Metro: Undocumented Migrants Living in Limbo

Sept 2012

There are about 120,000 children and young people in Britain of uncertain immigration status, according to recent research by Oxford University’s Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS). 

These are children, teenagers and young adults who don’t have the correct documents to be in the UK and are in fact ‘young undocumented migrants’.

Some might be UK-born to parents whose working visas have expired, while others might be foreign students who after graduating have outstayed their student visa or they may be children fleeing conflict to stay with extended family in the UK.

The situations and scenarios that lead to children and young people to be ‘undocumented’ are as complicated as they are varied and heartbreaking.

Many do not realize they are ‘undocumented’ until trying to go on a school trip abroad, or applying to college or university. To compound the shock and confusion, accessing legal advice and trusted information regarding rights can be difficult.

How is it possible to help vulnerable young people thrust into this state of limbo and provide a friendly ear, signpost legal support and practical advice?

Cracking this conundrum brought more than 100 people together over a summer weekend recently at ‘Undoc Camp’, in the offices of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation (PHF) in Kings Cross, London.

Modelled on ‘Unconferences’ or ‘hack days’, which began in the tech sector and share tech problems with a forum of experts, Undoc Camp uses this format to tackle social problems through digital media. Commissioned by PHF and Unbound Philanthropy, Undoc Camp’s aim was to stimulate fresh thinking around the knotty issue.

‘We wanted to look at it from a different perspective, because it’s such a tricky area and levels of need are quite extreme, there was a sense that organisations got their heads down and dealt with individual young people, on a case by case basis,’ explained Sarah Cutler, who works with PHF on a wide programme offering support for young undocumented migrants.

‘Staff never got the chance to lift their eyes away from the day to day and think about things differently. But we were aware there was lots of creativity and energy waiting to be released if we could get people from the sector in a room with the right people,’ she added.

Nathalie McDermott of On Road Media, who produced and delivered Undoc Camp, sourced the right people and carefully calibrated the blend of participants. Striking the right balance is key.

‘We invited a wide range of people dealing with undocumented young migrants on a daily basis and they are at the heart of the issue and Undoc Camp,’ she said.

‘Young people with first-hand experience were also heavily involved and then we brought in techie people like app designers and programmers. It’s a real mix and it’s the mix that opens up new ways of thinking, and makes camps like these such a success.’

It’s certainly impressive and heartening that so many professionals (charity workers, migrant group advocates, solicitors, teachers, youth workers, housing officers, social entrepreneurs, community advocates, social media gurus, app developers) and young people, travelling from as far afield as Ireland, Liverpool, Coventry, Plymouth, Newcastle, Middlesbrough and Birmingham, gave up their weekend.

Undoc Camp proved exhilarating and inspiring, the air crackled with bright ideas and a ‘can do’ attitude.

‘There’s an energy and excitement with people who like solving problems coming into the room and having a very different take,’ said Ms Cutler. ‘It’s very hard to get that energy in a seminar or conference, and for frontline organisations to access this kind of expertise is usually very expensive.’

On the introductory evening, experts and former young undocumented migrants outlined the brutal realities and nuances. The following morning, participants were thrown into a group with strangers to hammer out a digital solution to one part of the problem, which had been broken into six, smaller chunks.

Five hours later, each group presented their idea to a panel of judges, who decided which groups to give £10,000 of seed funding (£5,000 for the winner and £2500 each for two runners up).

The winner, Migrant Hope, anticipating a crisis from April 2013 when legal aid becomes severely restricted, provides a safety net via a secure, online referral system connecting young people to specialist advisors with knowledge of exceptional legal funds, and pro-bono legal advice.

Migrant Hope might have ‘won’ but that’s not to say Undoc Camp’s work is done and dusted.

‘It’s not only about the prize money and getting the idea off the ground,’ said Ms McDermott.

‘The winners will develop a relationship and dialogue with Paul Hamlyn Foundation and other potential partners. These solutions could also be replicated across different groups. There’s not just one outcome, which is what makes it exciting. It’s a discovery process for all of us.’

www.digitalundoc.com