sadaf Ahmed, Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) media and comms manager.
There is an invisible group in our society who live and sleep in constant fear.
Every knock on the door, every policeman on the street, and every social interaction is a risk to their well-being and safety.
Their existence in the UK is a crime, so they must remain invisible to avoid raising any suspicion.
They go by different names depending on whom you are talking to- irregular, illegal or undocumented migrants- but first and foremost, they are people in need.
Fear is a funny thing; it is our body’s reaction to a situation it feels poses a risk to our well-being and safety, going right to the core of our desire to survive.
Sadaf said: “People without documentation are frightened to look for help and as a family, you are constantly living in fear of somehow, someone will report you or you will be deported.”
For charities like JCWI they prefer to use the phrase ‘people who call the UK their home’, believing terms like ‘migrant’ to be dehumanising.
They work on challenging unjust immigration laws that lead to discrimination and the denial of human rights, providing legal advice to vulnerable individuals and families.
Sadaf said: “We feel like the terminology is really important in framing what the issues are.
“They’re people who, through no fault of their own, have found themselves in a position where they’ve had to leave the places they were born in.
“The system needs to be fixed because none of the people who come to this country should be treated like they are charity cases.
“If you Google search (you can try this yourself) Migrants’ in the news section, you invariably get a right-wing list of articles about hoards and invasions.
“Whereas if you search for things like asylum seekers, you get much more liberal and left-wing voices.”
The most current estimation for Irregular migrants in the UK stands between 820,000 and 1.2 million, this is according to Pews Research Centre, a fact tank which conducts data-driven social science research.
The Migration Observatory’s irregular migration expert, Dr Peter William Walsh explains: “To get its estimates, Pews research used the residual method- taking the total migration population and subtracting the legal migrants to give the estimated numbers for irregular migrants.
“The problem with this is that the UK government does not keep data on migrants who have permanent residency status.
“We can make some assumptions based on what we do know. Research between 2004-2017 estimated that around 300,000 migrants were given permanent residency.
“That means Pews 820,000-1.2 million estimate contains at least 300,000 permanent residents.”
The Migrant Observatory are a non-profit, independent, and apolitical research institute at Oxford University that focuses on the evidence-based analysis of migrant and migration data in the UK.
Their job is to understand current research and determine the reliability of their numbers.
Dr Walsh states: “We don’t know much about irregular migration numbers. The indications are that the number is probably in the hundreds of thousands rather than tens of thousands.”
That’s hundreds of thousands locked out of the most basic amenities due to their migration status, many of whom will be unable to take their children to school or visit the hospital when their child is sick.
The unique position they find themselves in means they have No Recourse for Public Funding (NRPF)- they cannot claim any public funds.
This means they cannot work, receive governmental financial support, access accommodation, or apply for a doctor.
For most, survival means working for cash in hand, committing crimes or belonging to modern slavery.
For an unidentified number of children, this is the only life they know; they were born here and know of no other place than their own community.
Despite Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 placing a duty on local authorities to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in their area, many children with an irregular migrant status cannot gain access to them.
Charities like Project 17 work on challenging the government to remove NRPF so that no child is left homeless or hungry.
Project 17 was unable to provide a comment on the situation but gave us Joel’s story.
Joel, who is 9 in the video, was born in the UK; His mum arrived from Nigeria ten years ago, but due to their migration status, they have NRPF.
Joel said: “We had to keep going to MacDonalds every night and we would also go to A&E. I would have to wear my school clothes and sleep like that.
“The chairs were hard. I felt sorry for my mum because she had to stay up, and my head had to be on her lap.
“Her eyes were open like 24/7. All night and all day so she could watch over me.”
It is unknown how many families or minors are considered irregular migrants in the UK, but according to Dr Walsh: “Dr Andy Jolly’s report for the greater London authorities found that 27% of irregular migrants were minors, with around 60% of London’s irregular migrant population being under 18.
“We know very little about the numbers of under 18’s with an irregular migration status in the UK, so I can’t say how accurate these numbers are, but they don’t seem unreasonable.”
Dr Andy Jolly wrote the ‘London’s children and young people who are not British citizens’ report for the Greater London Authority.
He found that in 2017 there were 674,000 ‘undocumented’ people in the UK, 215,000 of which were children. In London, the ‘undocumented’ children population was 107,000. The report acknowledges its limitations, highlighting that many assumptions have had to be made.
Joel said: “No one would help us and we asked them, the social services but all they can do is all they have done.
“I don’t understand that.
