What do you dream of? 

Here are Hanna’s dreams. She wants to study finance and accounting. She’s thinking about which universities – maybe Scotland or Wales. Time to get to know another part of the UK. She’s got big dreams. Of travel. Of soaking up learning like a sponge. It’s exciting. But then her dreams start to unravel. She doesn’t have the right immigration documents. Her dreams, and the dreams of her college friends, start to go in two different directions. 

Hanna is one of an estimated 215,000 undocumented children in the UK. She came to the UK from Nigeria when she was 13 years old. We read about her experience when she spoke to the BBC during lockdown.

It’s very familiar to Melissa – a solicitor advocate at GMIAU who works to support young people stuck in a similar situation to Hanna. Melissa says:

“Many of the undocumented children we see have either been born in the UK, or have lived here since they were small children. Unsurprisingly many identify – and are identified by those they live, study and play alongside – as British. Until they hit a problem.

At some point not having immigration documents cuts across their opportunities, throwing them into a parallel reality to their friends and marking them out as ‘different’. It’s a massive problem. One of the consequences of the Hostile Environment is that the internal borders of immigration control affect so much now. You want to go to university? Where’s your ID documents? Starting your first job? ID documents. Setting up a bank account? It’s those documents again.”

But there is a window of opportunity to do the right thing for undocumented children. When children turn 18 their options become more limited but before then there are more legal solutions to explore. A significant number may have rights to British citizenship. However since 2013 austerity cuts mean there is no legal aid for children in families to make immigration or nationality applications to get the documents that are the gateway to securing their futures in the UK. It goes without saying that the system is too complex for children – and let’s face it, most adults – to navigate without help. So many families we see have had no opportunity to regularise their immigration status or apply for the British citizenship to which their children are entitled.

Earlier this year GMIAU became part of a project that started in the United States with an organisation called Kids In Need of Defense UK (KIND). It uses a pro bono model to leverage support from commercial law firms under supervision from immigration specialists – like our solicitor Melissa. She’s providing training, supervision and consultancy to lawyers at DLA Piper in Manchester and Liverpool as well as Sidley Austin in London. It means children and their families get access to free legal advice and representation to assess their options and make the applications they need. 

We’re working alongside other organisations around the country as part of the Kids In Need of Defense UK model – Central England Law Centre, Coram, MiCLU, Just Rights Scotland – and others – like We Belong – campaigning to make changes to the laws that make this project necessary. And campaigning is vital. Even once families get immigration advice they have to pay the Home Office for making a child’s citizenship application. Currently it’s £1,012 – £640 of which is pure profit. You have two children? You pay twice. Litigation brought by the Project for the Registration of Children as British Citizens is trying to challenge the fee. In the meantime, families have access through Kids In Need of Defense UK to an interest-free payment plan that helps spread the immorally high cost. 

“We’re seeing children whose parents became settled in the UK after they were born, children whose parents are British but for various reasons were not able to register their children as citizens earlier, children who were born in the UK and have lived here for ten years and children for whom we can make applications to the Home Office for them to exercise discretion and grant citizenship” says Melissa. 

“We know that without free legal representation children would end up at serious risk of harm. When they turn 18, the Home Office immediately treats them as adults with adult consequences, including removal from the UK to countries they may have never even been to. That knowledge – particularly for teenagers as they become more aware – is a burden they have to carry around with them. Imagine going to school with that? As friends with citizenship move on with their lives, make plans and flourish, they’re left living in limbo.” 

So what does getting British citizenship feel like? What difference does it make for children and their families? One word. Freedom.

Our work with Kids In Need of Defense UK allows us to use the law to provide solutions that lift children out of a life subjected to immigration control. Above all it’s about helping to secure the rights that children are entitled to. It’s no accident that the children we see – most of them black or brown, many of them from families experiencing severe economic inequalities – have systemic barriers put in their way. This needs to change. We want children’s right to dream to be backed up with documents so that they get to decide (not the immigration system) whether to make those dreams a reality. 

If you, your children, or families you know could benefit from advice about British citizenship please see the Kids In Need of Defense UK website for referral details. We are able to support children with no leave to remain in the UK as well as children with limited or indefinite leave to remain in the UK.