Dave Stamp of Birmingham-based ASIRT, an OISC registered advocacy organisation working to support undocumented migrants in the West Midlands, shares the story of one family that they have been working to assist.
Many of the people we work with are entirely destitute at the time of their first contact with us and, increasingly, struggle to access even the few rights and entitlements to which they are entitled. We have seen the situation become increasingly worse since the introduction of Legal Aid cuts in April, and were not in the least surprised to read that the Government’s strategy in terms of migration policy is actually to develop a “hostile environment”, in which irregular migrants struggle to access the most basic services.
The consequences of this this strategy on the lives of vulnerable migrants can be well illustrated by the example of Carlos and his family. Carlos approached us for help to regularise his family’s status, telling us that he and his wife, Angela, had arrived from Jamaica some 12 years ago, overstaying on a visa. Their son, Anton, had been born just over 9 years on and, having been diagnosed with autism early in his childhood, Carlos and Angela had felt unable to return home, fearing that Anton’s special needs would not be met within the Jamaican education system.
The family had paid a succession of private solicitors thousands of pounds to help regularise their status, to no avail. At the time of their first contact with us, they were renting a room within private accommodation, with mother, father and Anton all sharing a double bed. Their situation was rendered yet more precarious by the fact that the rent was paid by Angela taking employment as a care worker, without permission to work.
We were able to identify legal arguments to help regularise the family’s status: case law says that the families of children resident in the UK for longer than 7 years and well integrated into the UK’s education system should be granted status. Moreover, Anton will become eligible for registration as a British citizen in just 2 months’ time when he turns 10, having spent the entirety of his life to date in the UK.
We advised Carlos that his family was eligible for support from the Local Authority under section 17 of the Children Act while the new application was under preparation and consideration by the Home Office, and went about making a referral for support to the appropriate Authority. Which is where things became complicated.
Rather than working in partnership with us in Anton’s best interests as a child in need, the Local Authority has adopted an essentially adversarial approach; the social worker responsible for conducting the assessment actually told Carlos that he had been instructed by his manager to “disregard” information we had shared about representations we were in the process of submitting to the Home Office, and both the social worker and his manager have refused to communicate with us in any way about the family’s case.
On completion of the assessment, Carlos was presented with a letter advising him that his family was not eligible for support under section 17 of the Children Act, and should take immediate steps to ‘return’ to Jamaica- a country which Anton has never so much as set foot in. We consider the decision to be illegal, and referred Carlos and his family on to Birmingham Law Centre, with whom we had a close partnership working relationship, to initiate a Judicial Review proceedings. Nightmarishly, within a fortnight of our referral, the Law Centre closed down. We have now, thankfully, identified alternative legal representation for the family, and hope that appropriate support will be put in place within a matter of days.
In the meantime, however, the family is living on food parcels we are able to provide, and experiencing harassment from the family of the landlord in whose property they are still sharing a room, not having been able to pay the rent since Angela stopped working on our advice.
Consultations are underway to make the environment in the UK even more “hostile” for families in this situation: it is proposed to give yet more power to the landlord exploiting this family’s vulnerable situation, and to restrict their access to healthcare. The reception afforded to this family by the agencies they approach for support is that they are “illegal immigrants”, who should simply leave the UK. And yet, the law actually says that this family- and particularly Anton, who knows no other life- does have a right to settlement in the UK.
Which raises a question: what use are rights if no one can help you to access them? Carlos and his family are not eligible for legal aid to help regularise their immigration status. The Local Authority responsible for the family’s basic accommodation and support needs refuses to take responsibility. Agencies which can help are so precariously funded that, like Birmingham Law Centre, they go out of business in the process of initiating legal challenges.
ASIRT, for now, is here to fight for the rights of people denied them in a “hostile environment”. But the decimation of advice and advocacy organisations across the country makes it likely that thousands of families in similar situations will be left in precarious “limbo” situations for many years to come.