“Anytime I would say mum can we go home, I forgot that we didn’t have a home. So I couldn’t. My mum said which home?
“And I said oh yeah we didn’t have a home and then I didn’t want to talk again.”
Sadaf Ahmed said: “A lot of our clients are extremely distressed, extremely anxious, and it is really quite a cruel treatment, if you think about it, people not knowing if or when it will end.”
There is one thing irregular migrants can guarantee- a life dictated by fear and distrust, even to those seeking to help them.
Even when they can access specific support, due to government data sharing, they refuse to access them.
Sadaf said: “The government has all these data sharing agreements with local authorities, so people are afraid to go to the doctors in case the doctors report them; they are afraid to make use of normal services in the community because there is always the fear that due to data sharing it is going to get back to the home office and then they’ll lose their ability remain in this country.”
The impact of the illegal migration bill
The Illegal Migration Bill has been developed to tackle irregular migration in the UK, particularly around the issue of small boats, which has become an area of much contention.
According to Dr Walsh: “It is difficult to determine statistically how many people arrive via irregular routes into the UK. Lorries used to be the main method of irregular entry, but since toughening border security around the Eurotunnel, small boats across the channel have become the preferred route.
“Irregular migrants still use lorries to enter the country, and there have even been incidents, though very rare, of stowaways found hiding in people’s cars.
“Many, however, entered the UK legally but, due to expiring visas, have become irregular.”
The Bill has also come under pressure over legal and ethical concerns, with the Home Secretary confirming there is over 50% chance that the Illegal Migration Bill will break international law.
Naccom (The No Accommodation Network) and 52 other charities and organisations that support and advocate for people experiencing, and are at risk of, homelessness and destitution wrote an open letter to Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.
In it, they argue that this Bill will cause an increase in asylum seekers becoming destitute as they will have no ability to return home or to be moved to a safe third country, estimating that in the next three years, 45,000 children could be locked out of society.
This is supported by Sadaf, who said: “This Bill is a bad idea. It is criminalising refugee and asylum seekers, and in my view, it essentially means that you are going to get a lot more people lost in the system.”
The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for NRPF is an informal group of members from both houses of parliament that contribute to policy and legislation by working towards eliminating migrant destitution caused by their migration status, leaving them with NRPF.
The Vice-Chair Baroness Ruth Lister said: “The main way of coming in now is over the channel because it’s even harder to get here through lorries as used to be the case.
“So, that’s how they keep track of the numbers, but then what they don’t know is what happens to people once they are here because the danger is that their policies push them into the underground economy, and then they don’t know how many there are living in the UK.
“Combined with the hostile environment, it just makes life impossible for them to live legitimately.
“Local authorities have certain powers to help, but they don’t necessarily do so. It’s a bit of a lottery as to who might get help and who doesn’t, and that can mean, in effect, destitution.
“It is difficult to get concrete Information about the impact and numbers affected by ‘no recourse to public funds’, but those affected don’t have any access to Social Security which is very harmful, it’s especially very harmful to children and families.”
Charities and other organisations are working tirelessly to challenge the government’s Illegal Migration bill.
According to Baroness Lister: “There are very big fears in relation to the current bill in terms of the numbers who could be destitute.
“The big fear is that it won’t be possible to send back or send to a third country those coming across the channel and that it won’t have the deterrent effect that the government believes it will. Then you’ll have a large number of irregular migrants or asylum seekers who will be in limbo.
“It’s not quite clear exactly what will happen to them, but I know groups like the Refugee Council are very worried about that.”
In response to an FOI, the Home Office said: “Our current asylum system is under extreme pressure and costing the country £3 billion a year and rising, including around £6 million a day on hotel accommodation.
“This, in turn, is putting pressure on local authorities and public services, including our health system.
“The success of the scheme will be measured by its deterrent effect, stopping the dangerous and illegal Channel crossings, and bringing down the astronomical cost of the current broken system.”
The government’s Bill will certainly bring down the cost of the asylum-seeker system, but it is likely that by criminalising asylum-seekers and refugees, irregular migration numbers will go up.
Whilst the government continues to use inaccurate migration data, our best estimates will struggle to provide reliable insight, leaving much for speculation rather than facts.
More alarmingly, we will have no idea how many UK-born children will be living in destitution.
Joel said: “Every child should be like every other child. Some children should not feel different, meaning less equal to others.”
Due to the government’s rhetoric and policies, we will not find out what happened to Joel and his mother.
He, like many others in his situation, will continue to live in secrecy unless more is done to change the hostile environment that prevents them from telling their story.