The plight of young refugees and migrants

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Posted 24 February 2012, 0 comments
Ilona Pinter
From our Policy team

Policy Adviser Ilona Pinter writes of the shocking conditions many young people endure, and what they need.

girl in grey sweatshirt tucked in on herself, laying on floor, looking at camera

Today we released 'I don’t feel human': Experiences of destitution among young refugees and migrants, a report about the experiences of destitution among some of the most vulnerable young people in our country.

Our report highlights the plight of the alarming number of young people who have nowhere to live and no regular source of financial support. These young people are sometimes forced to resort to increasingly desperate means in order to survive.

The devastating effects of destitution

In 'I don't feel human' we examine available data on the extent and impact of destitution, and speak to young migrants and the people who work to support them. The report sets out the devastating impact being destitute has on children, young people and families.

This is an issue for young people who come to seek protection in the UK alone but have been refused asylum and so are left in limbo.

Having fled danger in their country of birth, these young people are exposed to danger and harm in this country because they are excluded from support and accommodation. They remain hidden from view and have to survive with minimal resources.

This is also an issue for children in migrant families who may not have an asylum claim but who become destitute for various reasons including domestic violence and family breakdown. Yet due to immigration restrictions they are unable to access support and their parents are not allowed to work in order to pull them out of poverty.

'I can't comprehend how people can survive.'

The stories that our practitioners have highlighted are sobering. One recounted that a number of lone mothers he supports won’t eat just so that their children eat. Many families have to rely on handouts from charities and friends, and don’t have money for buses so they are forced to walk for miles to get food. The practitioner said: 'It's all about survival. I can't comprehend how people can survive.'

Being destitute leaves young people vulnerable to abuse and exploitation – as one practitioner said: 'This is how (a young woman) had to survive. She was staying with men and they were using and abusing her. It was horrendous what was going on. I'm sure there's a lot of young women in this situation.'

Our services see an alarming rise in destitution rates

At The Children’s Society we support almost 2,000 young refugees and migrants each year through ten specialist centres across England, as well as through children’s centres and other mainstream services. Our practitioners provide advocacy and support to children, young people and families who find themselves destitute and without access to essential services due to immigration restrictions.

Our services are witnessing an alarming rise in the number of destitute children, young people and families in desperate need of support.

Between April and September 2011, more than a third (34 percent) of young refugees supported by our New Londoners project were destitute. In contrast, 14 percent of such young people in the previous year (2009-10). Our project in the West Midlands has supported hundreds of destitute families since 2008.

It is difficult to say exactly how many children this affects across the country because the government doesn’t collect data on the number of children and young people who are destitute because of immigration policies. However, figures from civil society organisations suggest there could be many thousands of children and young people in this situation.

Exclusion from support

In the past, destitution has been a deliberate policy used to try and reduce what were seen to be 'incentives' for those coming to the UK to claim asylum.

Previously, the now Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith MP has referred to the policy of forced destitution as a ‘black hole’. He heavily criticised the previous government for this ‘failed policy’: ‘UK policy is still driven by the thesis, clearly falsified, that we can encourage people to leave by being nasty.’

Current legislation means that support can be withdrawn and withheld from certain groups of people in the immigration and asylum process.

However, this leaves many thousands of people - including children and young people - who cannot return to their country of origin. They often become destitute for prolonged periods of time, sometimes several years, and lack access to even the most basic welfare support.

This particularly affects young children in the crucial early years of their life and damages the life chances of older children as they transition into adulthood.

What’s needed

The experiences of destitute children and young people raise serious welfare concerns. Indeed, their acute vulnerability means that their predicament should be seen as an important child protection concern. In future they must be properly protected.

In our report we call for immediate action to ensure that all children and young people, regardless of their immigration status, should be able to access adequate levels of support and not forced to live in absolute poverty and despair.

By Ilona Pinter, Policy Adviser

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