Chronic destitution among young migrants and refugees
March 8, 2012 — Review
Written by Bedour Alagraa
The Children’s Society has recently published a report on levels of destitution and poverty among asylum-seeking and migrant youth.
An alarming rise in the number of destitute children seeking support through children’s centres in the UK has prompted research on the abhorrent conditions faced by young asylum-seekers and migrants. The report, ‘I don’t feel human’: experiences of destitution among young refugees and migrants, by the Children’s Society, examines key data and assesses the extent of the problem.
Different groups and organisations identify and address destitution in different ways. The UK government has defined destitution in the Immigration and Asylum Act (1999) and the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act (2002). For the purpose of this report, destitution is defined as ‘the lack of regular access to essential resources such as food, clothing, toiletries, medicine and a place to live.’
Forced destitution has been a deliberate policy by previous and current policymakers so as to deter asylum claims and reduce the supposed incentives for those seeking asylum. The withdrawal of support and funds to refused asylum seekers is a major tool for governments seeking to expedite their return to their countries of origin. Children and families subject to immigration control or irregular immigration status have no recourse to public funds. Existing support schemes are limited and offered under strict conditions, and often, young people are not accessing these services.
The Children Act (1989) requires that all children receive support in their area, and social services has to provide accommodation and assistance to a family of a child in the interest of safeguarding the child’s welfare. However, local authority support is often withheld or withdrawn from migrants and refused asylum seekers under provisions in the Nationality, Immigration, and Asylum Act. This ongoing tension between the legal requirement to safeguard child welfare and immigration policies has left young asylum seekers in limbo.
Currently, there is no central agency or database for monitoring destitution among migrant children. Existing data is derived from local agencies and put together by the Children’s Society. According to Home Office figures, 21 per cent of all refused asylum seekers were children, and 86 per cent of these cases involved very young children under the age of five. Fifty-one per cent of migrant children receive no support from formal or private agents, and 40 per cent of those in receipt of support had experienced prolonged destitution of up to six years.
Destitution and its consequences
Young people typically experienced destitution because social services did not believe they were children and refused to support them; because of relationship breakdown and the exhaustion of private fostering arrangements; or because after turning 18, they had been discharged from social care.
The consequences of destitution among young migrants are varied. Many resort to dangerous survival strategies such as sex work and petty crime. Fear of coming to the attention of authorities means that many child migrants avoid medical care, resulting in poor health, and high rates of infant mortality caused by difficulty accessing pre- and ante-natal services. Sexually transmitted diseases, poor diet and hygiene, and deteriorating mental health (symptoms of which include self-harm and suicide) are all frequently experienced by destitute child migrants. These health problems are often exacerbated by widespread homelessness and abuse experienced by child migrants.
The report makes a number of recommendations which include:
- Cash-based support at 100 per cent support for children under 18 and at least 70 per cent for adults where accommodation is provided;
- Increased funding from local authorities;
- Permission to work;
- Legal advice made more accessible;
- Wide-scale monitoring of destitution;
- A comprehensive child poverty strategy that includes the needs of asylum-seeking, refugee and migrant communities.
'I don't feel human': experiences of destitution among young refugees and migrants, Children's Society, can be downloaded here (pdf file, 908kb).  According to these statutes, a person and his dependents are destitute 'if they do not have and cannot obtain both (a) adequate accommodation, and (b) food and other essential items'. The Information Centre about Asylum and Refugees however describes destitution as 'the inability to access statutory support mechanisms ... reliance on friends, family and charitable groups for basic subsistence and/or accommodation. It can also be defined by its symptoms or effects, such as homelessness'.
The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.
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