Children and the EUSS – another future Windrush scandal ?

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The Windrush scandal occurred as a direct result of the ‘hostile environment’ environment policy announced by the government in 2012.

The scandal became public in 2017 when it emerged that hundreds of Commonwealth citizens had been wrongly detained, deported or denied legal rights by the Home office following the introduction of the ‘hostile environment’ policy.

Many of the people caught up in this had arrived as children before 1973. One such case was of an individual whose mother arrived in the United Kingdom from Jamaica as a child. He was placed in foster care as a baby and only became aware of problems concerning his status in the United Kingdom when his foster parents wanted to take him abroad on holiday and were unable to get him a passport.

He later applied for a passport as a teenager and was told he was not eligible because of a lack of information about his mother, from whom he was estranged, even though he was able to provide her birth certificate.

He wrote to numerous MPs seeking for their help, but while many took up his case with the Home Office, they refused to change their decision.

In 2016 he received a deportation notice from the Home Office after applying for a passport for the third time. He was told he was not eligible and that in order to remain he must declare himself as “stateless”.

He was only able to secure a passport years later when the Windrush scandal broke and his case received extensive publicity in the national press.

The deadline for EU citizens living in the United Kingdom, including children, to apply to the EU settlement scheme for the right to remain is less than a month away. Local authorities have to do this for children in care. Many local authorities do not keep nationality data for children in their care. The Children’s Society has established through Freedom of Information requests that, so far, fewer than 40% of the 3,700 or so eligible children in care,  (that are known about), have submitted applications.

By deliberately opting for an EU settlement scheme where people have to apply for what should be an automatic legal right, the government has created a situation that could leave children in care in a similar situation to the individual mentioned above.

It should also be of great concern that the Home Office is encouraging local authorities to register all these children for settlement status, even though many may have rights to citizenship. Children born in the United Kingdom to parents settled in the United Kingdom, are British citizens. If a child was born in the United Kingdom to parents who settle before the child turns 18, or if that child has lived the first 10 years of their life here, they have the right to register for British citizenship but that right expires when they turn 18. The home secretary also has a discretionary power to grant any child citizenship if it is clear their future lies here, for example if they are taken into care, but again they must apply before they turn 18.

However knowledge of the full extent of children’s rights to citizenship is often very poor. Not only that, by encouraging local authorities to register children in their care for settlement status, the local authorities concerned would have to pay fees of more than £1,000 to register a child in their care for citizenship and often do not have the required information about parents’ immigration status. Some of these children will lose their rights to citizenship forever when they turn 18.

This is creating a system where many children in care are likely to fall foul of the ‘hostile environment’ in the future and face possible deportation. It takes young people four applications costing more than £8,000 in fees and charges over 10 years to obtain indefinite leave to remain. The applications are extremely complex and require specialist legal advice.  The Home Office rejects applications with the smallest of mistakes, and there is no right of appeal if an applicant is rejected. If a young person misses a deadline for one of the applications, or can’t afford the fees, they become undocumented, lose the legal right to work, and, at best, go back to the start of the 10 year process. It is a system designed to make it as difficult as possible for children who grew up in the United Kingdom, to obtain the right to stay here.

While the government apologises for the Windrush scandal, it has planted the seeds for a future injustice that will affect some of the most vulnerable children in our society. The way to resolve this is to give all children, including children in care, who grow up in the United Kingdom the right to register for citizenship for free.

Gerard Harrison June 2021