In a week in which it has been reported both that UNICEF has determined the UK to have the worst record in the European Union for child hunger, and that children living in poverty are routinely being denied access to free school meals because of their parents’ immigration statuses, we have had cause to think about ‘Sara’ and her three children.
Sara is subject to immigration control. She is from a country outside the European Union, and has no leave to remain in the UK. Her children, however, are Dutch, Sara’s ex-partner having Dutch citizenship.
Sara and the children have, for the past 18 months, been living in a refuge for victims of domestic violence, Sara having been subjected to long-term physical, verbal and emotional abuse, particularly during her third pregnancy.
For the first 12 months, the family was supported by the local authority under section 17 of the Children Act, Sara having no recourse to public funds and, as the mother of three pre-school children, little prospect of working to meet her family’s needs- if she was even able to prove to an employer that she has a right to work in the UK, which she is not.
Then, last December, the local authority declared that it was terminating its financial support, having concluded that the Home Office could reasonably be expected to meet the family’s subsistence needs- although no such support was actually in place.
Sara and the children were left at risk of homelessness and destitution, no authority taking on responsibility to meet the family’s accommodation and support costs. Staff at the refuge, anxious about the family’s prospects, undertook the huge task of raising funds within the local community to make sure that a roof remained over the family’s heads, at least for a few months. But in terms of basic subsistence needs, she was left with nothing and has, since Christmas, been reliant entirely on food parcels, and on whatever she has been able to borrow from friends and acquaintances, causing an already deeply traumatized woman considerable shame and humiliation.
At the point the family was referred to us, the Home Office had written to advise Sara that she was not eligible for financial support from them. She never had been, in fact. We are now working with the family to make sure that the subsistence support to which the family has always been entitled from the local authority is reinstated, and to make sure that Sara has proof of her right to reside in the UK.
Because Sara and her children are living legally in the UK, and they always have been. Her children are Dutch citizens, and she has been their lone parent since the breakdown of her relationship with their father. Since she is not an EU citizen, and cannot travel to the Netherlands, the Home Office having retained her passport, she cannot reasonably be expected to travel to her children’s country of origin to meet their needs. Nor can her children reasonably be expected to leave the UK- and thus the EU- to live with their mother in her country of origin, since that would necessarily deprive them of their European citizenship rights. Sara, therefore, has the ‘Zambrano’ right to reside in the UK and, as such, the local authority has a legal duty to ensure that her family is in receipt of appropriate support, if needed. Yet that right has simply been disregarded for the past 6 months, leaving three young children in severe poverty, and facing potential homelessness.
Which leads to the question- what is the point of having rights if you can’t claim them? The Windrush scandal has provided a perfect illustration of what can happen when people whose immigration statuses are anything less than entirely straightforward are denied access to free legal representation. And, of course, in less than 12 months, the UK is committed to leaving the European Union, leaving EU nationals and their carers and dependents even more vulnerable to the capriciousness of statutory bodies than, as Sara’s case perfectly illustrates, is presently the case.
ASIRT’s work, providing free, professionally regulated immigration advice, representation and support has never been more urgently needed than it is now, and this is precisely why we are committed to working with the Midland Legal Support Trust, raising money to ensure that this work can carry on.
ASIRT will be joining the Birmingham Legal Walk on Monday, May 21st.
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