In the UK, undocumented migrant children are a diverse population. Over half of the estimated 120,000 were either born in the UK or have spent most of their life there. They come for a variety of reasons, from a number of different backgrounds, migrating independently or with their family, with diverse pathways into their precarious immigration status (Sigona, 2013). Their experiences are accordingly heterogeneous: in terms of their journeys, which can range from a several months long, arduous, cross-country passage to a short ariline flight; interactions with immigration authorities and other state institutions (such as schools and healthcare professionals); and their everyday life. What unites most of them, however, is their position at the intersection of immigration and children’s policies and legislation. This policy and legal framework creates a space of limbo for these children. On the one hand they are de facto non-deportable, while on the other, despite legislation that turns them into ‘citizens in becoming’ (Sigona and Hughes, 2012), their possibilities of regularisation are limited, thereby trapping them in a ‘no way out and no way in’ situation. Children have always been part of migration, but despite increasing literature and research in this area, little remains known about undocumented migrant children, their experiences and how their precarious immigration status impacts their lives.

The legal status of undocumented migrant children can be understood as a complex and dynamic combination of relations vis-à-vis the state, embedded in the policy and legal framework, public services and their own plans, expectations, histories and position. Or, as Willen (2007) argues, ‘migrant illegality’ can refer to a legal status, a socio-political condition and a ‘mode of being in the world’. Furthermore, ‘illegality’ is not a fixed status. Rather migrants, as non-citizens, move through a range of statuses and can simultaneously inhabit both ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ spaces in relation to different institutional or policy arrangements, so that their legal status becomes more or less visible at different points in time. While children under 18 years remain relatively protected, the transition to adulthood often also marks a transition to full visibility of their irregular status, leading to a certain loss of control over their future. Sigona (2013) thus suggests a shift in scholarly scrutiny towards precariousness of immigration status, rather than focusing exclusively on ‘illegality’.

Precarious immigration status affects migrant children in a myriad of ways and on a daily basis. While there are many differences in their migration history, danger of deportation and family or household situation, some similarities can be observed. Undocumented migrant children usually live in poor housing conditions and experience high housing mobility, insecure incomes and destitution. Legally, undocumented migrant children are entitled to access education and healthcare in the UK and are mostly able to access these public services; indeed, schools often represent a safe place for many children (for a US comparison see Gleeson and Gonzales, 2012). However, local variations remain and difficulties in access emerge over time, in particular in connection with increasing restrictions of migrants’ access to public services.

While in Europe undocumented migrant children have so far received little attention in public policy and research, a view across the Atlantic shows a different situation. Despite an increase in the number of deportations under Obama (Lopes and Gonzalez-Barrera, 2013), or perhaps because of it, the voices of young undocumented migrants have become loud and clear over the past decade, declaring themselves as ‘undocumented and unafraid’. The political movement around the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act) demanding a pathway to legalisation and citizenship for themselves and their parents has so far led to Obama’s executive order suspending deportations for some under DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). Whether more comprehensive reform will take place remains to be seen, but so far abjectivity and illegality has motivated some young undocumented migrants to engage politically and and to resist being defined by their legal status.

Contrary to the US, deportation numbers have been declining in Europe and it is highly unlikely that children will be deported from the UK (Sigona, 2013). Counter to the deportation trend, however, the potential changes in immigration reform currently under debate make a permanent future for young undocumented migrants more tenable in the US than in the UK. Either way, undocumented migrant children are likely to be a continued reality and, as such, it is important to better understand how they are affected by their legal status.


Gleeson, S. and Gonzales, R.G. (2012) ‘When Do papers Matter? An Institutional Analysis of Undocumented Life in the United States’, International Migration 50(4): 1-19.

Lopez, M.H. and Gonzalez-Barrera, A., (2013). ‘High Rate of Deportations Continue under Obama Despite Latino Disapproval’, FactTank, Pew Research Centre.

Sigona, N. and Hughes, V. (2012) No Way Out, No Way In, Oxford: COMPAS.

Sigona, N. (2013) ‘Constructing Precariousness: Understanding the Experiences of Undocumented Children Beyond Deportability’, Paper presented at the conference ‘Illegality, Youth, and Belonging’, Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Willen, S. (2007) ‘Towards a Critical Phenomenology of “‘llegality”: State Power, Criminalisation and Abjectivity among Undocumented Migrant Workers in Tel Aviv, Israel’, International Migration 45 (3): 8–36.

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