Debate Opinion Making life a misery: the hostile environment is making life impossible for migrant children Jack Gevertz is a writer for the Immigration Advice Service; an organisation of UK immigration lawyers which provides legal support for those looking to migrate to the UK or hire overseas workers. The ‘hostile environment’ was first announced by Theresa May when she was home secretary in 2012. It was designed to deter illegal migration, and included ‘Go Home’ vans – which sent vehicles round the UK telling those here without a right to leave – and the ‘Right to Rent’ scheme – which forced landlords to make immigration checks on each of their tenants. But what was designed as a way for policymakers to look tough on illegal migration has seen legal migrants – those perfectly entitled to be here – also caught up in it. For example, 300 highly-skilled migrants have been incorrectly told to leave the UK under a section of law designed to remove people who pose a threat to national security. Campaigners have argued the Home Office has been misusing Paragraph 322(5) of the Immigration Rules to do it. And it’s not just highly-skilled migrants who have been suffering, as the hostile environment has extended far beyond this. Thousands of EU citizens who have the right to be in the UK under free movement rules have also been told to leave. Letters were sent to some demanding they depart or face being removed. The Home Office later apologised. We know then that the ‘hostile environment’ has managed to find its way into all aspects of a migrant’s life. From getting a job and finding somewhere to live – even to their family. Migrant children have been left homeless and destitute as a result. A new report by the charity Project 17 exposes the devastating extent of the ‘hostile environment’ on this group of young people. Councils have a duty to help migrant children under Section 17 of the Children Act 1989. It calls on them to help what it describes as children ‘in need’ in their vicinity. A child will be considered ‘in need’ if they do not have a good level of health, or are not developing at an appropriate level. If they are considered ‘in need’, councils can give them money and offer housing, amongst other support. Section 17 is used not only to help those who are more generally in need but is also the primary driver of help for those children whose families have ‘no recourse to public funds’. This prevents anything inhumane happening to them. But there are widespread concerns that councils are failing in their duty to do this under the legislation. Local councils have reportedly left families to sleep in churches, on buses and in A&E departments. Others have been put in bed and breakfasts for long periods of time, while some have been sent away from their borough entirely. Some of the housing provided has also proved inadequate. Reports from those living in them said they had cockroach infestations, rats, and were not supplied basic furniture and fittings. The lack of access to suitable accommodation has led to problems at school too. Some children have reported having to get up very early in the morning just to get to school on time. Others said they had to change schools and did not get to see their friends. In a further twist, free school meals – automatically given to refugees and everyone up until Year 2 – have been denied to those whose parents are not in receipt of a ‘qualifying benefit’. A 2016 report by the Children’s Society found more than 50,000 migrants with dependants had the ‘no access to public funds’ condition applied to their leave to remain – they were not receiving a ‘qualifying benefit’. That means a lot of children missed out on vital nutrition, suffering hunger and social isolation as a result. It’s thought that cuts to council budgets and the implementation of austerity by the government has contributed to the failures by local authorities to carry out their duty under Section 17. Even away from this piece of legislation, the hostile environment has had a negative impact on children at school. Records of 1,500 children a month have been shared with the Home Office for the purposes of immigration enforcement. This has led to fears that some schools have been racially profiling their students, while others have been accused of demanding data on their students’ nationalities. Some parents have even removed their sons and daughters as a result. Sadly, it’s not just housing and school where some of the harshest effects of the hostile environment have been felt. Some parents have been entirely split up from their children and then placed in a detention centre. Figures from the charity Bail for Immigration Detainees found that in the year ending last July, more than 300 children were separated from their parents for this reason. Some of those children involved ended up in the care system because their sole guardian had been detained - despite Home Office guidelines advising against this. Other parents have been threatened with being separated from their children on the grounds of just being destitute. According to Project 17, of all the cases reported there were “no safeguarding concerns” to warrant such action. And there are more recent concerns that some children could be split up from their parents because of problems with the Government’s EU Settlement Scheme. The legal officer at the Rights of Women group, Nicole Masri, told the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee the application process does not ask who family members are. This potentially leaves the children of EU citizens in an uncertain position as they cannot declare their legal status. If the form did ask parents about their children, parents could register them themselves. But some – who may want to apply for British citizenship themselves further down the line – may believe their children are already British citizens. Where this happens, their children could also end up losing their rights. And it’s not just the children of migrant parents who are suffering; unaccompanied child asylum seekers are too. The Home Office is facing a judicial review over the sheer length of delays in making a decision for children who arrived in the UK seeking asylum without their parents. According to the latest figures, 1,600 were waiting more than a year for an outcome on their case, while for those under 14, it took an astonishing 627 days. One child was even waiting more than two years for a decision on his situation. The impact this can have on a child: on their mental well-being, their education and their happiness are profound and long-lasting. The real and proper way to resolve this crisis for migrant children is to do the decent and honourable thing: end the hostile environment. It’s leaving many impoverished, destitute and struggling: unnecessarily. We need to give all children the best start in life, and having a policy as openly harsh and unfair as the hostile environment is not the way to achieve that.