I’ve recently read Valeria Luiselli’s excellent ‘Tell Me How It Ends’, an account of the author’s experience of working as a volunteer interpreter for migrant children at risk of deportation from Trump’s America. In one passage, Luiselli recounts a conversation with her young daughter about her work, in which she will often ask ‘So, how does the story of those children end?’, to which Luiselli can offer no answer other than ‘I don’t know how it ends yet’.
This week, of all weeks, lays bare the truth of that comment in relation to children living though the experience of immigration control, as we have heard story after story relating to people living in the UK as British citizens for decades, only to suddenly find that they are not regarded as British at all in the ‘hostile environment’ under construction since 2012, and that they are risk of return to countries they have not visited since infancy, if at all. Some 70 years after the HMS Windrush docked at Tilbury, these former children are still left wondering how the story ends.
The accounts of individuals denied healthcare, employment and other basic rights after year after year of residence are by no means isolated. They are part of a systemic drive to make living conditions in the UK sufficiently unbearable that people will simply acquiesce to ‘voluntary’ removal from the UK.
By way of illustration, we turn again to the example of Anna, the single mother of 4 children. Anna submitted an application to renew a grant of leave to remain to the Home Office in January 2017, accompanied by a fee of in excess of two thousand pounds- much of which she had borrowed from friends or acquaintances. The family had originally been granted a period of leave to remain, without recourse to public funds, of just 30 months from July 2014, on the basis that Anna’s oldest daughter, Mabel, had been in the UK for in excess of 7 years, and so it was recognized that her best interests were to remain in the UK.
This application, submitted by an unregulated immigration advisor, was rejected by the Home Office as invalid in May 2017. Bluntly, Anna hadn’t been able to raise enough money to cover the fee demanded. She should, at that point, been reimbursed her original two thousand pounds application fee, minus a small charge to cover the Home Office’s administration costs. This would at least have enabled her to repay her debts, to continue paying her rent, and to consider, with ASIRT’s support, the submission of an application for British citizenship on Mabel’s behalf, for which she has been eligible since her tenth birthday. She is now almost 16.
Instead, the Home Office has held onto this money, without providing any form of explanation, or responding to the numerous letters we have written enquiring about the matter. In the meantime, the invalid application submitted in January 2017 having been rejected, Anna has lost her right to work, and thus her job. Having accrued significant rent arrears, the family is now destitute and provided with minimal subsistence support by the local authority under section 17 of the Children Act.
We have, at least, identified funding from a charitable source, enabling the submission an application for British citizenship- for which the Home Office’s fees are now in excess of one thousand pounds. Once this application is successful, Anna and her other children will acquire derivative EEA rights to reside in the UK and, perhaps more significantly, Mabel will be free from the precariousness of repeated grants of 30 months leave to remain, enabling her to map out her life and to consider employment, further or higher education options.
But this, still, isn’t where it ends. Having deprived Anna of the option of securing her daughter’s British citizenship rights, and thus a residual right to reside in the UK for the rest of the family by hanging on to her money for 11 months with no explanation, the Home Office has now written to the local authority advising them that the family members are regarded as ‘overstayers’ and thus eligible for detention and removal from the UK. Mabel’s social worker has advised her that the local authority is considering the termination of the family’s support on this basis, leaving them once again homeless and destitute. Both the Home Office caseworker and the social worker are fully aware of Mabel’s eligibility for British citizenship and, of course, it was already established three years previously that it is in the children’s best interests to remain in the UK.
So, we have a situation in which a 15 year old girl, who has been legally entitled to the benefits of British citizenship for half a decade, but has been unable to access such benefits due to the toxic combination of legal aid cuts and extortionate Home Office application costs, and who has spent the majority of her life to date in abject poverty, is left at risk not only of destitution, but of detention and deportation, as a direct consequence of what appears to be a concerted drive to deny her basic legal rights.
The entirely routine nature of this intolerable situation serves, to some considerable degree, to illuminate the inevitability of the Windrush debacle we have been reading about over recent days. The ‘hostile environment’ in which immigration rules are (mis)applied requires a disregard for basic principles of humanity and decency not as one-off, isolated incidents, but all of the time.
ASIRT exists precisely to challenge these injustices, and to work for access to justice for people like Anna and her family, who are some of the poorest, most disadvantaged and vulnerable in our society. We will, again, be participating in this year’s Birmingham Legal Walk, helping to raise funds to finance our work.
Please support us if you can.