An Oxford University study has put the number of children who were living in the UK without legal immigration status in 2011 at around 120,000 – about 0.9 per cent of the total population of children below the age of 18. The report suggests that the government’s overriding priority should be to protect these children, despite their immigration status.
Researchers from the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) conducted interviews with migrant children, migrant families, policymakers, teachers, GPs and support agencies in London and Birmingham. They discovered that a high proportion of 'irregular migrant' children, whose parents are living in the UK without authorisation, were either born or have spent most of their childhood here. Yet they found this group is trapped between conflicting laws that on the one hand protect children, but on the other enforce migration control.
It suggests the children are at risk of destitution, exploitation and social exclusion because of contradictory and frequently changing rules and regulations which jeopardise their access to healthcare, education, protection by the police and other public services.
Dr Nando Sigona, the report's main author, 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.'
Both international and British laws guarantee children access to education and healthcare, irrespective of their immigration status, and oblige public authorities to work in the children's best interests.
But the report finds that increased demands on public authorities by the UK Border Agency (UKBA) – such as asking social services to report suspected irregular migrants – are pushing families and children away from essential services, leaving them more vulnerable and isolated. This can also mean that children and their families who are victims of serious crime may be afraid to report it to police because of their fears about their immigration status.
The report says frontline professionals like GPs and teachers are increasingly being asked to check the legal status of children in their care. Not having legal status can mean the children either don't go to school or can't participate fully. It also means they may not be able to register with a GP or that pregnant mothers who lack legal status may avoid antenatal and postnatal care for fear of being reported to UKBA, says the report.
Dr Paramjit Gill of The Royal College of General Practitioners commented: 'Having a large group of young people without access to healthcare has significant public health implications such as missing out on routine immunisation and screening programmes.'
Dr Sigona said: 'The point of the report is to identify the situation that these children are in, and the difficulties that this places on the public service providers with whom they come into contact. Teachers, GPs and social workers should be allowed to do their jobs without having to act as de facto immigration control officers.'
The report recommends policy-makers take a more pragmatic approach, considering that children who were born or spent most of their childhood in the UK are unlikely to be deported, and there are potential negative impacts on British society of a long-term excluded population. It argues that one solution might be to provide this group of children with an opportunity to gain legal status as UK residents at birth, an approach that currently applies to children of irregular migrants in the US and Canada and the UK followed until 1981.