Every child needs a place to call home - The UNCRC and accommodation.

Two significant articles have come out today, clearly highlighting how important the housing issue is when working with Migrants and Refugees. 

The first, by Abi Brunswik from Project 17 highlights the plight of migrant families facing destitution in the UK. Abi makes a clear case, suggesting that children, many of whom are born in the United Kingdom, are punished for their parents immigration status. 

The second, on the Rightsinfo website, focuses on a story from a young person who has spent most of her young life being shifted from B&B to B&B. 

We work closely with other organisations providing specialist assessment and psycho-social support to families who, as a result of their immigration status, are either destitute or living in unsuitable accommodation. It is sad that in 2017, we and the other organisations we work with frequently hear from families about street sleeping, on night buses and in local hospitals. 

Framing this issue within a rights context, it was only recently that the UK has dropped right down the table on children's rights and the adoption of the UNCRC from 11th to 156th. Whilst the UNCRC may be the most widely ratified convention in the world, with only the United States and Somalia not being signatory - It is also unenforceable in any meaningful way. Meaning that advice and strong words are the only repercussion for failing to recognise children's rights.

A rights based approach for suitable accommodation

A huge number of articles within the UNCRC and Article 8 of the ECHR enshrine responsibilities on states to provide a safe upbringing within the family environment that does everything to promote the best development of children. The UNCRC can broadly be divided into three distinct areas:

  • Protection rights
  • Provision rights
  • Participation rights

I am using the term accommodation here - As it is what we consider a minimum standard. We should be aiming for a home for a every child, by which we mean a secure base from which to develop, thrive and exercise agency from.

Protection rights and unsuitable accommodation

You would think the argument would be obvious but if it was, we wouldn't be needing to have this discussion. There are some key articles of the convention to point out in this case: 

Article 6 - Provides for the right to life, but also the right to grow up in conditions that do not impact negatively on people. The impact of poor or unsuitable accommodation on the development of children is increasingly well documented. 

Article 9 - Provides the right to live with your parents unless it is bad for you. This is enshrined in the Children Act 1989 - Which states that wherever possible and practical, children are raised in their own families. It is very well recognised the trauma that being separated from parents can cause, yet very often with migrant families an offer to accommodate the children if an approach is made to children's services with regards to accommodation issues is made.

Article 19 - Provides a basic right to protection from harm. Much like article 6, the issues raised with regards to the harm done to a child in insecure housing is clear. It covers the aspects of neglect and emotional abuse. It can be well argued that this protection from harm extends to material provision and an inability to meet the needs of a child fully because of it. The convention focuses again on the support of families.

Article 22 - Particularly for refugee families, this is an important provision that recognises the inherent vulnerability that comes with being a child and a refugee. It creates an obligation for special treatment. With recent news including children and families being moved across the country with no warning and educational provision - It is clear we still have a long way to go on this one. 

Article 26 - Relates to children being poor or in need and the alleviation of this by support from the state. This article is particularly relevant when thinking about families with No Recourse to Public Funds. The compatibility of NRPF and various provision of support to refugees and migrant families against the convention is questionable at best. 

Provision rights

There is an overlap between provision and protection rights. Many of those that I would consider protective also relate to provision, or lack thereof, of support for children and young people. There is one more article that crosses provision and protection - Article 2, the right to not be discriminated against. 

Going back to the article by Abi from Project 17, the creation of a hostile environment against Migrants and Refugees has created an environment where children are not only punished for their parents immigration status, but in turn discriminated against through the provision of services. With other measures such as the collection of NHS data, school census use in immigration enforcement and so on - The discrimination of children born to parents with an insecure immigration status in this country is set to grow and get bigger. In order to not be detected by immigration agencies, children will often remain invisible, which increases the risk to children and removes their fundamental rights to care, education and provision to develop and thrive. We are fully aware as practitioners now that power and discrimination are closely linked - That discrimination on the grounds of nationality and race does not have to be direct. This raises serious questions about removal of these rights on the basis of a parent's immigration status.

In regards to housing and accommodation, as already discussed children have a right to be looked after by their parents, in an environment that meet their developmental needs. This remains often unachieved, with immigration rules superseding the rights of children and they are denied crucial support and provision, discriminated against indirectly as a result of their race and nationality, because of the primacy of their parent's immigration status. 

Participation rights

If there is one that shocks me the most, it is the participation. For many years, the participation of children in decisions made about them and those that affect them has been hammered home on many an occasion. Yet, of the many assessments of families that we see, almost all of them are without the voice of a child, instead focused on the material resources of the parents. Of the families we have worked with, almost never are the children consulted about what is in their best interests, or what they want and need. 

Decisions made about children should be made in partnership with children, according to their level of understanding and ability, it is really that simple. No rule or legislation should remove this. It is fundamental to our understanding of children's agency and influence and some would say critical in their development to be able to exert influence over their own lives and the decisions that are made as a part of it. 

Furthermore, a child's right to an identity and to be able to exercise that identity and cultural world is central to the UNCRC. This affects every level of a child's participation and very often provision and protection. This identity is threatened as families who struggle to gather sustainable material resources are often torn apart. By not listening to the needs of children, in the context of their rights, web of relationships and community we are failing to recognise their cultural worlds. 

Conclusion

Being in safe, suitable and stable accommodation is critical, all the way from the basics of a child's development, to the exercising of their cultural worlds. Moving multiple times to temporary accommodation, not having the right space to develop and become autonomous and not having a home at all significantly impact children's development, in a physical, emotional, social and cultural sense. A home is a vital component in the development of children, a starting base if you will and to deny a child that fundamental right for whatever reason threatens the good development and outcomes for each child subject to it.

When considering this in the context of migrants and immigration status, it raises serious ethical and moral questions around discrimination.  All areas of the UNCRC - Protection, Provision and Participation rights are profoundly affected when considering the issue of accommodation. It is clear within the UNCRC through various articles and provision that a safe, stable and consistent place, a home, is fundamental to good development and wellbeing and a well established right all children deserve to have, with their parents, unless there are firm and serious reasons why that can't be. 

A failure to provide a safe, secure and stable home to a child threatens their development at every level - From physical, social, emotional and cultural realms. A home is so much more than a roof over a child's head and this needs to be understood and acknowledged in policy before we go any further. We need to look at structural oppression and discrimination and its impact on how we execute our obligations under the UNCRC.

Every child has a right to a home, a right to belonging. This is fundamental to what we do.