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’.