young girl clutching her knees

The theme of this year's International Youth Day, 'Youth Migration, Moving Development Forward', is particularly timely. Given the recent debates on immigration in the UK, the theme serves as a timely reminder that children and young people are also very much part of this debate, and affected by immigration policies and legislation. 

Young people make up a significant share of the global number of international migrants. In 2010, there were an estimated 27 million international young migrants. While migration can often offer valuable opportunities and contribute to the development of communities and society at large, it can also pose risks and lead to unacceptable treatment, including exclusion, discrimination and exploitation of children and young people. 

Last year, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child held a general day of discussion on children in the context of international migration. It produced a report that highlighted that the rights of migrant children were often overlooked in national laws and policies addressing migration and welfare, and that migrant children who are 'undocumented' - meaning they do not have a legal status in a country - face severe difficulties. This increasingly appears to be the case for young migrants in the UK.

Being young and undocumented in the UK

According to research from the University of Oxford's Centre on Migration, Policy and Society, there were approximately 120,000 'undocumented' migrant children living in the UK in 2011. That's roughly 0.9% of the UK's under-18 population.

Many of these young people have spent most or all of their life here, often living in severe poverty. The research highlighted the barriers that undocumented children face in accessing vital public services such as health, social care and education, because of their status, leaving them at risk of destitution, social exclusion and exploitation. 

'Undocumented' and 'irregular' migrant children

The terms 'undocumented' and 'irregular' migrants typically refer to people who do not have a legal basis to reside in a country, either because they have overstayed a time-limited permit or because they entered the country by evading immigration controls.

In the public and political discourse these individuals are sometimes referred to as 'illegal immigrants'. However, many academics, non-governmental organisations and others are critical of this term saying it's misleading and does not distinguish between why different individuals and vulnerable groups of migrants including children and young people would find themselves in this country without a legal status.

For example, child victims of human trafficking are often brought into this country on false documents while children and young people fleeing war and persecution from places like Syria, Egypt and Afghanistan may have no other choice but to travel without documents. 

This is also the case for other undocumented children and young people who will generally have no choice about why they ended up in the UK and will often not understand that there is anything wrong with their immigration status until they transition to adulthood. For children who have been separated from their families and have no trusted adult looking out for them, their unresolved immigration status often places them at risk.

Jane's story: Abandoned and unable to access support

Jane is a young person that we recently supported. She was brought to the UK when she was 13 by her father on a six-month visitor’s visa - she thought she was going for a holiday but her father returned to their country of origin leaving Jane with a woman she didn’t know.

This woman treated Jane as a domestic servant, making her clean the house, wash the dishes before going to school and wash the clothes.

She wasn't ever given enough to eat, her room was not heated and she was beaten. Jane's father sent money for her every month, but the woman never gave it to her. Social services did not help her and instead Jane was made homeless. She was later abused by other adults she stayed with.

Jane has tried to regularise her status with the Home Office, however her application was turned down because she didn’t show enough evidence. Now, like so many young people we work with, Jane is left in limbo.

She felt unable to return to the country where she was born – she has no support there. The UK is her home now and her friends are here.

She wants to go to university and make a life for herself. She wants to work and have her own place. But her lack of an immigration status is a barrier to her accessing support. She feels trapped and afraid about her future.  

Safeguarding young people who are destitute

We support many young people who are homeless and destitute or, as a result of their immigration status, can't access the support they need.

Often these are children who have spent their formative years in the UK. From their accents, their behaviour and their values, they are just like any other young British person except that they are undocumented.

With advocacy and proper support from trusted adults, many of them manage to resolve their immigration issues by successfully gaining a legal status that allows them to remain in the UK. This enables them to go on to rebuild their lives successfully.

In some cases the young people are eager to travel back to the country of their ancestors when it’s safe and when they feel ready and equipped to do so. 

Raising awareness and finding solutions

The aims of International Youth Day are to raise awareness of the opportunities and risks associated with youth migration, to share knowledge and information stemming from recent research and analysis on this topic, and to engage young people in discussions on their migration experiences. 

Going forward, the government needs to make sure that the experiences of undocumented young people like Jane help to inform its immigration policy. This will ensure that young people are not placed at further risk but also that they are given the opportunities to thrive, regardless of whether they settle here or elsewhere.

The risk of further excluding these young people from public and private services is that we'll produce a generation of disenfranchised young people who cannot be removed from the UK but yet become excluded from citizenship and from participating in society, creating further problems and tensions within and between communities further down the line.

For now, it also means leaving children and young people living in misery and despair, unable to enjoy their childhood and unable to thrive, as every child should.

By Ilona Pinter - Policy Adviser
Ilona Pinter
- Policy team

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