It’s Mother’s Day, and I’ve been reflecting on the experiences of some of the parents ASIRT works with, who heroically provide love, support and stability to their children in the most unbearably chaotic and challenging circumstances.
One of these is ‘Elise’. She is the single mother of three children, the eldest of whom, ‘Kalvin’ is a 6 year old British citizen, deriving that citizenship from his father, who is also British, and from whom Elise is separated. Kalvin also has a diagnosis of special educational needs. As the sole carer of a British- and therefore European Union- citizen, who is dependent on her to meet his daily living needs, Elise has the ‘Zambrano’ right to live and work in the UK- not that she knew this until very recently.
Until October 2016, Elise had been supporting her family by working as a care assistant. She believed that she had been doing so ‘illegally’, and appears to have been exploited as though this were the case, but in actual fact did have the Zambrano right to work, though she was unaware of this and could not provide evidence of this right. She was dismissed on the basis of her inability to prove that she had the right to work in the UK, which is essentially where her problems began.
Becoming destitute, fearing homelessness, and being ineligible to claim welfare benefits, she approached the local authority for an assessment of need under section 17 of the Children Act. She was provided with the occasional food parcel, but scant further assistance. She was provided with no information about her rights, about how she could access appropriate immigration advice, or about the local authority’s statutory responsibilities. Time marched on, and her rent arrears increased.
In early January, Elise and the children left the house to visit a friend. On return home, she found that her landlord had carried out an illegal eviction. Desperate, Elise contacted her social worker to explain the situation- to be told that she was unable to offer any help other than to take the children into local authority care, separating them from their mother and, quite possibly, from each other. While it’s unclear whether this advice was given by Elise’s social worker out of ignorance or out of malice, the plain fact is that it was unlawful: section 17 of the Children Act requires local authorities to safeguard and promote the welfare of all children “in need” in their area, and to promote their upbringing by their family. There is no legal power to remove children from their parent purely on the basis that the parent has no source of income. This action on the social worker’s part therefore raises serious questions about her fitness to practice.
Consequently, Elise and her three children, the youngest of whom was then just 4 months old, spent a night in early January ‘sleeping’ in West Bromwich Bus Station, denied the most rudimentary subsistence and accommodation support by their social worker.
From here, the situation simply becomes more convoluted and Kafkaesque. Destitute and hopeless, Elise was advised by a friend to seek advice from the local Home Office Immigration Enforcement Unit. Borrowing money for taxi fare, she made her way there, to be advised that she should claim asylum to avoid homelessness. She has no asylum claim, and does not fear persecution in her country of origin. Neither, of course, does she have any reason to lodge such a claim to avoid homelessness, the local authority having a Children Act duty to her family. The Home Office also, inexplicably, provided the entire family with documentation describing all of them, including Kalvin, as Nigerian citizens, liable to removal from the UK.
Having lodged her asylum claim, Elise found herself placed in the Stone Rd Home Office Initial Asylum Accommodation centre, provided with 3 meals a day and no cash, some 16 miles from Kalvin’s school. His behaviour and wellbeing deteriorated accordingly.
At the time Elise contacted ASIRT for advice, the family had been in this situation for over ten days. We advised her that she had, and had always had, the Zambrano right to reside, and that the local authority had an unequivocal section 17 duty to her family. On her instruction, we contacted the Home Office to withdraw her asylum claim, and initiated the judicial review protocol against the local authority, successfully obliging them to provide the family with appropriate support: Kalvin was, again, able to attend school.
But not for long.
A Home Office caseworker made further contact Elise, advising her to attend an appointment at the local Immigration Enforcement Unit. Her social worker, who has plainly been in regular communication with the Home Office- while neither organisation has communicated with us, as her accredited immigration advisors- contacted her to tell her to stress the importance of attending this meeting. Elise did so, to have Kalvin’s British passport ‘seized’ on arrival. To this day, the Home Office has retained this document,providing no written explanation for its actions and not so much as a receipt. We are seeking to initiate a legal challenge against this action.
This was cue for the local authority again to make the family homeless and destitute, on the alleged basis that the issue of the family’s Zambrano right to reside was ‘null and void’ following the seizure of Kalvin’s passport- raising the frankly nightmarish prospect that individuals can be considered to have been stripped of their UK citizenship rights purely at the caprice of Home Office caseworkers.
Rather than seeking legal advice to assist Elise and her family in this difficult situation, the social worker simply told Elise once again to claim asylum if she wished to avoid destitution- effectively therefore providing Elise with immigration advice, while having no legal basis to do so. A further 3 week period in Stone Rd ensued, with Kalvin again deprived of his rights to attend school-leaving him isolated from his classmates on his sixth birthday- before legal action initiated on ASIRT’s part led to a Court Order once again forcing the local authority to meet its statutory responsibilities to this family.
In the ten days since this intervention, this family has been moved by the local authority to three different hotels. They have no cooking or laundry facilities, and are living on takeaways.
Rather than focusing her efforts on improving this situation and providing the children with the stability and support they so demonstrably need, the social worker continues relentlessly to grill Elise about her immigration status, opining that the family are ‘illegal immigrants’ and that her aim is to work with the Home Office to ensure their removal from the UK. Elise is terrified that she will, at any point, be given notice that the minimal support presently provided to her family will once gain be cut, and that she might once again be sleeping in a bus station. At no point has her social worker offered anything approaching an apology or an explanation for her behaviour to date.
So, let’s think about that for a minute: we live in a society which, quite properly, provides food and shelter to adults convicted of the most heinous crimes, on the basis that civilised societies do not subject wrongdoers to the misery and humiliation of starvation. Quite simply, we think ourselves better than that. Yet we have allowed a situation to develop in which social workers- the professionals with an ethical responsibility to uphold principles of social justice and human rights in their practice, and to safeguard the most vulnerable- are content routinely to consign children to absolute poverty.
We have normalised barbarism. How did we get here? And how do we get out?
In the coming months, this situation looks set to become still grimmer, with the introduction of measures within the 2016 Immigration Act which further enshrines child destitution into statute. ASIRT will be working with safeguarding teams, with professional bodies and with with trade unions to argue for a humane, compassionate and ethical strategy to anticipate these measures.
And, in the meantime, we will once again be taking part in the Birmingham Legal Walk, helping to raise funds to support the work we do to keep roofs over the likes of Kalvin’s heads.
Please support us if you can.