Where do we stand when migrant children and young people in Britain cannot even secure basic access to justice?
As I enter the foyer of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation in central London for the first ever Undoc camp I’m surrounded by young migrants, lawyers, service providers and the tech elite. I’m greeted with a paintbrush. I’ve been asked to contribute a word that’s important to the creation of a better world. The camp, based on an innovative Transcamp hosted earlier this year, is a one and a half-day event to come up with ideas to get support and information to children and young people with irregular immigration status in Britain. Keeping with the theme of the weekend I write “communication”. The paint merges with that of a young man to my left, who’s sketching “peace”, and a young woman on my right who’s writing something in Arabic. I ask her what it means, and, with a final sweep of her brush, she looks up and says “art”. The atmosphere is full of fun: Refugee Youth have put on a show for us, and there’s drumming and dancing coming from the main room.
After a while we’re invited to sit down. I’ve struck up a conversation with a fascinating man on my left, the founder of an Afghan community radio station called Afghan Voice. Mid-sentence someone asks me to move. I’m a little put out by this. Nobody has told me why, and nobody else is moving either. I decide to stay put and continue the conversation. Somebody else approaches our table and asks if we filled in the green form at the front desk when we arrived. She’s terribly polite, would we mind popping back? “We’re just a bit worried about numbers. This has proven to be a popular event and we don’t want anyone stealing in who’s not meant to be here”. The radio host kindly offers to go and get the forms for us all to fill in. After five minutes he hasn’t returned and someone else approaches to ask, “have you filled in this pink form?”. I exchange a furtive glance with the woman on my right, perhaps this event hasn’t been as well organised as we’d been made to believe…I explain that our friend has gone to get the form for us but she insists that we have to fill in this form too. I take a look and it’s a blank sheet of paper: is this a joke? The person who had asked me to move table earlier has now returned and he’s taking an angry tone. After a while I realise he’s speaking a language I don’t understand. He’s literally shouting at me now and I’m getting frustrated. Is this some kind of role play? When is that guy coming back with the green form? What happened to the drums?
Ten representatives from Refugee Youth take to the stage, the girl who had penned “art” is amongst them. “We wanted to recreate what it feels like to be excluded from this society”, says a girl of around 18 with a slight Spanish accent, “Welcome”.
The aim of Undoc Camp, a collaborative project between the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and Unbound Philanthropy delivered by On Road Media, is to see how technology can help undocumented migrant youth to receive better support as they struggle with the challenges of living with irregular status in Britain. These challenges have already been documented on openDemocracy.
On day one we hear some examples of how technology has helped meet the support needs of other marginalised groups, such as a mobile phone translation app for Bengali speaking parents to use at parents’ evenings, designed by a secondary school girl, or an online game to raise awareness of the challenges faced to refugees trying to get to Europe. On day two participants get together in teams to try to match technology to six key areas: arrival, legal advice and support, self-help and well-being, awareness, trust and “returns” in a quest to win the £10,000 prize. Several attendees approach the task with cynicism, “you can’t put a problem online and magically solve it”; “is the internet safe?”, “How can mouse clicking remedy the damage wrought by the £350 million cuts to legal aid that will block access to justice for numerous migrants, young and old alike, from April next year?”
A recent report estimates that there are 120,000 children living without legal immigration status in Britain. The many young participants at the camp provided ample context, drawing on personal experiences to explain what it’s like to “wait in limbo” for decisions to be made about them with their lives “on hold”: a mix of prejudice and discrimination, “living in fear and hiding”, language and jargon barriers, “confusing systems”, and, overwhelmingly, a lack of trust. One participant stressed that this lack of trust is built into the very system, “detention and deportation…here is where the trust completely goes, when this is a possibility at 15 or 16”. Others pointed out that trust depends on personal relationships; as a general rule “young people trust other young people”. Some of the young people present have been in the UK all their lives, others have been here just a few months, yet nearly all of them have experienced a combination of these issues. Many never knew they were not ‘British’ until they were unable to go to college, or failed to get the necessary papers for a trip with school.
