The difficulties faced by the children of migrant families brought up in the UK have been described as a potential “second Windrush-style scandal”. It’s often not until they are finishing school that they realise they are not British citizens and do not have the same rights as the children they’ve grown up with.
A few years apart and in different London schools, Hanna and Michael were both filling in their Ucas forms when they realised that something was wrong.
“I remember sitting in the computer room,” says Michael. “We were all sitting together, everyone’s applying, you’re excited, putting in your details, trying to decide what uni you want to go to and thinking about the little things that really don’t matter like what clubs are at the uni, what accommodation you’re going to stay in, what food you’re going to eat, what you’re going to do.
“That was when it first hit me. They were asking for these documents and I couldn’t provide those documents. I couldn’t. There was no way for me to get them.”
A high-achieving pupil at his school in East London, he’d assumed he’d be able to study computer science at university and “hopefully become as rich as Bill Gates one day”, although he’d been aware that other children had enjoyed greater opportunities.
“Growing up we just didn’t do certain things, didn’t travel. Didn’t go on school trips. I think I just thought we couldn’t afford it. At the back of my mind I think I had an inkling of it – that this could be an issue. I didn’t really think about it – just a 14-year-old, 15-year-old, it’s not something you think about.”
Michael is the child of Nigerian parents who brought him to the UK when he was 12. As he grew up, his memories of his early years in Nigeria faded and he gradually became a Londoner. “It was like any young person’s life, you know, go to school, go home, chill with friends.” They all played the same computer games and had similar aspirations to study and get well-paid jobs.
The difference was that – as Michael realised while filling in his Ucas form, in 2015 – he wasn’t a British citizen, he wasn’t a refugee and he didn’t have indefinite leave to remain.
He soon discovered that he could apply for limited leave to remain – an immigration status that would allow him to legally stay in the UK for a period of time – but he would need to get it, and then wait. Applicants for student finance need to have had lawful status in the UK for at least three years before the start of the academic year when their course begins.
You can apply for limited leave to remain on the basis of your private life in the UK if:
- You have lived in the UK for seven years before your 18th birthday
- You have lived in the UK for half your life by your 25th birthday
- You have lived in the country for 20 years
The application currently costs about £10,000 over 10 years.
You can register as British if you were born in the UK and have lived here for 10 years – this costs £1,000.
Five years earlier, Hanna had experienced something similar. Also from a Nigerian family, she had wanted to study finance and accounting and was “really, really excited” as she started considering universities in Scotland and Wales.
“I felt like London was getting a bit small – time to go to another part of the UK,” she says.
But then she hit the same brick wall as Michael, and came to realise the invisible difference between her and her friends at further education college.
“You become British without actually having the British citizenship. Being in the UK, you’ve watched the same stuff as they have, you’ve grown up in the same environment as they have, and then suddenly it’s like the government going, ‘OK, unfortunately, you’ve experienced all of that and it doesn’t really matter.'”
In fact, Hanna’s situation was much less secure than Michael’s.
Michael arrived in the country at the age of 12, and will therefore have been in the country for more than half his life by the time he is 25 – it was this fact that enabled him to apply for leave to remain.
Hanna, however, was a few months older than Michael when she arrived in the UK. She was already 13, so would not have lived in the country for half her life on her 25th birthday, and was not eligible for leave to remain.
Young and undocumented
Research by the University of Wolverhampton has estimated that there are 332,000 undocumented children and young people living in the UK, of whom 133,000 are in London.
They are unable to access public funds such as Universal Credit or child benefit. Those over the age of 18 also face the threat of deportation.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan called on the Theresa May government two years ago to “act now to avoid a second Windrush-style scandal”. To mark Windrush Day on Monday, he called on ministers to reduce immigration and citizenship fees, and to increase funding for advice and support.
“In these uncertain times, it is a national disgrace that hundreds of thousands of young Londoners, whose dreams have already been put on hold by Covid-19, are living in fear of deportation and being denied the chance to secure their future,” he said in a statement to the BBC.
“These young people, many of whom were born in the UK, are often unable to access higher education or work, to rent a home or open a bank account, and their numbers are set to grow dramatically when Britain completes its exit from the EU in less than six months’ time.”
Two days after becoming prime minister, Boris Johnson said: “I think that our arrangements, in theoretically being committed to the expulsion of perhaps half a million people who do not have the correct papers, and who may have been living and working here for many, many years without being involved in any criminal activity at all – I think that legal position is anomalous. We saw the difficulties that that kind of problem occasioned in the Windrush fiasco.”
The Home Office told the BBC: “There are routes available for undocumented children in this situation who have lived here for most of their lives and made the UK their home. Support is available and we would urge them to contact us so that we can help them obtain the right documentation.”
In limbo after leaving school, Michael spent his time volunteering, mainly with a youth club and community centre in his area. After securing limited leave to remain last year, he started working in a bar, waiting for his chance to study.
He won’t be eligible for student finance for another two years. But a few weeks ago he received some good news – he has won a university scholarship and will be able to start his computer science degree in the autumn.
While studying, he will still have to earn money somehow, in order to extend his leave to remain. He’ll have to reapply for legal status every two-and-a-half years for 10 years, paying £2,000 each time. Only then will he be eligible for indefinite leave to remain.
“If you haven’t got the money to reapply at any point, even if you’re right at the end and you just can’t get the money to reapply, you basically lose those years you built up already, and you have got to start again from the very beginning,” Michael says.
“That means at any point you can lose rights to stay – your rights to work, your rights to travel, everything basically. The amount you’ve worked towards, the amount you’ve paid. It’s all gone.”
Hanna’s position is more precarious still. She’s not allowed to work so she relies on friends and relatives to support her financially. She avoids contact with officialdom for fear of deportation. While she trusts her GP – a service available whatever your immigration status – she couldn’t have surgery without paying and says she’d be wary of going to a coronavirus testing centre.
“If the government decided to roll it out and make it compulsory for everyone, I’ve been thinking – how are they going to do it? Are you going to go in and give an ID? Or go in without having to bring ID? I have been a bit worried about that…”
When she sees police officers on the street, her strategy is to play it cool, and give them a smile.
“If you kind of stop and turn around it looks like you’ve got something to hide. So just being extra cheerful and making it look like, ‘Oh, look I got no worries,’ that way they don’t stop and search you,” she says.
Where to get help
All the time, Hanna is carefully gathering proof of her presence in the UK, because when she can prove she has lived in the UK continuously for 20 years she will be eligible for leave to remain.
She arrived at 13, she is now 27. There are six years to go.
“When I was in a further education college, I had dreams. I wanted to travel, I’m a sponge so I wanted to take all these things in. Everyone dreams like, ‘Oh in two years’ time I want to be doing this, in three years’ time I want to be doing this.’ And then five years have passed and you’re thinking: ‘OK, I just want to make it to tomorrow now,'” she says.
On Facebook she sees her former fellow students getting good jobs and moving on with their lives in a way she can only dream of. But despite everything, she’s hopeful.
“I’m really really, really hopeful for the future because I’ve got nothing else but hope.”
The names Michael and Hanna are pseudonyms
Illustrations by Tom Humberstone
The Next Episode podcast also includes the story of Dajay Brown, a young actor, who moved to London at the age of two with his father. As his 18th birthday approached, the council threatened them with eviction from the single hostel room they shared. Shortly after his birthday, with the help of a community care lawyer. he was granted British citizenship and was able to apply to drama school. But then, a year later, his father was deported – this podcast will appear soon on BBC Sounds.
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