Undocumented Migrant Children in the UK January 2010 – June 2012


This project was part of a comparative project on irregular migrant children in the US and the UK, which was carried out in collaboration with the Institute for the Study of International Migration, Georgetown University, Washington, DC. The study estimated that 120,000 irregular migrant children live in the UK. A large majority of these are either born in the country or migrated here at an early age. These children were brought up in the UK, educated in British schools and many speak English as their main language.

This research examined the ways in which lack of legal residence status is experienced by migrant children and their families, and how these intersect with ‘race’, country of origin, ethnicity, gender, religion, poverty and housing. The project also explored the challenges faced by service providers in working with this client group. In doing so, it looks to advance knowledge on the experiences and everyday lives of undocumented children in Britain; to cast light on the challenges facing the communities in which they reside; to explore services and resources available to them in relation to health, education and employment; and to contribute to the policy debate on how to reconcile and balance the implications of two policy objectives affecting irregular migrant children, namely the protection of all children and immigration enforcement.

Principal Investigator

Nando Sigona


Vanessa Hughes


Barrow Cadbury Trust

Professionals' Advisory Group

Casa do Brasil
Maheen Project
FPWP Hibiscus

News & Media

The Love of Learning: Migrants and Education
Blog | COMPAS Communications

No Way Out, No Way In
Blog | COMPAS Communications

Project Blog

Migration Observatory video interview

COMPAS video interview

Irregular voices: Ahmed
Youtube video | Dramatisation based on interviews collected for the research project

Irregular voices: Kidi
Youtube video| Dramatisation based on interviews collected for the research project

Crackdown on ‘education tourists’ to target illegal immigrant children
Mail Online | 28 Mar 2013

Experts concerned about migrant children
New Europe | 27 Feb 2013

What future for the children of irregular migrants
The New Londoners | 8 Nov 2012

Undoc Camp helps thousands of UK children with immigration uncertainty
Metro | 13 Sep 2012

Immigration rules leave thousands of children destitute, Oxford University finds
Children & Young People Now | 15 May 2012

120,000 children living in UK face destitution, says charity
The Guardian | 5 Jul 2012

Children ‘with no state’ in UK
BBC Inside Out | 5 Nov 2012

Good things and small packages
The Economist | 9 May 2012

Triple vulnerability: the lives of Britain’s undocumented migrant children
Open Democracy | 9 Nov 2010




Asylum and RefugeesEnforcementGeneration and Life courseHealthIllegality




This project aimed to unpack social, political and legal categories such as ‘child’, ‘migrant’ and ‘illegality’, and to understand what these mean in the everyday lives of migrants who are defined by them and to service providers who work with them. We problematise ‘irregularity’ as a heterogeneous and fluid legal status, which does not accurately fit people’s situations, but rather is a production of immigration policies and regimes (De Genova 2002, Willen 2007, Ruhs and Anderson 2010, Bloch et al 2009, 2011, 2014, Sigona 2012). Through this study we are contributing to increasing literature on the everyday lives of migrants living with a precarious immigration status.

  • Bloch, A., Sigona, N. and Zetter, R. (2009) No Right to Dream: The Social and Economic Lives of Undocumented Migrants in Britain, London: Paul Hamlyn Foundation.
  • Bloch, A., Sigona, N. and Zetter, R. (2011) ‘Migration routes and strategies of young undocumented migrants in England: a qualitative perspective’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 34(2): 1286-302.
  • Bloch, A., Sigona, N. and Zetter, R. (2014) Sans Papiers – The Social and Economic Lives of Young Undocumented Migrants, London: Pluto Press.
  • De Genova, N. (2002) ‘Migrant “Illegality” and Deportability in Everyday Life’, Annual Review of Anthropology, 31: 419-447.
  • Sigona, N. (2012) ‘“I’ve Too Much Baggage”: The Impact of Legal Status on the Social Worlds of Irregular Migrants’, Social Anthropology, 20(1): 50-65
  • Willen, S. (2007) ‘Towards a Critical Phenomenology of “Illegality”: State Power, Criminalisation and Abjectivity among Undocumented Migrant Workers in Tel Aviv, Israel’, International Migration, 45(3): 8-36.
  • Ruhs, M. and Anderson, B. (2010) ‘Semi-Compliance and Illegality in Migrant Labour Markets: An Analysis of Migrants, Employers and the State in the UK’, Population, Space and Place, 16(3): 195-211.


