18/12/2016 04:43 GMT | Updated 19/12/2017 05:12 GMT

On International Migrants Day, We Need To Consider The Tens Of Thousands Of Children And Young People Living In The UK Who Are Undocumented

On International Migrants Day, it is important to consider the tens of thousands of children and young people living in the UK who are undocumented; that is living in the UK without the paperwork to show that they are citizens or legal residents.

The best estimate we have is that there are 120,000 undocumented children and young people living in the UK, of whom at least a third were born here. This estimate was made in 2012, and academics have made attempts since then to update it. However the febrile post-referendum climate in the UK is, most likely, making it significantly harder for individuals to come forward and talk about living without status.

Many undocumented children are brought into the UK by a parent or guardian. Some come lawfully when they are very young with a parent or other relative and grow up here, unwittingly staying beyond the period when their visas or leave were valid. In some cases, family relationships may break down, leaving children abandoned and left to be taken into the care system. Other children are born in the UK to parents with irregular status, while others claim asylum or are victims of trafficking but do not receive the protection they need.

Undocumented children and young people are incredibly vulnerable. The government's 'hostile environment' agenda has real and concrete repercussions as fear of being discovered often prevents engagement with agencies and services such as health and education they so desperately need. In many cases they and their families end up facing extreme poverty as working without permission could lead to loss of earnings, savings and a criminal conviction.

Silence breeds desperation, and desperate people are at higher risk of falling prey to unscrupulous landlords renting cramped and dilapidated properties to those without documentation, safe in the knowledge that their tenants are afraid.

As well as fears and uncertainties, young people face concrete barriers to regularisation. It takes ten years before an undocumented young person can apply for indefinite leave to remain in the UK. Over that decade many applications will have to be made, costing a total £7119 in application fees alone. This assumes that each application is successful, and that the young applicant is never pushed into a situation of having to appeal a decision because a Home Office decision-maker got it wrong. There is no legal aid to help put together these applications, so young people are faced with the choice of completing their own application form, when an error might mean becoming undocumented again.

There is a fee waiver for those who would be made destitute if they had to pay the fee, but this is only granted for those in extremely difficult financial circumstances. Only sixteen per cent of applications are granted. Those that fall within the other 84 per cent risk having the application returned as invalid and not processed. If an application is returned, this means that the decision-making branch of government may act as if it were never made in the first place. The applicant in question will thus have broken the continuity of the ten year journey to settlement, and will be forced to begin again at year zero.

The time-limited nature, costs and constantly changing rules of trying to acquire a legal settled status mean that whole families can lose their status when it comes to renewal. Many young people who we advise at Coram Children's Legal Centre's Migrant Children's Project have lived in the UK for most of their lives. They have friends, family and homes here and can't imagine life in another place. For some, it is only when they apply to go to university, and face fees as if they were international students, or when they are unable to go on a school trip because they don't have a passport or visa, that the reality of their undocumented status hits home.

Children who are in the UK but separated from their parents fare no better. Through fierce budget cuts and a dearth of understanding of immigration-related issues, those who are cared for by the local authority will not necessarily receive the advice and support that they need in order to regularise.

As we head towards negotiations on leaving the European Union, we have no guarantees about the fate of the European citizens who are already living in the UK. Some of these cases will be straightforward, but many of them will not be. We should be very wary of any settlement that risks pushing more people into undocumented life in the UK, or which creates routes which are so expensive and difficult to access that they are inaccessible to children and young people.

Our report Growing Up In A Hostile Environment: The rights of undocumented migrant children in the UK can be found here.