‘I don’t feel human’ Experiences of destitution among young refugees and migrants

Children’s Society: Today we released ‘I don’t feel human’: Experiences of destitution among young refugees and migrants, a report about the experiences of destitution among some of the most vulnerable young people in our country.

Our report highlights the plight of the alarming number of young people who have nowhere to live and no regular source of financial support. These young people are sometimes forced to resort to increasingly desperate means in order to survive.

The devastating effects of destitution

In ‘I don’t feel human’ we examine available data on the extent and impact of destitution, and speak to young migrants and the people who work to support them. The report sets out the devastating impact being destitute has on children, young people and families.

This is an issue for young people who come to seek protection in the UK alone but have been refused asylum and so are left in limbo.

Having fled danger in their country of birth, these young people are exposed to danger and harm in this country because they are excluded from support and accommodation. They remain hidden from view and have to survive with minimal resources.

This is also an issue for children in migrant families who may not have an asylum claim but who become destitute for various reasons including domestic violence and family breakdown. Yet due to immigration restrictions they are unable to access support and their parents are not allowed to work in order to pull them out of poverty.

‘I can’t comprehend how people can survive.’

The stories that our practitioners have highlighted are sobering. One recounted that a number of lone mothers he supports won’t eat just so that their children eat. Many families have to rely on handouts from charities and friends, and don’t have money for buses so they are forced to walk for miles to get food. The practitioner said: ‘It’s all about survival. I can’t comprehend how people can survive.’

Being destitute leaves young people vulnerable to abuse and exploitation – as one practitioner said: ‘This is how (a young woman) had to survive. She was staying with men and they were using and abusing her. It was horrendous what was going on. I’m sure there’s a lot of young women in this situation.’

Our services see an alarming rise in destitution rates

At The Children’s Society we support almost 2,000 young refugees and migrants each year through ten specialist centres across England, as well as through children’s centres and other mainstream services. Our practitioners provide advocacy and support to children, young people and families who find themselves destitute and without access to essential services due to immigration restrictions.

Our services are witnessing an alarming rise in the number of destitute children, young people and families in desperate need of support.

Between April and September 2011, more than a third (34 percent) of young refugees supported by our New Londoners project were destitute. In contrast, 14 percent of such young people in the previous year (2009-10). Our project in the West Midlands has supported hundreds of destitute families since 2008.

It is difficult to say exactly how many children this affects across the country because the government doesn’t collect data on the number of children and young people who are destitute because of immigration policies. However, figures from civil society organisations suggest there could be many thousands of children and young people in this situation.

Exclusion from support

In the past, destitution has been a deliberate policy used to try and reduce what were seen to be ‘incentives’ for those coming to the UK to claim asylum.

Previously, the now Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith MP has referred to the policy of forced destitution as a ‘black hole’. He heavily criticised the previous government for this ‘failed policy’: ‘UK policy is still driven by the thesis, clearly falsified, that we can encourage people to leave by being nasty.’

Current legislation means that support can be withdrawn and withheld from certain groups of people in the immigration and asylum process.

However, this leaves many thousands of people – including children and young people – who cannot return to their country of origin. They often become destitute for prolonged periods of time, sometimes several years, and lack access to even the most basic welfare support.

This particularly affects young children in the crucial early years of their life and damages the life chances of older children as they transition into adulthood.

What’s needed

The experiences of destitute children and young people raise serious welfare concerns. Indeed, their acute vulnerability means that their predicament should be seen as an important child protection concern. In future they must be properly protected.

In our report we call for immediate action to ensure that all children and young people, regardless of their immigration status, should be able to access adequate levels of support and not forced to live in absolute poverty and despair.

By Ilona Pinter, Policy Adviser

Chapter 5: Conclusion and recommendations
Asylum-seeking and migrant children are living in conditions of extreme poverty for extended periods of time, often years. This has a significant impact on their immediate health and well-being as well as their sense of self-worth, dignity and hope for the future. According to the young people, families and support workers we spoke to for this report, children are going hungry, lacking adequate clothing, medicine and other essential goods and putting their lives at risk by sleeping rough or with strangers.

