For my eighth story of injustice I am drawing on a case study published last year by The Children’s Society in Cut Off from Justice: The impact of excluding migrant children from legal aid.
It illustrates the points that were made to the Bach Commission by other witnesses who were concerned with the devastating impact the LASPO cuts have made to the lives of vulnerable children who do not know their rights and who now have no readily available source of legal advice to which they can turn.
The story of Florence
Florence arrived in the UK as a very young child with her mother who left her in the care of a ‘friend’, living as an undocumented child for many years.
The woman she had been left with was disabled and Florence was responsible for her physical care and the housework. She was neglected, often went without food and at times was locked out of the house with nowhere else to go. An ‘uncle’ would regularly visit the house. He was a known criminal with a volatile personality and Florence would often witness physical arguments between the man and woman leaving her very ill as a result.
Florence sometimes went to school and her teachers, upon noticing her underweight and careworn appearance, made a referral to social services. Social services sat on the referral for a number of years, only occasionally visiting Florence and not doing anything about her undocumented status. The woman that Florence lived with was also undocumented and arranged with friends who did have status to pretend they were Florence’s carers.
Florence had to go to their house whenever social services visited and was forced to call them ‘mum’ and ‘dad’. When Florence was 16, she was made homeless, but with the support of a voluntary organisation, she was taken into care. During this time, Florence had assumed that her stay in the UK was not a problem. She did not know that she was undocumented.
Without access to legal aid she has been unable to regularise her status because she cannot afford to pay for legal help. So far the local authority has been unwilling to pay. If Florence cannot resolve her immigration issues before her 18th birthday she may be detained by immigration authorities. She could be made destitute or be forced to return to her country of origin which is a foreign place to her and somewhere where she has no support network or family to whom she can turn.
The Children’s Society told the Bach Commisssion:
While many lone children with immigration claims will already have a right to remain already and will need legal advice or representation to help them with indefinite leave and citizenship applications, other children – namely those who are undocumented – will need legal advice to regularise their status. There are an estimated 120,000 undocumented migrant children living in the UK, the majority of whom – 65,000 – were born here.
Our own research published in April 2016 estimates that there are approximately 144,000 undocumented children living in England and Wales, with most of these children being located in London and the West Midlands. Many of those who were not born here will have grown up here and spent their formative years in this country. However, their uncertain status means that they have not yet established a legal right to remain in the country, even though they may have legitimate reasons for needing to remain and their long term future may be in the UK.
As the Government has an agenda to create a ‘hostile environment’ for irregular or undocumented migrants by limiting access to services such as private rented accommodation, bank accounts and public funds on the basis of status, the immediate welfare needs as well as the life chances of undocumented children increasingly depend on their ability to regularise their status quickly. Without status, they are increasingly left at risk of destitution, exploitation and social exclusion.
The Garden Court Chambers Immigration Team told us:
Some parts of the public discourse support the notion that migrants should not have the benefits of our legal system – and this is no doubt why the many barriers to justice and the discriminatory treatments are being extended and enhanced. The architects of such restrictive models appear to have given no consideration to the unintended consequences –
the lost family life of British citizens – and the long term consequences for the children in stranded families;
the many lawful foreign residents who will via procedural errors or the denial of appeal and status rights become unlawful residents and thus criminally culpable carrying out their normal lives.
The laws and rules not only prescribe the criteria for entry and stay but they also set strict procedural requirements, requiring applicants to submit the correct application form, complete all the necessary components in the form, and provide prescribed evidence via prescribed documentation.
If applicants fail to comply with these procedural requirements, the application can be returned as invalid and the applicant in many cases will lose their legal status and with this their former rights to take employment, rent accommodation, drive their cars or have access to medical services. These are draconian provisions affecting not simply those long term overstayers or illegal entrants who have never held such rights, but lawful foreign residents who lose such rights via the vagaries of the application and appeal process.
How can an undocumented child who was born here or lived here since she was a very young child establish her right to stay here without access to legal advice?
The Government has taken the provision of legal help on such issues out of the scope of the legal aid scheme.
is this justice?
 Sigona, N. and Hughes, V. (2012) ‘No way out, no way in. Irregular migrant children and families in the UK’ COMPAS Oxford University: http://www.compas.ox.ac.uk/2012/pr–2012–undocumented_migrant_children/