A child’s immigration status, or that of their families, affects every area of their lives, including access to welfare, housing, public services and legal support. There is a tension between UK immigration policy and legislation which protects children’s rights, and asylum-seeker and migrant children are often left in financial and legal circumstances that would be unacceptable if they were British. As a result, some migrant children and young people end up destitute, going missing, and at risk of exploitation.

Asylum-seeking families are not allowed to work except in exceptional circumstances so children are completely dependent on the welfare system. Yet in some cases families on asylum support receive just half of what British families would receive on mainstream benefits. In 2015 the government cut the support paid for asylum-seeking children under 16 by 20% down to just £36.95 per week, the same rate as adults receive. Support for asylum-seeking children now does not recognize that children require extra financial support, for example for school costs, clothes and shoes as they grow, and medicines. 

Section 17 of The Children Act 1989 effectively creates a parallel welfare system for families with no recourse to public funds (NRPF) by giving local authorities a duty to support ‘children in need’ in their area. NRPF families are often visa overstayers, but the number and type of people in this category is growing as the government tightens access to the welfare system. For example, there are increasing numbers of children whose families have migrated from countries newly acceded to the EU and who are not eligible to receive public funds under new rules. Local authority support for NRPF families varies across the country, however subsistence payments to NRPF families are even lower than Home Office support for those whose asylum applications are being processed.

There are an estimated 120,000 ‘undocumented’ or ‘irregular’ migrant children living in the UK. These are a diverse group including children who are ‘subject to immigration control,’ and some British or settled children. For example, if a child is born to parents subject to immigration control, and then the parent with status is no longer in the picture, the child’s British status cannot be proved.

Withdrawal of legal aid under the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 has made it very difficult for unaccompanied and separated migrant children (those without a parent or guardian in this country) to regularise their immigration status, while application fees and health levy add a further barrier. Government data shows that this has affected at least 2,500 children a year.

Manifesto demand: protection for unaccompanied children Manifesto demand: access to justice for refugee children Manifesto demand: end forced destitution of refugee families