Over the past weeks, the British public have been watching as the 'Windrush' scandal has unfolded and calls for changes to policy have grown stronger by the day. The scandal has revealed the effects of Theresa May's hostile environment, which aims to make the UK so unbearable for undocumented migrants that they choose to leave. As a direct result of this policy, the Windrush generation, who were invited to help re-build a war-torn Britain, have suffered immensely. An unknown number of individuals have been left homeless, detained, unemployed, and in worst cases deported to a country they don't know. The Windrush scandal is only one symptom of the hostile environment; this policy has left many young migrants in extremely vulnerable positions whereby they find it difficult to access and maintain their right to legal status in the UK.
Many of the children of Windrush came to the UK on their parents’ visas and as a result may not have any documentation to prove their entry into the UK nor their right of abode. Due to the length of time they have lived in the UK, the schools they attended, and places they worked often had not kept a record of their attendance. In addition, and controversially, the Home Office landing cards were destroyed in 2010, meaning that there was essentially no record of their lawful status in the UK. Many of these individuals have lived in the UK for as long as half a century: their whole adult lives. The Guardian profiled some of these brave people, including Paulette Wilson who was detained in Yarlswood at the age of 61 and sent to a removal centre. Anthony Bryan lived and worked in the UK for more than 40 years and lost his job as he was incorrectly told he was here ‘illegally’. He was also detained and almost removed from the UK. Leighton Joseph Robinson went to Jamaica to celebrate his 50th birthday, was unable to return and had to stay in Jamaica for 21 months costing his family £21,000 in legal fees and accommodation costs. The effects are more far-reaching than we will ever know, as many more people affected will never have the chance to share their stories.
However, this scandal is only the tip of the iceberg. Underneath these sad stories are over 100,000 undocumented young people who, similarly to the Windrush generation, came here as children or were born here, grew up and studied here, and were unaware of their immigration status until they reached the age 18 and tried to go to university or get a job. Many of these young people are British citizens but are unable to get the documentation to prove it because of staggeringly high fees, the complexity of the system and the lack of funded legal advice. Last year Coram highlighted that less than 15% of children who were living in the UK without papers were actually able to make immigration or nationality applications and leave the legal limbo in which they were trapped.
Why is that figure so low? Firstly, because of the way the Home Office operates. The "hostile environment’ instils fear in migrants who are thus too scared to engage with them for fear of being treated like criminals. As a result of this, many families carry on and leave their children’s statuses unresolved. Secondly, the figure is so low because of the extremely high fees charged by the Home Office. Applications now cost £1,012 for children to register as British citizens, and £1,533 for limited leave applications (including a £500 ‘immigration health surcharge’). For those on the ten year route to citizenship applications have to be renewed every 2 ½ years. If you cannot afford these fees, as most young people cannot, you become – or remain – undocumented. This results in a vicious cycle which pushes migrants into being undocumented and leaves them too scared and unable to engage with the system.
With Brexit looming, and the UK’s estimated 679,000 EEA-citizen children in limbo, it is crucial that these systems are reformed. Thousands of these children are in local authority care following family breakdown. Coram has repeatedly raised concerns that some of these children will fall through the gaps of the system being created to register the UK-resident EEA citizens, and that these children will then become undocumented.
It is clear that something desperately needs to change to ensure the Home Office is fit for purpose. As a country, it is time to decide that we will not allow so many thousands of young lives to be ruined. Unless urgent steps are taken to ensure that we have an immigration system that is fair, accessible and affordable, we can look forward to many more Windrush scandals in the future.
Michelle Ezeuko is Youth Rights Training Coordinator at Coram Children’s Legal Centre, supporting the co-design and co-delivery of training on the rights of young refugees and migrants by young people with lived experience of the immigration system.