Posted: 17 May 2012

Immigration policies push 120,000 children towards destitution

Tens of thousands of children living in the UK are at risk of destitution, exploitation and social exclusion as a result of the government’s immigration policies. Over half of these children – an estimated 65,000 – were born here, according to a new report from the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) at the University of Oxford.

Despite the government’s obligation under domestic and international law to protect all children within UK borders, contradictory and frequently changing regulations are jeopardising these children’s access to health care, education, protection by the police and other public services, leaving some hungry, homeless and at risk of harm. 

A key problem highlighted in COMPAS' report, No Way Out, No Way In: Irregular migrant children and families in the UK, is how immigration controls have crept into the work of various public agencies like health, social services and education, whose responsibility is to safeguard and promote the welfare of all children.

Vulnerable to exploitation, under abusers’ control

The children and families we work with are frequently refused the support they desperately need because of their immigration status or frontline professionals’ lack of awareness of their rights and entitlements. This leaves many destitute and vulnerable to exploitation, in some cases forcing them into the hands of abusers.

Some of the destitute mothers and children our services support have suffered domestic violence because the authorities have consistently refused them support on the basis of their immigration status. In some cases their abusers will exploit their vulnerability and use it to control them, stopping them from seeking protection from the authorities.

One mother supported by The Children’s Society was sexually exploited by older men when she was a teenager because she was destitute. She said:

'I would end up just walking the streets. Words can’t explain how I felt. I had a male friend who was much older than me who I phoned to see if he could help. He called his friend who let me stay with him. I didn’t like him, but I had to sleep with him. . . . It made me feel nasty, but I had nowhere else to go. I used to take a lot of tablets because I didn’t want to be in the world anymore.'

When the man became abusive and threatened to kill her, she was afraid to go to the police.

Implications for public health, ensuring young people’s protection

According to the report GPs and teachers are increasingly being asked to check children’s immigration status. As a result, they may not be able to register with a GP and pregnant mothers who lack a legal status may avoid antenatal and postnatal care for fear of being reported to the UK Border Agency.

As Dr Nando Sigona, co-author of the report, said: 'Current immigration policy seems to override the concern for children’s rights. Nobody, not the public, nor the children or their families, benefits from this.'

Many of these children have been in the UK for a long time, having either been born here or arrived when they were very young. They know no other home.

The government has a responsibility to protect all children within its borders, regardless of their status and to ensure that all children are able to have the best possible start in life. The best interests of the child must be at the heart of all decisions concerning children, and the government must not allow immigration policies to obstruct its obligations to protecting children.

For more information on refugee and migrant children and young people’s experiences, see our report I Don’t Feel Human: Experiences of destitution among young refugees and migrants.

By Ilona Pinter, Policy Adviser

By Ilona Pinter - Policy team

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