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There are an estimated 120,000 ‘undocumented’ children in the United Kingdom. These children tend to have lived most of their lives in the UK, however they lack a regular immigration status which gives them permission to enter or remain in the UK. This can happen for a number of reasons, including being born in the UK to parents who are also ‘undocumented’, who have overstayed on their visa or, more rarely, entered the UK unlawfully and never acquired any form of regular immigration status. Of these children, over half are estimated to have been in born in the UK and half are thought to be eligible for British citizenship.

These ‘undocumented’ children will face serious obstacles in adult life. Without a regular immigration status they cannot access parts of the benefits system or the student loan system that can help them to afford to go to university. They will not even be able to register with a GP. Before they turn 18, children tend to be relatively protected from the enforcement of the immigration system. For example, local education authorities have a legal duty to provide a school place to every child between four and 16 residing in their geographic area. There is no obligation for a local education authority to ask about immigration status, or even reveal that status to immigration authorities if it is disclosed to them. Similarly, ‘undocumented’ children can relatively easily access emergency healthcare. This is often why those affected aren’t aware they’re ‘undocumented’.

Although under the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009 there is a duty on the Home Office to “promote the welfare” of children in any immigration decisions, life as an undocumented child is nevertheless fraught with uncertainty, particularly over the threat of deportation both of themselves and their guardian. Indeed, there have been reports of children being separated from their parent or carer. The commitment to protecting children comes into conflict with an immigration system that is determined to root out ‘illegal immigration’.

One of the most significant barriers to acquiring the correct immigration status are the costs associated with it. To those who are eligible, the registration fee to become a British citizen for a child is £1,012 and for an adult is £1,206, a large amount for people who are often on lower incomes. Parents must also fill out a document over 70 pages long with detailed proof of residence of the child for the last 10 years. If ineligible for citizenship, children can also be granted ‘discretionary leave to remain’ after seven years living in the UK. This lasts for two and a half years and costs £649, along with a £500 NHS healthcare surcharge per application. Even requesting proof of status from the Home Office is expensive, carrying a fee of £250. That children have to prove they are of “good character” as part of these applications has itself also been a source of controversy.

The very nature of being ‘undocumented’ means identifying those who need help is inherently difficult. Some have suggested a reduction in fees, or indeed their abolition, as a policy solution. They argue it would remove the financial barrier experienced by the parents of children who have a right to British citizenship and for young adults in the same situation. Other more fundamental changes to the system, such as reinstating birthright citizenship (abolished in 1983), have also been proposed, which would remove altogether the issue of proving citizenship for those born here. However, this alone would not retroactively help those who are already without status in the UK or those not born in the UK but who are eligible for citizenship.

‘Undocumented’ children serve as a stark reminder of the failures that can happen in the UK’s immigration and citizenship system. As Britain leaves the EU, and will most likely be operating under a new immigration system next decade, the Government should seize this opportunity to address the issue and underlying causes of undocumented children.

Sam Lampier is a Researcher at Bright Blue.