Potentially thousands of children will wake up undocumented in the country they call home on 1 July. Reuters
Afzal Khan, Amanda Shah, The Independent
With the closing date of the government’s EU Settlement Scheme just days away, years of warnings from across parliament, local government and the charity sector appear to have fallen on deaf ears, leaving thousands of vulnerable European children living in the care of the British state, at risk of being in the UK unlawfully.
Since the day the scheme opened, the government was warned about the difficulty children in care and care leavers would face in applying. Devastatingly, they failed to listen, and now potentially thousands of children will wake up undocumented in the country they call home on 1 July. To be undocumented under this government means children could go on to lead their lives unable to access vital benefits, healthcare or employment, and be at constant risk of detention or deportation.
These are children rooted in our communities, attending our schools, participating in sports clubs, making plans for their futures in our towns and cities — plans which are threatened, through no fault of their own, by the failings of the government’s scheme. They urgently need this government to guarantee their immigration status and stop them becoming yet another unintended casualty of Brexit.
The government’s abdication of responsibility for the children in its care has meant already underfunded and overstretched local authorities have been left — in the middle of a pandemic no less — to identify children eligible for the scheme and individually submit applications on their behalf. Recent analysis shows this has resulted in a postcode lottery for children in care as to whether or not they have been adequately supported or will be in the UK unlawfully come July. Too many are at risk of slipping through the net, particularly children of mixed heritage or dual nationality.
In Manchester, we have seen a focus across local government on identifying and supporting vulnerable children to secure their post-Brexit status. In March, Manchester City Council became the first local authority to sign a public pledge to ensure no child fell through the cracks of the government’s scheme. This pledge included a promise to ensure Manchester’s looked after children and care leavers do not become “part of a new Windrush generation - let down and forgotten by the state.”
But the design of the government’s scheme means that, despite fantastic work done locally in many parts of the country, a third of children in care and care leavers nationally who have been identified have still not applied to the scheme. This is supported by independent research undertaken by The Children’s Society which found just 39 per cent of children known to local authorities had actually applied to the scheme.
Frustratingly, the matter is further complicated because data available only covers those children in care and care leavers who have been identified as needing to apply to the scheme. The true number for whom an application is necessary will likely be much higher than currently estimated.
We have seen this in Greater Manchester where, with the scheme about to close, there has been a surge of enquiries from local authorities still identifying affected children and racing to get the documents they need to make applications in time.
The truth is the Settlement Scheme was designed for people who lead ordered, uncomplicated lives and have the evidence to prove it. For vulnerable children with disrupted life histories, the scheme has proven to be completely inadequate.
It makes no sense that where the government has had to step in to safeguard and care for children in our communities that, instead of guaranteeing their post-Brexit futures, it has designed a scheme that puts them in harm’s way. Ministerial promises to accept out of time applications are as yet untested and leave all the risk on vulnerable children.
Given the clear warning signs, it is vital the government takes urgent action to guarantee the immigration status of this group of vulnerable children and lift the arbitrary deadline before they are left to the mercy of its hostile environment policies.
Despite this being the 11th hour, it is not too late for the government to take action and prevent hundreds, if not thousands, of vulnerable children from being abandoned. This is our plea for them to do so.
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