Tracey* began to realise she was different from the other children, from her school friends, from her relatives. Despite being born in the UK and living here for all 12 years of her life, she was not a British citizen and could not get a passport.
Now Tracey is one of thousands of children stuck in limbo, unable to pay the £1,012 charged by the Home Office to officially register her citizenship and gain access to the rights that come with that status.
“I never dreamt she would reach this age and not hold a British passport,” said Tracey’s mother, Sarah*. She feels the situation is unfair when another child born in the same hospital on the same day would not face these charges.
The reason that Tracey is treated differently is that under British law, since 1981, being born in the UK does not automatically entitle a child to become a citizen. Some children whose parents have a certain immigration status are not automatically British citizens — their families have to apply for citizenship for them.
In Tracey’s case, her mother isn’t a British citizen and the family does not have a relationship with the father, so he also cannot be confirmed as a British citizen. This means she needs to register for citizenship, instead of receiving it automatically. If a child was born in the UK and has lived there for the first ten years of their life they are entitled to register as a citizen, but since 2014 the government has charged a fee for this process.
It is a complex set of issues, not helped by nationality laws and issues often being conflated with immigration law, said Solange Valdez-Symonds, a lawyer and founder of the Project for the Registration of Children as British Citizens (PRCBC). “These rights are about the children,” Valdez-Symonds said.
Many of the children affected are in the care system, and she has had clients who have reached adulthood in care but found themselves without British citizenship and facing the even more complicated task of proving their life history in the UK up to age ten — and the higher cost of registration as an adult. Some have children themselves who are in the same position. They have a British birth certificate, like their parents, but are not citizens.
Earlier this month the Supreme Court ruled on a case brought by the PRCBC of a vulnerable child being charged to register their citizenship. While the judges said the Home Office could charge fees that were three times the administration cost, they noted the High Court’s finding that citizenship was important to a young person’s wellbeing and sense of identity and belonging.
Last month, on 27 January, members of the House of Lords across the political spectrum tried to amend the Nationality and Borders Bill to reduce the fee to the level of administrative costs, and to exempt children in care. It has not passed, and the PRCBC and Amnesty are calling for parliamentarians to make further attempts to change the fee.
When Tracey started to understand what was happening, it began to change her and affect her mental health. Sarah said that “she realised she couldn’t do the same things as her peers. It is really taking a toll on her life and her health — so everything.”
It is also hard for her, as a mother, not being able to pay for her daughter to register her citizenship and be like the other children. “You’re not living, you just exist here,” she said.
It is a source of instability in their lives, and means Tracey has been unable to have some of the experiences that many take for granted, such as being able go on a holiday abroad, despite offers from other family members. “I don’t know how to explain it to her why she can’t have a passport,” Sarah said.
Being effectively denied her British citizenship has also affected Tracey’s education, preventing her going on trips abroad with the rest of her class, with children she has known since nursery. Sarah is anxious that Tracey is being left behind in her schooling because such trips are an important part of the curriculum, and she is worried about the impact on her self-esteem.
“What do I tell my daughter? ’Oh sorry you can’t go on the trip because you don’t have a passport’?” Sarah asked. “She’s going to think that she’s different.”
Having a British passport has also become an important way to access services restricted from migrants under the hostile environment policy.
Opening a bank account, accessing housing, benefits and NHS care can depend in practice on having a British passport.
Children have been unable to receive free NHS hospital services because of this, said Anna Miller, head of policy and advocacy at Doctors of the World, who sees children in this situation at her clinic. “Many of these children were born in the UK. To be recognised as British citizens would have a significant and positive impact on their health, wellbeing and life chances,” she said. “The idea that they are priced out of citizenship is unacceptable: the health and welfare of a child should always come first.”
The PRCBC was successful last year in registering the British citizenship of a vulnerable 38-year-old man who had spent time in the care system and mental health institutions. It took four years to put together the evidence from social services, schools and other institutions to prove his case. “I think any British person should be concerned, should be upset, angry,” Valdez-Symonds said.
The Supreme Court ruling has set back Tracey’s efforts to register as a citizen, but the PRCBC is still working on several court cases and lobbying Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, and parliament for a change to the law.
“I’m still fighting so I’ll see what comes of it hope and pray [it] doesn’t damage my daughter much more,” Sarah told me. “It can ruin your life, it can affect you [to] not have that freedom, it feels like you’re not free.”
*Names are pseudonyms on request.