Britain is sitting on yet another immigration scandal—one that could see children born or raised in the UK being put in a legal limbo, simply because their parents can’t afford to make them citizens.
Over the last month, a huge row broke out over the treatment and potential deportation of children from first generation Commonwealth migrants. But while the UK government has pledged to try and put things right for that generation and their families, the scandal has fed fears that Britain is sitting on another “time-bomb that is ticking way and no one is giving any attention to,” says Amnesty’s refugee and migrant rights program director to Quartz. He calls for the focus to be on children who have the right to register as British citizens, but simply can’t afford to, adding there are obvious parallels in the way the Commonwealth generation has been treated and what’s happening to children with unsecured status today.
After the Second World War, the government called on Commonwealth citizens to fill labor shortages and help rebuild the country. Tens of thousands arrived in the UK between 1948 and 1971, many of them children, and were dubbed the “Windrush” generation—a reference to the historic ship MV Empire Windrush, which brought workers from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and other islands in the Caribbean.
As they travelled from colonies that had not yet achieved independence from the British Empire, the government at the time counted them as British subjects. But half a century later, many of those who came to the UK as children and were told they had a right to remain in Britain, were suddenly being told to prove it. The problem? The government didn’t issue any paperwork confirming it. Even items, like landing cards, which showed the date when Windrush migrants entered the UK, were destroyed by the government.
But after increased pressure from across the political spectrum, the government has apologized to the Windrush generation. Home secretary Amber Rudd announced that the Commonwealth migrants and their families will get UK citizenship and the government would waive citizenship fees, language tests, and British knowledge tests, as well as providing compensation to affected families.
While the UK government has tried to draw a line under the Windrush scandal, Amnesty’s Valdez-Symonds says it’s all the more reason for why parents in the UK need to get their children’s status documented as soon as possible. Failure to do so could result in their families being entrapped in an immigration nightmare.
“It’s hugely important to protect yourself, protect your child. Know what your status is, know how to demonstrate it, know what the status of your child is. And if your child has a right to citizenship, register that right,” he says.
British immigration law is a complex web to navigate.
If a child is born in the UK and if, at the time of birth, at least one of their parents has British citizenship or settled status, then the child automatically qualifies as a British citizen. But if the child is born in the UK to parents who doesn’t have British citizenship or settled status at the time of birth, then that child doesn’t automatically qualify for British citizenship. While these children have the legal right to British citizenship (a right enshrined in law by the Nationality Act of 1981), they have to apply to register as British citizens. This process costs child applicants £973 ($1,377), a fee that, which Quartz has previously reported, many families simply cannot afford.
This has resulted in a situation in which children are blocked from obtaining Britain citizenship. In fact, the British high court acknowledged last year that there are thousands of children entitled to British citizenship, but simply can’t afford to get it.
Failure to provide documentation of settled status could result in an individual being subjected “to an awful lot of potential harm,” Valdez-Symonds says. “Whether it be detaining you, causing you to lose your job, to cause you to be refused healthcare, cause you to be made homeless.” He adds that all this and more has already happened to the Windrush generation over the last few years.
Children with parents originating from the European Union (EU) living in the UK could be next to fall through the cracks, according to a paper published by immigration law experts last month. Currently, children of EU parents don’t have to register or obtain documentation to stay in this country. But this will change after Brexit. The consequences for EU parents that have not obtained British citizenship for their children are “potentially severe,” researchers note in the paper.
After Brexit, children of EU parents who didn’t register as British citizens—because they couldn’t afford to or didn’t know—and want to remain in the UK when they are adults may “struggle,” the paper notes. They will need to locate proof that their parents were legally here while they were a child, which is “likely to prove impossible for many children,” according to researchers.
Currently, the transition deal between the EU and the UK will allow all EU nationals who arrive before the UK officially leaves the EU—29 March, 2019—or during a transition period, to have the right to remain in the UK. EU citizens wishing to continue to reside in the UK after Brexit will have to register for “settled status.” The paper argues that children born after Brexit to EU parents will likely not face any problems, the issue remains with those children born before their parents get settled status.
“Children will be wholly dependent on their parents to apply for the new types of status. Where parents fail to do so, or for some reason do not qualify, children will lose their lawful status under EU law, drift unknowingly into illegality and will struggle to regularise their position at a later stage,” notes sociology lecturer and migration expert Nando Sigona, in a blogpost.
But it’s not just about being entangled in a bureaucratic nightmare.
Valdez-Symonds warns that the Windrush scandal provides an omen for EU migrants. He argues that the Windrush scandal is the logical conclusion of the government’s previous decision to create a “hostile environment” for so-called illegal migrants in Britain. Children with unsettled status are already being impacted by the same problem or could be next.
For Valdez-Symonds, the problem lays with successive government rolling out more aggressive immigration checks without discussing the impact with already settled communities. “The government is paying no attention to the circumstances of these children, there’s no effort to reach out and raise awareness,” he says.