Child Welfare in a hostile environment
I’ve been following the news story about the children of the Windrush generation with interest, and to be honest, more than a little frustration. The apparent change of heart from the government is encouraging, but it was Theresa May’s suggestion that the hostile environment is not aimed at the Windrush generation that particularly struck me. If the burden of this policy wasn’t intended to fall on those who came to the UK between 1948 and the Immigration Act 1971, then it is those who came to the UK in the years after 1971 that it was presumably designed to impact.
If you want a headline-friendly name for this generation, I guess you could call them the ‘Air Jamaica’ generation. They came to the UK for work or study in the years between 1971 and the Immigration Act 2014, and it was on the former Jamaican national airline’s long-haul service from Kingston to Heathrow that many would have flown to the UK.
Like the Windrush generation, these children and families came to the UK predominantly from Commonwealth countries, but unlike the Windrush generation didn’t come as British subjects, but on temporary visas, and so have always been subject to immigration control.
In the years between 1971 and 2014 an increasingly restrictive range of policies and laws were enacted by successive governments, of which the hostile environment is only the most explicit. Measures have included the no recourse to public funds (NRPF) rule, the withdrawal of the right to work, restrictions on access to healthcare, and finally the two most recent Immigration Acts, which removed the right to rent private accommodation, to hold a driving license, or open a bank accounts for undocumented migrants.
There are, at the best guess, 120,000 children in the UK today who are undocumented, a figure which doesn’t include those who came to the UK between 1971 and 2014 as children, but are now adults. Over half of these children were born in the UK, but aren’t considered British by the government (because of a rule change in the British Nationality Act 1981). This irregular status means that families face the threat of removal to a country where the children may have never even been.
These are the families who Theresa May is referring to when she talks about creating a hostile environment for ‘illegal immigrants.’
Over the past three and a half years I have been studying for a PhD exploring the experience of undocumented migrant families, and have spoken to 74 families living in Birmingham — the vast majority from Jamaica or Nigeria. These families regularly face destitution, and the only government financial help the children in these families are entitled to is ‘child in need’ support from local authority children’s social services. However, before an assessment of need is completed, families are routinely screened for immigration status. Support is refused if the family are not able to prove their status, or if they have not made an application to the Home Office for leave to remain — an application which costs £1493 (including a £500 health charge) for every family member in the application. One family I spoke to described their experience of trying to get help from children’s services:
“In the beginning, when my daughter was about a year old, she wasn’t gaining any weight because of lack of fund(s) to get food, and the nurse wrote a letter for me to go down to… the social service place…. I explain to them but because then my immigration paper wasn’t sent in to the Home Office yet, they didn’t help me at all, they sent me away without no help. You know… the child was underweight, and all that, they didn’t help me at all.”
Even when families are able to pass the immigration eligibility screening, the amount of cash given is often so little they can’t afford to live adequately. More than nine out of ten families I spoke to for my research were ‘food insecure’ meaning they didn’t have enough resources for a balanced diet, and 6/10 had very low food security, which is defined as where:
“the food intake of household members was reduced and their normal eating patterns were disrupted because the household lacked money and other resources for food.”
In practice this meant that the majority of the adults I spoke to were going without food so their children could eat, cutting back on meals, and running out of money regularly. One even described drinking sugar water when they ran out of money for meals.
Unfortunately these research findings reflect a growing body of evidence of the impact that the hostile environment has on the welfare needs of undocumented migrant children from across the country. The tragic case of Lilian Oluk and her two-year-old daughter Lynne Mutumba illustrate the very real dangers faced by undocumented migrant families in this hostile environment. The family became homeless but because of their immigration status weren’t eligible for homelessness assistance, so resorted to sleeping rough in the grounds of a hospital. They approached children’s services a number of times before an assessment was completed. When they were eventually given subsistence support they were repeatedly moved away from their support networks in London, first to cheaper accommodation in the West Midlands and then to Kent, where they became socially isolated. Tragically they were later found dead in their flat, after having apparently starved to death.
The serious case review into Lynne Mutumba’s death reported in January this year, with the learning suggestion that:
“lawful and efficient responses are not always enough to compensate for the very particular vulnerabilities of the extremely marginalised group represented by those who have no recourse to public funds’
A country where a mother and baby with an irregular migration status can starve to death without anyone noticing cannot claim to be one which takes the welfare of children seriously, and if the government is to learn lessons about the treatment of the Windrush generation, they also need to take seriously the plight of the generation who came after — child welfare shouldn’t be dependent on the date at which their parents arrived in the UK.
For more information and analysis about the ‘Air Jamaica generation’ and the response of local authority children’s services, there is an article in this years edition of Social Policy Review — available at the link below.