November 30 2021

Human rights close to home: are we protecting rights of migrant children in the UK?

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Human rights close to home: are we protecting rights of migrant children in the UK?

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Refugee boy

Refugee Child, by William H. Johnson, from Smithsonian Institution (Flickr)

Today is International Human Rights Day when people and organisations around the world remember and celebrate the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Eleanor Roosevelt, the driving force behind this blueprint for human rights, famously recognised that human rights begin:

 ‘… in small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends… . Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.’

This year, Human Rights Day has an added significance for children as it co-incides with the 25th Anniversary year of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). The UNCRC makes clear that refugee and migrant children are entitled to special protection of their human rights and that they must not be the victims of discrimination or stigmatisation. However, on International Human Rights Day, the rights of children in the UK are in constant need of defence. The UK government’s current approach to these vulnerable children puts their welfare at stake and leaves many of them at risk of destitution and exploitation. The Children’s Society is particularly concerned with areas where refugee and migrant children’s rights are under threat.

Access to justice
In 2013, the UK government consulted on a ‘residence test’ for entitlement to civil legal aid. The proposed regulations would limit the availability of legal aid to those who are lawfully resident on the day of the application and have previously lawfully resided in the UK for a continuous period of 12 months. In a report to the UN, drawn up in advance of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child’s examination next year, the UK government said it had concluded that a number of categories of people should not have to satisfy the test and that they took account of the views raised by consultees, including children’s rights NGOs, and are satisfied that they are compatible with the UNCRC.

Many hold a very different view. Children who do not pass the residence test, or cannot provide evidence to prove they pass the test, will not be able to enforce rights that they hold in law. The test will particularly affect undocumented children and young people who are at risk of becoming street homeless including unaccompanied children leaving care who have had their support withdrawn by the local authority.

The parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights has concluded that children who fail the test will rarely be able to represent themselves in legal proceedings. It said that the residence test will inevitably lead to breaches by the UK of the UNCRC in particular under Article 3 (the best interests of the child are the priority) and Article 12 (the right of children to express their views and for those views to be taken seriously). They urged the Government to reconsider their position.

The residence test has also been ruled unlawful by a unanimous High Court judgment describing it as ‘unauthorised, discriminatory and impossible to justify’. Despite this, the government is appealing the Court’s judgment and still hopes to be able to implement this damaging residence test.

Access to healthcare
In its report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the government also said it is committed to better health and well-being for all as well as to reduced health inequalities. However, provisions set out in the Immigration Act 2014 provide a basis for charging for National Health Service treatment for those who have an irregular immigration status, potentially impacting on around 120,000 undocumented migrant children. Research has shown that new restrictions on healthcare create unequal access, put vulnerable groups more at risk of complications and increase attendance in A&E.

The Act does not demonstrate that consideration has been given to the government’s obligations to all children under international and domestic legislation. Under the UNCRC every child has a right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health (Article 24) and the government must ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child (Article 6) without discrimination based on their nationality, race, status or their parent’s status (Article 2). This policy is also likely to further increase existing health inequalities by excluding the most vulnerable children from certain treatments and increasing barriers to accessing care.

Human rights mean that, regardless of their background, all children should be given support to fulfil their potential. The UK government is failing to appreciate the extent of their obligations under the UNCRC and are not putting them at the heart of their decision-making for refugee and migrant children. The Children’s Society urge them to reconsider so that the UK can live up to the vision of the Universal Declaration and UNCRC and ensure that children’s human rights have meaning where they matter most – ‘in small places, close to home’.

3 responses to “Human rights close to home: are we protecting rights of migrant children in the UK?”

  1. Chris Gregg says:

    That sounds a very sorry state of affairs, Lucy,how does the UK compare with other developed counties in these respects? I imagine that the healthcare issue is even worse in the USA for example?

  2. Anna Sz. says:

    As professional interpreter I watch with increasing worry the state of affairs in courts/ NHS/ government bodies with access to simple, basic justice. People are intimidated, their rights are abused and they are expected to swallow this bitter pill without flinching or are offered explanation of ‘austerity cuts’.
    It makes me wonder, what will it take to make UK society to wake up to the reality, that led them to be coned by their own government and sly lies of politicians, who never should be in power on positions they take in the first place (Grayling).
    Asking how US is doing in relevant department won’t solve the issue here. And if nothing will be done to stop qelection BS propaganda, UK will find itself face to face with regular abuses of Human Rights, Children’s Rights, etc. do you really believe that severing the ties with EU will let UK off the hook of Justice?!
    What will it take?????

  3. Lucy Gregg says:

    Thanks both for your comments.

    I only have information on Europe about comparisons, so you can see the reports below if you want to know more:



    Access to Juctice


    In general access to healthcare for children is much more generous in other european contexts than the provisions imposed by the Immigration Act 2014. On access to justice I’m not sure of the details of a comparison – but this is a useful idea for research for future advocacy!

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