The right to have rights: children and destitution

My June COMPAS blogpost was on safeguarding children from destitution. The original is here. This is an extract.

The legal framework that governs how a child in Britain with migrant parents can access welfare rights is incredibly complex: on the one hand, a century of immigration and nationality legislation that has created a seemingly endless proliferation of statuses and entitlements short of those of full citizens; on the other hand, the sedimentation of case law, of European and UK legislation on the rights of children and families, and the heritage of a welfare system based on universal provision.

foldersWhile public opinion deals in terms such as “illegal migrant” and “bogus asylum seeker”, for service providers working with migrant families, the categories are infinitely more complicated. An alphabet soup of acronyms and initials that specify who has rights to which benefits – NRPF, s17, ARE, ILR, LLR, DVR, and many more – spell out the formula by which a family may claim housing benefit or carers allowance, or not, and under which conditions. Navigating this complexity is left to local authorities, and specifically to the frontline workers (“street level bureaucrats”, as they are called in the research literature) tasked with granting or denying families access to the welfare state.

Researching the right to have rights

Understanding how this works in practice – how different categories of migrant families do or don’t access social rights – has been a key question for researchers at COMPAS for some time now. A series of projects have explored this for different groups. Undocumented Children in the UK, funded by Barrow Cadbury, explored experiences and everyday lives of irregular migrant children in the United Kingdom, including experiences of schooling and pathways to work. Service provision to irregular migrants in Europe, funded by the Open Society Foundations, explored the extent of, and rationales for, entitlements to service provision for migrants with irregular immigration status in EU countries, mapping entitlements to health and education for both children and adults with irregular migration status (see the blogpost by Sarah Spencer and Nicola Delvino on the Italian part of the research). An OSF-funded pilot study explored city-level responses to those without entitlement, focusing on Berlin and Madrid (see Jonathan Price’s blogpost here). Exploring Migration: Research and Drama in Schools used drama and the findings of the ‘Undocumented Migrant Children in the UK’ project to explore how school students understand issues around irregular migrants (see Ida Persson’s blogpost here).

Across all of these projects, the research has shown that the imperative to ration finite welfare resources (with immigration status used a key criterion for inclusion in the space of entitlement) comes up against the negative consequences of exclusion on the lives of those (including children) who are excluded and on the communities of which they are part. The decision about formal criteria for inclusion is typically made at a national level and fueled by politicized national debates; the consequences of exclusion are typically carried at a local level and raise ethical more than political problems for local service providers.

The local state – often at the discretion of street level bureaucrats – finds itself in the position of deciding whether to apply a sticking plaster to injuries created by national law. National law seeks to create a “hostile environment” for irregular migrants; at a local level, “illegal immigrants” turn out to be “neighbours, colleagues, fellow pupils, friends, and family members”, as Jonathan Price puts it.

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About bengidley

Senior Lecturer at the School of Social Science, History and Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London. View all posts by bengidley

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