“Illegal” First, Children Second

The UK Government’s ‘Illegal Migration Bill’ will make a wretched situation for asylum-seeking children far worse, writes Francesca Sella.

On 18th June, I attended the Festival of Migration in Edinburgh and I watched an incredibly powerful play, Fatima’s Promise. It was written by Ghazi Hussein, a Palestinian poet, and the cast were a group of children and young people with lived experience of migration to the UK. It was an emotional story of a group of refugee children forced to flee their war-torn home country and their traumatic and difficult journey to the UK. At the end of the play, we were left with a glimpse of hope as the children were able to start school and seemed finally to feel safe.

In my job as an immigration lawyer, I focus on assisting unaccompanied asylum seeking children who come to the UK seeking protection and safety, just like the children in Fatima’s Promise. Although it is not an easy process by any means, unaccompanied children who come to the UK seeking asylum are, at present, able to claim asylum and have their case considered by the Home Office. If their case is successful, they are granted refugee status and are able to remain in the UK, study, and build a life for themselves. During this process, they are also entitled to be looked after by their local authority, are given accommodation and are allocated a social worker who is responsible for their safety and wellbeing. In Scotland, they are protected by children’s legislation and the overarching principle is that children are children and ought to be protected, regardless of their immigration status. Under Scots law, these protections can be extended until a young person turns 26, if required.  

Unfortunately, under the current UK Government plans, all of this is about to change drastically. In March 2023, the UK Government introduced the so-called Illegal Migration Bill in Parliament. Whilst it was introduced as a plan to stop people from crossing the channel and entering the UK by boat, the legislation effectively abolishes the asylum system in the UK. The Bill places a duty on the Home Office to remove from the UK anyone who enters the UK irregularly (essentially without a valid visa) after 7th March 2023. The Home Office will also have a duty to ignore any asylum claim made by anyone who enters the UK irregularly after that date, regardless of their nationality or their reasons for seeking protection.  

Here is the key issue. UK law says you need to be in the UK to claim asylum. But it is impossible for a person fleeing persecution to get into the UK without either lying on a visa form, or entering irregularly. The Bill targets and punishes both those things. This effectively means that the Bill strips anyone who needs protection of their right to claim asylum.

The Bill applies to anyone seeking asylum in the UK including women, families, survivors of trafficking, and children. Under the Bill, unaccompanied children will not be able to claim asylum and their asylum claims will be ignored. Upon arrival, children might be placed in Home Office accommodation for an indefinite amount of time. Even if they are later transferred to a local authority, the Home Office will retain the power to remove them from local authority care and place them back in Home Office accommodation. As soon as they turn 18, the Home Office will be under a duty to remove them from the UK.

In the eyes of the UK Government and under the Bill, unaccompanied asylum seeking children are “illegal” migrants first and children second. The Bill forces local authorities to act in breach of children’s legislation, where children’s safety and   wellbeing are meant to be the paramount consideration. Under these plans, a local authority might be held in contempt of Court if it does not hand a child back to the Home Office when it is ordered to do so. The Bill encroaches in devolved areas, such as children’s rights and protection for survivors of trafficking, seeking to stop the Scottish Government from legislating in these areas. If the Bill becomes legislation and is enforced, children will no longer have the right to safety in the UK. Children such as those in Fatima’s Promise will not be able to build a safe and better future in the UK and will be left in a limbo, fearing detention and removal from the UK. Under these plans, there would be a very different ending to the play.

The Bill is currently being debated in the House of Lords and it is due to go back for its final stage in the House of Commons later in July. At JustRight Scotland, together with the Scottish Refugee Council, we have launched a Scottish campaign to reject this proposed legislation. Over 100 organisations have already signed our statement and have been supporting our call to stop this “cruel, unnecessary, and unlawful” Bill. Organisations can sign up and get involved in our campaign. People in our communities can also take part in our campaign by raising their voices on social media, by contacting their MPs and by signing our national petition. It is crucial that awareness is raised concerning the devastating impact that this will have on anyone coming to the UK in the hope of finding safety.

Francesca Sella is an Associate Solicitor at JustRight Scotland.