Thousands of children in care whose immigration status will be affected by Brexit could find themselves in the UK unlawfully, facing homelessness, immigration detention or deportation, an immigration legal charity has said.
The Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit (GMIAU) warned that the EU settlement scheme for European nationals living in the UK who want to stay here after Brexit is designed for people leading ordered, uncomplicated lives who can easily access ID documents, not children with disrupted life histories who are less likely to have proof of nationality or previous addresses. Some original documents may remain with their parents, who may not be in the UK, some social workers may not know which documents were needed or how to get them.
The charity attempted to work with local authorities over two days to help EU national looked-after children and care leavers to apply for the scheme, but were unable to make a single application. Two of the children they attempted to help were unlikely to ever have the required evidence, despite most of them meeting the requirements of “settled status” or British citizenship.
The charity is calling for the Home Office to adopt an automatic system of settled status and the option to register for a document to prove it. They also say fees for citizenship applications should be waived for children in care and care leavers, to ease the financial burden on local authorities. The report also urges children’s services and leaving care teams, which have a duty as corporate parents, to seek immigration advice on behalf of the children who will be affected.
If children do not have their immigration status resolved before they turn 18, it can become significantly more difficult and expensive. Several investigations have found that local authorities failed to support looked-after children with their immigration issues. GMIAU estimates there are about 10,000 children in care and care leavers who are EU nationals, although local authorities do not routinely collect nationality data on the children in their care.
Amanda Shah, the policy officer at GMIAU, said the findings “should sound alarm bells in central and local government”, warning that “a new generation is at risk of being thrown to the hostile environment”.
She said comparisons have been drawn with the Windrush scandal – where those who were in the UK legally struggled to prove it. She added: “If the lessons of this report are not acted upon, vulnerable young people will be left struggling to access services, at risk of homelessness, facing immigration detention or being removed from the UK. This is the future for children and young people in the care of local authorities without action now.”
EU nationals in the UK must have applied for settled status before the end of June 2021, if Britain leaves the EU with a deal, or by 31 December 2020 with no deal, if they want to continue living and working here. The security minister, Brandon Lewis, has threatened EU citizens with deportation if they failed to apply by the end of 2020.
Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott said: “This report highlights so many of the pitfalls of the government’s scheme. Bureaucratic processing, the ‘hostile environment’, the insistence on non-existent documentation and the breach of rights of people entitled to be here were all a feature of the Windrush scandal.”
She warned that the Conservatives “seem intent” on repeating injustices faced by the Windrush generation “on a much larger scale with EU citizens”. She said: “Only Labour will end the hostile environment and introduce an immigration system based on upholding rights and the needs of our society.”
Afzal Khan, Labour MP for Manchester Gorton and shadow immigration minister, said it was “high time the home secretary took action to protect these vulnerable young people”. He added: “The Tories have been unwilling to listen to calls from the Labour party and across parliament to implement a declaratory scheme for EU citizens. As a bare minimum, they could grant automatic settled status to all looked-after EU children and care leavers.”
Following a report in March from Coram Children’s Legal Centre, a children’s legal charity, the issue was debated in the House of Commons in September. The EU settlement scheme has previously faced criticism for IT glitches, only being accessible on an Android phone until recent weeks and being overly bureaucratic. Labour has repeatedly warned of creating another Windrush crisis, and Conservative and Brexit-supporting MEP Daniel Hannan has also issued warnings.
The Home Office says it is committed to supporting those who are most vulnerable, such as looked-after children, to obtain status. A spokesperson said that applicants can apply to the scheme without an identity document where they are unable to provide one due to “compelling compassionate or practical reasons, or circumstances beyond their control”.
They added: “The government has also confirmed that it will make provision for those who have reasonable grounds for missing the deadline, including children whose parent or guardian has failed to submit an application on their behalf.”
Anna, 15, is originally from Latvia. She came to the UK when she was eight and has been in the care of children’s services for the past three years. She lives with foster carers in Greater Manchester. Marie, her social worker, has been aware for some time that Brexit immigration changes will affect Anna but she has been unsure what the changes mean and what she needs to do to support her. Marie met a solicitor from the Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit, but at the appointment Anna wasn’t able to make an application to the EU Settlement scheme because she didn’t have the required documentation. The only ID document Anna has is her Latvian passport, which had expired, and so did not count as a valid piece of ID for the Home Office application. When Marie contacted the nearest Latvian embassy to apply for a new passport for Anna, she was told it will take two months. She will need to submit the expired passport, which means Anna will have no ID in the meantime.
Anna will also need written evidence of how long she has been in the UK. Marie can write a letter to cover the time Anna has been in care but this only covers three years – not the five years needed for an application for settled status. She will contact schools, doctors’ surgeries and health visitors to try to get evidence of the additional years Anna has been in the UK so that she can get the settled status to which she is entitled, rather than the lesser pre-settled status, which means she wouldn’t be able to access certain benefits and would need to reapply for settled status in the future.