Thousands of vulnerable migrant teenagers leaving care homes and foster families could be denied access to state support as soon as they turn 18 under government plans designed to get them to leave the UK.
In proposed last-minute changes to the immigration bill, which is currently going through the House of Lords, ministers have suggested withdrawing the normal standards of support for young people leaving care whose asylum or other claims to stay in the country have failed.
James Brokenshire, the immigration minister, said the measures were an attempt to deter them from staying in Britain once they turn 18. â€œWe are saying that, at the point at which someone becomes an adult, they should be leaving the UK and not stay put within the UK,â€ he told the bill committee last month.
â€œObviously, we have a strong desire to work with local authorities and with the young people themselves to support them in their departure from the UK.â€
Brokenshire rejected an attempt by Labour to abandon the plan, saying it would â€œcreate obvious incentives for more unaccompanied children to come to the UK to seek asylum, often by dangerous routes controlled by smugglers and traffickers, and for more young asylum seekers to claim falsely to be under 18â€.
Currently, any 18-year-olds leaving care receive help with accommodation where their welfare requires it, personal advisers, funding for higher education and training, and the right to stay in foster care for longer if they wish. These rights, under the governmentâ€™s proposed legislation, would be removed as the looked-after child turns 18 if they have had their asylum application rejected or leave to remain otherwise denied.
The changes also mean all migrant teenagers leaving care, including those who have permission to stay, will no longer be given financial help from the local authority for their university fees as overseas students.
Sarah Champion, a Labour MP who was on the cross-party committee considering the immigration bill, said: â€œIt seems a piece of legislation that would make a young person that was a ward of the state the day before their birthday [abandoned] the day after. It seems contrary to what this country stands for.â€
Champion criticised the introduction of the new clauses at such a late stage in the legislation, giving MPs and third parties very little chance to scrutinise them. â€œIt seems a contravention that, because they have come here as an unaccompanied child, they could be cut off from some state support,â€ she said.
The changes were also challenged by Keir Starmer, a Labour MP and former director of public prosecutions, who said it could affect â€œthose with no immigration status, those who arrived as children and sought asylum and were granted unaccompanied asylum-seeking childrenâ€™s leave, and those who came to the UK at a young age but were never helped to regularise their statusâ€.
â€œThere is a real concern that someone who has just turned 18 and who, as a matter of fact and possibly because of vulnerabilities, has simply not regularised their immigration status will be denied support under this provision,â€ he said. Starmer added that the governmentâ€™s proposal â€œcuts across the thrustâ€ of the Children Act 1989, which sets out the level of state support for teenagers leaving the care system at the age of 18.
Experts estimate that the changes could affect thousands of unaccompanied migrant teenagers who have been looked after as children by the British state, but were not given enough help to regularise their immigration status or have failed in their claims for asylum submitted when they were children.
Kamena Dorling, who runs the migrant childrenâ€™s project at the Coram Childrenâ€™s Legal Centre, said: â€œWhat the immigration bill is trying to do is say for this group, who have arrived as children and had an immigration issue, we donâ€™t think you should be entitled to any [support]. Itâ€™s going to create a two-tier system where young people on the basis of their immigration status are discriminated against.
â€œWhen itâ€™s raised with the government, their response is: â€˜these are adult migrants â€“ by the time they turn 18, they shouldnâ€™t be here and we donâ€™t owe them anythingâ€™. But they are still care leavers, and the government recognises that with any other care leavers. If anything, they are more vulnerable.â€
A briefing paper from the Immigration Law Practitionersâ€™ Association also highlights that the changes could affect care leavers â€œtrafficked as children or others taken into care from abusive situations in the UK seeking to regularise their immigration statusâ€.
Since 2010, more than 3,000 former unaccompanied migrant children have been denied further leave to remain after turning 18. They are required to find ways of departing voluntarily or they face the threat of removal.
The number of children seeking asylum who have been separated from their parents in the UK is on the rise. About 3,000 unaccompanied children arrive in the UK each year, according to the Childrenâ€™s Society; Kent alone has been caring for more than 1,000 who have arrived in the county in 2015.
Despite the last-minute changes to the immigration bill, the government highlighted obligations on local authorities to make sure former care leavers are not destitute and measures to ensure support continues if the former cared-for migrant children face a â€œgenuine obstacleâ€ to leaving the UK.
Asked for responses to a series of questions, including why the clauses were inserted at the last minute and why an impact assessment had not been published, a Home Office spokesman released a statement which said: â€œThe immigration bill will simplify the way in which local authorities support migrants who leave their care as adults. It will also relieve local authorities of the burden of funding university tuition fees for that group.
â€œIt is fair that migrants leaving local authority care should, like other migrants and British citizens, have to qualify under the student support regulations [that govern whether someone is eligible for a student loan] if they wish to access funding for higher education.â€