What will happen to one of society's most vulnerable groups post-Brexit? For EU children in the UK's child protection system, getting the documents they need to prove their right to stay in the UK is almost impossible.
The UK's EU settlement scheme has been controversial and fraught with problems ever since it launched in March 2019. The scheme allows EU nationals currently resident in the UK to apply to stay in Britain by June 30, 2021.
For a start, there were technical glitches: People were only able to apply for the scheme on an Android phone, not on an iPhone or any other make. Then there were allegations of overly bureaucratic responses and cases being refused on spurious grounds.
These problems are compounded when it comes to one particularly vulnerable group: Children who are in or leaving the child protection system. The government does not collect specific data on the nationality of children in care, but its official estimate is that 5,000 children currently in care are nationals of an EU country. Some immigration charities put the number closer to 10,000.
Many of these children have been resident in the UK for most of their lives. But if they miss the deadline to apply for settled status, or do not have the paperwork they need, they could suddenly be deemed to be in Britain unlawfully. This would make them vulnerable to homelessness, immigration detention or deportation.
"To apply for settled status, you have to prove your identity, your residence and your suitability," explains Marianne Lagrue, policy manager at the Coram Children's Legal Center. "Proving your identity is an issue for children in care, because many do not have passports or don't have access to them, because the passport is held by the family. Or children might not have a document at all."
Some countries, including Germany, require the participation and consent of both parents to renew or apply for a child's identity documents. Most children in care have experienced some form of family breakdown, making it difficult to get signatures from both parents.
"The bureaucratic processes which children need to go through to get that document is often an insurmountable barrier," says Lagrue.
Lack of support
The Home Office has said in statements that it is committed to supporting children in care with applications for settled status, and that they will allow applications without ID documents if there is a compelling reason why they are not available.
But this has been inconsistent in practice. The number of applications for settled status by children in care that have been outright refused by the government is very low, but hundreds of applications have been judged "invalid" because they do not have the correct paperwork.
On top of this, some local authorities around the country have failed to support looked-after children with their immigration status. This has been found repeatedly by investigations by England's Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, whose office investigates complaints from the public. One issue is that social workers — who have been trained in child protection, not immigration law — might not know which documents are needed or how to obtain them.
"Social workers think about children's care needs in their totality — their immigration status is almost beside the point," says Karen Goodman, an independent social worker who works with migrant and asylum-seeking children. "The social work system is utterly overwhelmed with what it has to do, and it can't cope. All these aspects of immigration status — whether a child is allowed to be here or not — is a distraction from the social work task."
Although the deadline to apply for settled status is not until mid-2021, this is not an abstract issue: It is already impacting young people. When a child turns 18, they are legally an adult and are no longer eligible for the child protection system.
According to Lagrue, there have already been numerous instances where EU nationals leaving care at 18 have not been given government benefits that they are entitled to. "There is a misunderstanding about what their rights are. There is so much misinformation and misunderstanding about Brexit and the deadlines that many decision makers just don't understand that these people are still lawfully resident."
Britain's hostile policy means it is illegal to get a driving license, rent somewhere to live or get a job if you do not have the lawful right to be in the UK. For young people with no family support, to suddenly have no recourse to public funds and be barred from work is particularly devastating. If applications are refused or if children miss the deadline to apply, it can cause long lasting problems, even if they later win the right to stay.
"If they miss the deadline, they face having had a period of unlawful residence in the UK," says Lagrue. "The way that access to university in the UK and access to funding for university works, you need to prove a continuous period of lawful residency. So they could find themselves unable to progress."
'Children only have one life'
The Migrant Children's Consortium, a group of 50 children's charities working on immigration issues, has called for the government to make a change for children in the care system, so that the system is "declaratory." This means that children would only have to register their presence in the UK rather than applying for permission to stay. This would simply extend the rights the child already has to be in the UK, negating the need to apply for a new immigration status.
The Home Office agreed to this in principle, but it did not materialize, and instead these children are expected to apply for settled status along with everyone else.
"We all know children need to have security and know what is happening to them," says Goodman. "But everything about children subject to immigration control is about uncertainty. You can't have a permanency plan if a child has uncertain immigration status. If we don't know where you're going to be in the next six months, how on earth can we plan for you? These children only have one life and at the moment, government policy is making it as unstable as possible."