More than a million children in the UK don’t have British or Irish citizenship, new figures show – fuelling concerns that young people who have lived in the country all or most of their lives are having their rights “neglected”.
A new briefing from the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford shows that 8 per cent of under-18s in Britain – amounting to 1,082,000 – were not UK or Irish citizens in 2019.
Among this cohort, 39 per cent (about 421,000) were born in the UK, and about 177,000 had been in the country for more than 10 years and were therefore eligible to become British citizens.
Campaigners have long warned that young people without British citizenship face being barred from attending university, missing out on job opportunities and being unable to build a life in the country where they live – often the only country they know.
One individual, who came to the UK aged six, told The Independent he felt like “an alien in his own home” because not having British citizenship had meant he was unable to go to university and was now having to pay high fees to secure his immigration status.
Mark, 25, who didn’t want to reveal his full name, only discovered he didn’t have secure immigration status when he started applying for university at the age of 21 – after a couple of years working as a teaching assistant – and was told he wasn’t eligible for a student loan.
It transpired that his mother hadn’t regularised his status when he arrived to join her in the UK, and he is now in the process of applying for indefinite leave to remain.
The young man, who wishes to become a teacher but is currently still unable to attend university, said: “All of this has really stopped my progress. I don’t know what more I can do. I’m British. This is my home, but I’m losing hope. I feel like an alien in my own home.”
The High Court ruled in December that the £1,012 fee for children to register as British citizens was unlawful as it prevented many children from being registered for citizenship.
The fee, which is nearly three times the £372 it costs the Home Office to process each application – leaves children feeling “alienated ... insecure and not fully assimilated into the culture and social fabric of the UK”, the judge said.
The Whitehall department is said to be appealing against the judgment, and the fee remains in place.
The Migration Observatory data also reveals that 175,634 children are part of a family expected to have no recourse to public funds (NRPF), a condition attached to the immigration status of many non-British citizens which stipulates that they can live and work in the UK but are not entitled to state support.
This is compared with 142,496 in 2016, marking a rise of 23 per cent in three years.
The NRPF rule has come under increased criticism during the Covid-19 pandemic, as it has prevented thousands of families facing job losses and heightened financial pressures from accessing government support.
Solange Valdez-Symonds, director of the Project for the Registration of Children as British Citizens, said the high numbers of children without British citizenship caused “immeasurable harm”.
She said: “Rights to British citizenship of children born and growing up in this country remain so badly neglected, and it is hard to believe this would be permitted to continue were the children affected not so frequently also suffering marginalisation and exclusion in this country.”
Steve Valdez-Symonds, refugee and migrant rights director at Amnesty International UK, said there was racial discrimination at play: “That so many of the young British people affected by this neglect and treated as mere visitors to this, their home country, are black is a particularly poignant example of racism that stretches far beyond the Home Office.”
He added that unless and until rights to British citizenship were “more widely understood and respected”, there would continue to be many children growing up in the UK who are wrongly deprived of its citizenship.
“This is partly a result of neglecting to consider the rights and interests of children in their own right rather than as dependents of others; and partly due to a failure to understand and respect British nationality law. That law makes clear the rights to citizenship of all children connected to this country as set out in the British Nationality Act of 1981,” he said.
The Home Office has been approached for comment.