During periods of destitution young people and families are exposed to exploitation, violence and abuse, particularly those who are homeless and on the streets. While destitute, some young people we spoke to self-harmed and attempted
suicide, while others were sexually exploited or engaged in other harmful activities in order to survive. It is clear that statutory safeguarding duties are not being upheld, neither by the UK Border Agency nor by local agencies.

Despite a lack of official data, the evidence gathered by The Children’s Society demonstrates incontrovertibly that the experiences of young people who are destitute have a profound impact on them in the short-term and could have
significant implications for their future. What is also clear is that in many cases children and young people are deliberately being made destitute by the government’s policy of excluding these young asylum-seekers and migrants from support. For those young people and families whose claims have been refused but who are unable to return home, this policy is pushing them into alarming levels of deprivation.  It must be recognised that this policy has failed and continues to fail, and that urgent steps must now be taken to ensure that children and families are not left to starve on our streets.


Children and young people have specific rights that should be protected above considerations of immigration control, and should be central to the decisions made about them.

End-to-end cash-based support
The government should implement a single end-to-end cash-based support system for asylum seekers as well as those who have been refused asylum to ensure that no child has to survive below an acceptable level. This support should be at 100% of income support for children under 18 and at least 70% for adults  where accommodation is provided. Support
should be adjusted annually in line with mainstream benefits.

Local authority support
Leaving care provisions should be available to all looked-after children regardless of their immigration status and they should be supported until at least the age of 21 (or until 24 if they are in education). This could be achieved by amending Schedule 3 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 to ensure that leaving care and children in need provisions are always made available to children and young people to meet their welfare needs. This should include support provided to children in need and their families under Section 17 of the Children Act 1989.

‘No-one believes what he says but he’s got an incredible character that hasn’t been broken by his experience of being destitute, despite having suffered so much loss.’ Practitioner about a young person

Permission to work
Permission to work should be granted to asylum seeking parents and young adults if their claim for asylum has not been concluded within six months through no fault of their own in order to help ensure that children are not growing up in destitution. Refused asylum seekers who temporarily cannot be returned to their country of origin through no fault of their own should be allowed to work.

Legal advice
Children and vulnerable young people should be able to access legal aid for advice and representation in relation to their civil cases including their immigration claims to ensure that they have a fair chance to have their cases considered. The provision of early legal advice, which was first piloted in Solihull in 2006-2007, should be rolled out nationally and made available to all children, young people and families who need it.

Monitoring destitution
To be reflective of the true extent of poverty, child poverty statistics should capture the numbers of all asylum-seeking and migrant children living in poverty, including those who experience destitution, to ensure that effective policies are developed to tackle this issue. This could be done through independent national surveys or by adapting and analysing existing data sets.

Child poverty strategy
As part of the child poverty strategy, including its progress reports and corresponding local needs assessments, both central and local government should consider children and young people from asylum-seeking, refugee and migrant communities in order to ensure that eradicating child poverty is achieved for all children regardless of immigration status.  The Home Office should be made accountable for the number of children living in poverty as a consequence of immigration policy.

Building resilience among young people
Central and local government should explore strategies to build children and young people’s resilience through participation and empowerment work by involving young refugees and migrants in projects that celebrate their stories of overcoming adversity. Young refugees and migrants should be involved in local and national decision-making like other children, for example through the Department for Education’s consultations with children in care and young carers and through local children in care councils, in order to capture their unique and innovative perspective.

In his preface to the Asylum Matters report by the Centre for Social Justice56 which sets out a series of policy  recommendations on restoring trust in the UK asylum system, the now Secretary of State for Work and Pensions,
Iain Duncan Smith MP referred to the policy of forced destitution and illegal working by asylum seekers as a ‘black hole’ and heavily criticised the previous government for this ‘failed policy’:

‘UK policy is still driven by the thesis, clearly falsified, that we can encourage people to leave by being nasty.’

The experiences of children and young people presented in this report raise serious child protection concerns. The risks facing these children when they are destitute are acute and need to be addressed urgently by local and central government agencies. In order to ensure compliance with its safeguarding duties and its obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the government should urgently review all immigration policies and legislation that force children, young people and families into destitution, and ensure that support is provided to all children and
young people who need it, regardless of their immigration status.