Whose interests do we protect by refusing children asylum? Not ours, nor the children’s

By Nando Sigona, University of Birmingham

In just a few days last week the #FightForYashika campaign managed to raise more than 178,000 signatures on a petition asking to the UK Home Office to reconsider the forced removal of 19-year-old Yashika Bageerathi, who was deported back to Mauritius to face the abuse and harassment from which she and her family had claimed asylum in Britain in 2011. In a poignant analysis of the case in The Observer newspaper, Catherine Bennett, explained the possible reasons behind the sympathetic coverage even in usually anti-immigration media outlets by this story, noting that it “nicely encapsulates a picky but popular approach to migrants: just a few exceptionally gifted singletons, please”.

She also noted that this approach has a darker side – namely the exclusion of many more young migrants who have, like Yashika, applied unsuccessfully for asylum in the UK when still underage and whose stories receive far less sympathy and coverage in media. These children are, she wrote, “effectively punished by public opinion for being insufficiently picturesque” or not equally academically successful.

Individual stories such as Yashika’s have the power to mobilise sympathy beyond the usual pro-immigration camp and to reach out towards new constituencies – in this case also Conservative MP David Burrowes and the top model Cara Delevingne.

But if campaigns limit their scope to the individual case, and indeed make the case for a differential treatment based on it being exceptional, they produce little in terms of shifting public debate and changing the governance of youth immigration. Unfortunately, in this case, the petition did not even achieve its goal to postpone Yashika’s removal to after the completion of her A-levels.

But individual stories don’t necessarily need to be exceptional to mobilise widespread support. This has been demonstrated by the success of young undocumented migrants in the USA in changing the terms of the immigration debate. The DREAMers as the campaigners are known, created the political space in June 2012 for the US president, Barack Obama, to sign an executive order to suspend deportations and grant renewable two-year residence permits to young undocumented migrants (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, DACA).

The DREAMers are a significant voice in the ongoing campaign for a long-term immigration reform that would regularise millions of undocumented young people who have developed strong social and emotional ties in the USA. Thanks to the persistent and well-organised work of the campaigners, many Americans perceive these young people as the contemporary embodiment of the American Dream. This is captured by the following statement on June 15, 2012, by President Obama:

These are young people who study in our schools, they play in our neighbourhoods, they are friends with our kids, they pledge allegiance to our flag. They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper.

Facing tomorrow alone

A report launched today by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England on unaccompanied children refused asylum helps place Yashika’s case in the broader picture. It does this by combining three elements: the voices of unaccompanied children who are at risk of becoming Appeal Rights Exhausted (ARE), the analysis of a rapidly changing legislative and policy landscape, and the views of lawyers, local authorities and support organisations.

In 2012, the United Kingdom was the fifth top destination country in Europe
for unaccompanied asylum seeking children, with 1,125 applications. Around a quarter of these were successful in obtaining refugee status while the remainder had their claims refused outright or were granted limited leave to remain until age of seventeen and a half.

The uncertainty about the future that dominates the stories of unaccompanied minors is at the core of the report: “What’s going to happen tomorrow?”. The report highlights how current policy is narrowing the meaning of the principle of the “best interests of the child” enshrined in the UN Convention for the Right of the Child and in UK legislation. As a result, an increasing number of former unaccompanied asylum seeking children who are now young adults are left marginalised, disenfranchised and with little hope about their future.

The consequences of such an approach are not only felt by the young migrants. There are broader societal ramifications that policy makers to date have paid little attention to. Government figures show that only a small proportion of former unaccompanied minors refused asylum return voluntarily, with or without assistance, or have their removal enforced once they turn 18. Between 2010 and 2012, only 13.8% of the former unaccompanied children departed or were removed. The gap in the figures suggests that the majority of former unaccompanied children remain in the UK surviving on a day-to-day basis, vulnerable to exploitation and destitute.

The report of the Office of Children’s Commissioner for England reminds UK authorities of the paramount need and legal obligation to ensure that young people seeking asylum can properly put their case before the decision maker. The authorities also need to ensure the safety and well-being of those young people refused asylum – not least because, as the report warns: “a successful transition to adulthood not only favours young asylum seekers but is also in the interests of the state”.

The Conversation

Nando Sigona does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Between DACA and the UK Home Office’s ‘Go Home’ campaign: Podcast

photo credit: swanksalot via photopin cc

Photo credit: swanksalot via photopin cc

While the UK government launches yet another high-profile public campaign against unauthorized immigrants, the US Congress discusses an immigration reform that, if passed, would give millions of undocumented migrants a pathway to citizenship and benefit especially young adults. Listen to my podcast (IdeasLab) about the limits of a ‘law and order’ approach to migration governance, particularly when migrant children and youth are concerned.