An assortment of individual stories brings the case home. Sarah was 12 when she came with her father from Sierra Leone on a tourist visa. Having escaped the sexual abuse inflicted by her cousin back home, she was abandoned by her father and left with someone she called ‘Auntie’ who treated her as a housemaid. In the years that followed she faced problems with drink and drugs, an aborted pregnancy and was thrown out of two different places she called home. At 17 she was turned away from social services who deemed that, as she was nearly 18, there was nothing could do for her. Whist narrating her story a representative from The Children’s Society asks us to count the number of adults who Sarah has been in contact with. I count nineteen adults, including teachers, social workers, police and an MP, but very few have been able to help her, or given her any agency to help herself. Alice now lives with a friend and has a place at university to study journalism. As an undocumented migrant she cannot take up this place, and she is still waiting for her status to change.
Cindy, now 23, is a performing arts student. She came to the UK from Colombia aged 14 with her parents on a student visa; “I didn’t have a choice, they made a decision and I had to go along with it”. She stayed at home for several months while her parents were working. “I was invisible, kind of.” She only found out about her irregular status when, top of the class in science and with teachers on her side, she was thrown out of college after six months and unable to study for three years. “I couldn’t do the things you could do to fit in and feel better…nobody knew what was happening”. At the camp Cindy sets up shop with a range of web designers, tasked with devising solutions to support young migrants who are returning to their country of origin.
Despite the careful carving up of challenges into six key areas, the ideas that emerge from Undoc Camp centre on a few common themes: how can we build trust? How can we connect good work that is already happening? How can we ensure that young people have access to the services they need? Another focus, linked to the “spirit of fun and playfulness” to which the camp aspired, is the need to ensure that young migrants can quite simply enjoy being young and have access to “tools to access information to pursue their passions and interests”. One group proposes an online ‘Young Migrants’ Map’, where young migrants can upload data about their social lives, because as one member of Refugee Youth put it, “our life is more than just our legal status”. Another group proposes a ‘Music Underground’ app, pitched as a kind of “music security blanket” that would which would allow new migrants to download music from their countries of origin in simple files compatible with basic phones. A third proposal, ‘Nice Things Daily’ focuses on providing inspirational texts and also tips for assistance and self-care to vulnerable young migrants: “it’s important to remember they’re young and need to sustain themselves and have fun too.”
Yet with diminishing access to justice, the important space for young migrants to be themselves may be shrinking too. In addition to risks associated with detention and destitution, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 which was passed in May this year further limits access to justice for thousands of children and young people, making the vast majority of non-asylum immigration cases ineligible for legal aid funding, in addition to other related areas of law such as employment, housing and family law. These changes threaten many young peoples’ right to be in the UK, but also the quality of their life here.
It was in this context that the winning idea at Undoc Camp, ‘Migrant Hope’ focused not on creative and fun ways of engaging with issues or of humanising the experiences of young migrants, but on access to justice. Looking ahead to when the new Act comes into operation in April next year, their proposal is a simple online referral system to help individuals not eligible for legal aid to see if they may be eligible for what is known as ‘exceptional case funding’. Without such a mechanism, one lawyer explained that this exceptional funding is currently “a safety net that doesn’t have a way of working”, since no funding has been made available for solicitors to actually make exceptional funding applications in the first place. In this context, the online platform would ensure that all young migrants and solicitors have a way of submitting an application via a trusted partner, such as through the Public Law Project. Through using an online portal, the group proposed to help resolve some of the arbitrariness wrought by geographies of exclusion and poor access to lawyers outside of the capital. The portal could also collect data for groups working to mitigate the impact of legal aid cuts and permit the strategic selection of test cases, potentially leading to systematic change of policy and practice. If the idea takes off, which with a £10,000 grant it just might, it could provide an indispensable resource in the campaign to reinstate legal aid.
Yet as people came together to congratulate the winning team I found I’d lost the “spirit of fun” I had upon arriving at Undoc Camp. “Communication”, “art”, “peace”, we need all of these things, but where do we stand when children and young people in our society cannot even secure something as basic as access to justice? Young people need to be young people, but in the current context one can’t help but observe that even in forums that have been brought together for creative purposes, the brutal reality of the current situation prevails.