Given the hidden nature of this migrant population, and the limited knowledge on their profile and situation in the UK, this study is exploratory in nature and relies on the analysis of in-depth qualitative interviews with migrant children and families, service providers and stakeholders to address the research aims. The study reviewed the legal and policy framework for undocumented migrant children in the UK, draws on a review of existing evidence and on two sets of in-depth semi-structured interviews. It carried out 53 interviews with irregular migrant children and parents, distributed in 49 households, and 30 interviews with service providers and stakeholders. Interviews were conducted in London and Birmingham.

Migrant interviewees were originally from Afghanistan, Brazil, China, Jamaica, Nigeria and Kurds from Turkey, Iran and Iraq. The countries of origin selected for inclusion in the study provided variation in terms of economic development, historical and colonial ties to the UK, and histories and motivations for migration to Britain. Seventeen out of the 53 migrant interviewees were minors – nine independent migrants and eight dependent migrants – all were born abroad and most were male. The 49 households included in total 88 minors, almost equally divided between males and females. Of the 88 minors, 50 were born in the UK, sometimes in households with siblings born abroad.

Service providers and stakeholders interviewed for this study included healthcare and education professionals with experience of working with irregular migrant children, social workers, local authority officials, MPs, non-statutory support agencies and migrant community organisations.


The study estimated that there are 120,000 irregular migrant children in the UK, with over half of them born in Britain. Irrespective of their status, these children are holders of certain rights under international and British law, such as access to compulsory school education, and primary and emergency healthcare. At the same time, undocumented migrant children find themselves at the intersection of two contradictory policy areas, namely the protection and welfare of the child, and immigration enforcement. This tension has concrete consequences for undocumented migrant children in their interaction with the state and public services, and fundamentally shapes their everyday lives.

Importantly, this study found that ‘irregularity’ is not a single, homogenous and fixed (non-) status. There are multiple pathways into such a status, where the child’s legal situation is largely determined by that of their parents, and their status can change over time.

The study found that most undocumented migrant families live in privately-rented and overcrowded houses, and experience high housing mobility. Family income is often insecure and destitution is an everyday reality for many. The way in which immigration status becomes visible varies, and the impact of this status varied considerably among young people depending on age, migration pathway and circumstances in the UK.

Although parents reported some initial difficulties with enrolment in primary and secondary schools, the study found that most undocumented migrant children interviewed did attend school. In fact the school offered an environment of stability in which many felt protected. Problems in relation to education were mostly associated to destitution, while access to pre- and post-compulsory education was reportedly almost impossible.

The study also found a high prevalence of mental health issues, which could often be linked to their precarious immigration status and financial hardships. In relation to access to healthcare, the study found that most interviewees were registered with a GP, although registration was not always straight forward and often took several attempts.

Many service providers lamented what they described as the UKBA’s ‘invasion’ of public services. This undermines a necessarily trusting relationship between public service providers and users, which in the healthcare sector may lead to migrants not accessing needed and available healthcare. Education professionals in particular felt that they were asked to increasingly perform immigration control-like tasks, which they did not see as part of their job role, and which could create dangerous situations for undocumented migrants, increasing their isolation, destitution and vulnerability.

While irregular migrant children are given some degree of protection in the UK, there are nonetheless significant variations in access to public services among and within different areas.


No Way Out, No Way In. Irregular Migrant Children and Families in the UK. Executive Summary
Reports | COMPAS Communications | 2012

No Way Out, No Way In. Irregular Migrant Children and Families in the UK
Reports | COMPAS Communications | 2012

Being Children and Undocumented in the UK: A Background Paper
Working Papers | COMPAS Communications | 2010

Irregular Migrant Children and Public Policy
Migration Observatory Policy Primer | Nando Sigona | 2011


The research project engaged in wide-ranging dissemination activities and presented its findings at local, regional and national levels, reaching academic, service provider, NGO, and policy audiences. It also included a presentation to Members of Parliament and Peers in the House of Lords, was quoted in a report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights in the UK Parliament, and has been widely used by NGOs and migrant organisations.

In addition, the research of this project forms the basis of an ESRC funded Knowledge Exchange project Exploring Migration: Research and Drama in Schools. This project works in collaboration with schools and local charities to develop monologues based on interviews collected during the research into an educational resource. The monologues are rehearsed and performed with students, encouraging critical reflection on migration issues.