In today’s Britain, the pressures of social and economic inequality are a constant presence in the lives of the marginalised and destitute. Migrants are one of the most targeted and ostracised groups in the United Kingdom, and many will be in some way familiar with their everyday struggles – from a surge in racially-motivated attacks, to the looming spectre of Brexit and the uncertain role it will play in their lives. The children of migrants, and the crises surrounding their welfare, have however yet to be properly acknowledged by the British media. What issues do these children face day-to-day, and what is currently being done to ensure that they get a positive start in life?
According to the government’s definition, one may be described as destitute if they ‘cannot obtain both (a) adequate accommodation, and (b) food and other essential items’ – while other definitions also take into account those lacking basic rights and entitlements, security, and a broad scope of future options in life. Migrant families can find themselves in these conditions for many reasons, such as the breakdown of a relationship. The death of a family’s primary earner can be particularly damaging if the earner was the only family-member eligible for British citizenship. A common thread linking these causes is the limited ability of migrant families to earn a sizeable income, as their lack of rights often forces them into highly exploitative, informal and underpaid work.
One factor influencing the incomes of these families is the restriction of their access to welfare under the ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ (NRPF) condition. NRPF is a clause attached to the status of all individuals who are subject to immigration control, preventing them accessing mainstream benefits. In addition to this, they are denied the right to make homelessness applications or be eligible for a place on local authority housing registers.
As a result of their exclusion from a safety net, migrant families in Britain are left with no other choice but to apply for support from their local council. This support is provided under Section 17 of the 1989 Children Act, which gives local authorities the responsibility of providing subsistence and housing to all destitute children under their jurisidiction. As this support is not considered a public fund, families with NRPF are eligible for this form of assistance.
Despite this, there are several significant barriers preventing families from receiving the support they need under Section 17. In a report investigating the experiences of children in these circumstances, Project 17 found that 60% of their clients were refused support when first approaching their local authority. Hostile gatekeeping methods are in place that make it difficult for migrant families to gain access to Section 17. Project 17 pinpoint misinformation as being one of the most significant of these methods.
Many reports support these claims of misinformation, with families being told various falsehoods: some authorities stated that Section 17 aid counts as ‘public funds’, and that families with NRPF are therefore not eligible to access it; some claimed that support was only given to families with leave to remain, whilst others insisted that only families without leave to remain were eligible; and some even threatened moving their clients’ children into care based on their destitution alone. A number of children were present during these discussions, which caused them considerable stress and anxiety. Attacks on the credibility of families was also used to make the assessment process as difficult as possible. Many of Project 17’s clients reported that fraud officers were embedded into ‘child in need’ assessment teams. Migrants were not informed of this in advance, and therefore were denied the opportunity to seek legal support. The fraud-focused assessment process prioritises exposing the destitution claim as false or disingenuous, over giving due consideration to the welfare of children. This needs to change.
The housing support provided under Section 17 is not fit for purpose. Amongst the many problems with the accommodation provided by this support, four stand out above the rest:
• Persistent street homelessness, experienced by a shocking 24% of migrant children.
• A lack of suitable space or privacy- reported by 94%- with most children sharing single rooms with other family members.
• Generally poor living conditions, with complaints ranging from an absence of cooking facilities to rat infestations.
• Being relocated both far and often, with some children being forced to change schools.
The financial support of Section 17 was also found to be sub-par. As there is no statutory guidance regarding subsistence rates, it has been found to vary between both families and local authorities across the country. In one case, a mother of three children was given just £50 per week to provide for her whole family. Elsewhere, recipients have reported receiving amounts lower than £36.95 per person per week- the amount given to those receiving asylum support and the legal bare minimum. As a result, the local authorities in question are in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The figures in both cases are clearly not high enough to sustain even a small family and have led to an increase in food poverty, with the overwhelming majority of those receiving Section 17 support recorded as needing food banks in order to feed their families. However, while all may need food banks, the complications surrounding the NRPF condition mean that some still go without. As a result of this destitution, children interviewed by Project 17 reported a disheartening spectrum of emotions about their situation, from sadness, shame and stress, to anger and even fear.
Although Section 17 provides a vital safety net for the children of those with NRPF, years of austerity and a ‘hostile environment’ towards immigration have caused the quality and availability of support provided to plummet. The voluntary sector currently plays a key role in papering over the cracks, but this is not a sustainable long-term solution. Real action must be taken to ensure that the children of tomorrow are not born into poverty and are instead given the strongest and happiest start to life possible.
Harry Sanders is a content writer for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration solicitors who help undocumented migrants to regulate their immigration status.