The government is punishing children for their parents’ immigration status – The Guardian

When the government first introduced its plans to create a “hostile environment” for migrants, the rhetoric was about immigration control, rather than making people homeless. But recent provisions, including making it illegal for landlords to rent properties to undocumented migrants, banning them from opening bank accounts and cracking down on working without the right documentation, have led to just that.

There is a direct conflict between the government’s approach to immigration control and its commitments to safeguarding children’s rights. Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 gives local authorities powers to provide support to families to prevent their children from being taken into care.

As new legislation increases the risk of homelessness and destitution by making it harder for people to regularise their immigration status – and more difficult to survive while they go through the process – section 17 can act as a final safety net. It can compel local authorities to provide cash or accommodation to prevent families becoming homeless.

But there is a problem. All children have the right to a home and enough to eat, regardless of their parents’ immigration status, but local authorities get no additional funding to provide support to families under section 17. Emergency accommodation to prevent homelessness often amounts to overpriced, substandard hotels. Forced to make emergency bookings, and specifically prevented from using their social housing stock, councils often end up paying over the odds. They have to use their ordinary social care budgets because there is no additional funding available from central government. Unsurprisingly, budgetary pressures act as a disincentive to providing help. Parents are often threatened with having their children taken into care, wrongly told that there is no help available, and even subjected to racist abuse.

At Project 17, a voluntary organisation working with migrant families facing destitution, we have now worked with more than 800 families across London. Sadly, demand for services continues to grow. In about half of our cases, we have to get a solicitor involved to challenge wrongful refusals of support. Defending legal challenges might be a costly addition to a local authority’s bill, but it is often the only way to avoid children sleeping on night buses and in police stations.

Our clients are migrant families with no access to mainstream benefits or social housing. They come from a range of countries, backgrounds and religions. Some have leave to remain, but their visas prevent access to public funds, so they are without the usual welfare safety net that includes benefits and homelessness support. Other clients are still trying to regularise their immigration status, and are often part-way through a bureaucratic process that can take years.

The one thing all our clients have in common is that they are facing destitution with their children. Almost all these children were born in the UK and will have their futures here. Many are already British citizens, and the rest will likely become British before they turn 18. But as welfare support must be claimed by an adult, these children are denied basic services and face homelessness as a result.

As the government gets “tougher” on migration, these children’s lives get harder. Families are becoming street homeless with alarming frequency. For some, support networks eventually fade away as the generosity of friends is exhausted. Many of our clients are women in abusive relationships, choosing between sleeping rough, or staying with their abuser. Others are forced into prostitution and domestic servitude to buy food for their children.

Inevitably, more and more families are approaching local authorities for support, and section 17 is one of the battlegrounds on which the tensions between children’s rights and immigration control plays out. Local authorities are reluctantly forced to step in to prevent the childhood destitution that is caused by central government.

But disappointingly, local authorities are not fighting back against these laws that end up punishing children for their parents’ immigration status. Instead, councils try to avoid supporting families, often breaking the law and leaving children destitute to save money. We often find ourselves battling councils over individual cases, but local authorities need to work together with the voluntary sector to change the support system and ensure children aren’t left homeless

Abi Brunswick is a director of Project 17.

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