What money can buy

ImageYesterday I flew with British Airways to New York to attend the 108th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association. My talk is entitled: ‘Deportation, non-deportability and precarious lives: the everyday lives of undocumented children in the UK’. The talk is based on this study on undocumented children and families I conducted at Compas with my colleague Vanessa Hughes. I had just got to my seat when the captain announced that the stewardess would soon pass around with landing slips – a small reminder I was venturing outside the protective shawl (if you are a EU citizen, and nowadays this is no longer enough) of the EU area of freedom of movement. The flight had not even began to move that each and every personal screen sprang to life with adverts of luxury hotels and expensive gadgets. One glossy advert in particular caught my attention: an international law firm specialized in citizenship and residency planning, showing images of wealthy business men and women shacking hands with smiling solicitors and lovely children running in beautiful and green parks. The message was: if you can afford our services, we can help you to buy permanent access, as a citizen or a resident, to wherever you want in the world and this is not any sort of dodgy promise, otherwise we wouldn’t advertise it so openly on British Airways. So, the lesson is, if you are rich and have access to good legal advice, no matter where you were born, you are a citizen of the world (ie. you can buy a ‘prestigious’ citizenship), if you are poor or even less rich and can’t afford an expensive lawyer, well if you travel, you are likely to be just another of those illegal migrants the UK government is so keen to sent home – power of advertising!


Healthcare of undocumented migrant children

[Article published in the Runnymede  Bulletin Spring 2013]

 Nando Sigona analyses the predicament of undocumented migrants and the way the uncertainty and stress of the family struggle, as well as restricted access to healthcare services, impact the mental and physical well-being of the children.

Cover, Runnymede Bulletin, Spring 2013

Cover, Runnymede Bulletin, Spring 2013

Meeting the health needs of a growing and super-diverse, foreign-born population in the UK is a challenge for health services. However, these needs are currently only partially acknowledged and addressed.

Government policy has focused largely on addressing ethnic inequality in health, leaving aside other factors that may have an impact on migrants’ health needs and experiences of the healthcare system, such as country of birth, language, length of residence in the UK and immigration status. The Confidential Enquiry into Maternal and Child Health is a case in point. While it showed that about 20 per cent of deaths directly or indirectly related to pregnancy occur in women with poor or no antenatal care, it failed to consider that one of the main deterrents to access maternity care may be the policy of charging “non-ordinarily resident” patients that was introduced in 2004. Significantly, the Department of Health did not carry out a health impact assessment of the new rules.

According to Maternity Action, “charging women for maternity care has the effect of deterring women from accessing care, irrespective of formal rules requiring care to be provided even if the woman cannot pay in advance”. Many women are not prepared to take on a debt which they are unable to pay and consequently limit accessing services until delivery.

This is further exacerbated by current initiatives aimed at directly linking debt incurred with the NHS to entitlement to gain legal access to the UK. Similarly, research has focused on the health needs and outcomes of specific categories of migrants, such as refugees, asylum seekers, unaccompanied minors, and thus paying significantly less attention to other categories, such as undocumented migrants, including children.

Drawing on research that my colleagues and I carried out at the University of Oxford (2010–2012) and which was funded by the Barrow Cadbury Trust, I will try to highlight, through the testimonies of undocumented parents, some of the impacts of that the lack of legal immigration status has on children’s health status and access to healthcare.

The combination of precarious immigration status, restricted access to healthcare, and financial hardship often has serious effects on migrants’ physical and mental health and can result in chronic conditions such as asthma, migraines and depression. Michelle, a Jamaican mother, explained how her immigration status affected her:

Mentally, it’s really bad. We’re just sitting here, staring, wondering where the next meal is going to come from, when the next bill is going to be paid.

The precarious situation that many undocumented parents experience often means that any change in their situation or negative experience can easily lead to a downward spiral. Talking about her father’s funeral in Jamaica, Jackie, a mother of three, said:

Everyone was like going over, I couldn’t go… my sisters, brothers, they all went over. I was the only child that wasn’t there. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t do nothing.

Seventeen out of 53 interviewees in the Oxford study, both parents and independent migrant children, reported mental health issues that were associated with stress linked to their immigration status. However, signs of stress, exhaustion, anxiety and other impacts on health due to financial and immigration status insecurities were noticeable in most interviews. The majority of the interviewees who explicitly talked about their mental health problems were parents. A number of them reported that they were treated with anti-depressants and/or counselling during pregnancy.

Reasons given for feeling depressed or “low” included fear of being deported or detained, not knowing what will happen in both the near and the distant future, not being able to talk about their problems, losing support networks, or not having any support in the first instance and thus feeling isolated, and being in inadequate accommodation arrangements. Princess, a Jamaican mother of two, explained the uncertainty that she experienced on a daily basis:

At the end of the day, you don’t know. It’s like in your heart you’re wondering ‘is someone going to knock at your door? Is someone going to knock at your door?

Parents’ mental health status has repercussions on children. In the study, we observed that this effect often became circular, in that the parent then again worried about their children being affected by their situation. A young mother explained:

When I’m crying she always catches me, even when I don’t want her to see me. ‘Mum, what’s wrong? Why are you crying? Don’t worry, don’t worry. It will get better, I’m gonna pray. Don’t worry.’ You know, when an eight-year-old says that to you ‘it will get better’ it breaks your heart more, it breaks your heart more.

A Kurdish mother spoke out her concern for the wellbeing of her children who had already experienced detention and deportation and had to witness how she was sat down on the floor and handcuffed by the police:

The children were looking into my eyes, they were distraught. I mean the things we went through in the five years, when we came and when we went.

Read the full report: No way out, no way in: Irregular migrant children and families in the UK