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DAJAY, Dami and Chrisann pause when I ask the question. How does it feel when you hear politicians talk about floods of migrants? When the immigration rhetoric is ratcheted up to the level of a scream?
Dajay eventually smiles. “I don’t think of myself as a migrant,” he says. “I have lived here since I was three. Maybe I didn’t have a passport or papers, but I am British. What else am I? Jamaican? I left there when I was a tiny child.”
On Tuesday, at the Daily Mirror EU debate, Nigel Farage once again fanned the flames on immigration. A day later – in commends condemned by Doreen Lawrence – he suggesd there could be violence on the streets if Britain remained in the EU. Yesterday, Labour’s Chuka Umuna said the UKIP leader was “showing shades of Enoch Powell.”
Dami, 22, and Chrisann, 21, say they feel distressed every time they see the headlines. “And sometimes angry,” Dami adds. “I think, ‘You don’t know anything about our lives’.” Dajay, 19, now has British citizenship, but says he spent the years fighting for his papers feeling “shameful and sad.”
For most of their lives, these three young people were undocumented – three of the 120,000 migrant children believed to live in the UK who don’t have all the right paperwork. For years, after coming here to live with parents who overstayed tourist or work visas in search of safety of a better life, they lived with uncertainty.
Apart from going to school, they had few more rights than the children in Calais or hidden on boats crossing between continents. Yet they couldn’t be more ‘British’ in every other sense.
The first time I met Dajay was on the steps of a West London Town Hall, about to step out of the shadows. Less than an hour later, he had sung God Save The Queen, sworn an oath and become a citizen of the United Kingdom.
“I love Britain,” he told me. “To me it’s the best country in the world. I have spent so many years just wishing I could have the same opportunities as my friends. I don’t’ see myself as any different.”
With around 450,000 undocumented adults in the UK, over half of Britain’s undocumented children are believed to have been born here – to parents with irregular or no status. Many others come as young children and only find out they have no papers later in life.
Dajay met Dami and Chrisann through the youth justice charity Just for Kids Law. Dami had arrived in the UK with her family from Nigeria at the age of eight. She dreamed of studying criminology and psychology at university. “But then I found out I couldn’t,” she says. “The school kept asking me for my UCAS form. I kept making excuses, saying I’d forgotten it. In the end they stopped asking me. I was heartbroken.”
She eventually managed to get a ‘limited’ status. “I can’t’ go to university as I won’t be eligible for a student loan for another three years – but I am allowed to work,” she says. “But if I get sick and can’t work, I can’t get benefits and have to pay a surcharge to quality for NHS treatment, even though I’m paying tax here.”
Chrisann came to Britain aged eight from Jamaica with her parents. “When I was 16, I won an oratory competition to go on a trip to the US to participate in the US presidential election,” she says. “That’s when I found out I had no papers.”
With Just for Kids Law’s help, Chrisann also won limited leave to remain and a scholarship which meant she could take a place to study law at LSE. A former head girl, her limited status means she is counted as a “foreign” student.
Dajay came to the UK from Jamaica at the age of three. “At school, I could never invite anyone home,” Dajay says. “They would say ‘Why are you sharing one room with your dad?’ I couldn’t explain my situation to my teachers. I couldn’t go on school trips abroad or have free school meals. It was so isolating and disheartening.”
When he turned 18, life suddenly got even more difficult. He had no ID and couldn’t work or go to university. A talented actor, that summer, he was offered a place at one of the best drama schools in the country. But when he explained about his immigration situation, he lost the place.
A social worker referred him to the Project for the Registration of Children as British Citizens at Ealing Law Centre. “It’s a very wonderful place,” Dajay says quietly. Solicitors there raised the money for his citizenship application.
Now, while Dami and Chrisann still have limited status, Dajay is finally a British citizen. “I’m not looking over my shoulder anymore,” he says. But as the EU vote gets closer, these three young people remain human collateral in a brutal public debate.
Originally published in the Daily Mirror: Ros Wynne-Jones, "Britain's undocumented children who are living as exiles in their own country," Daily Mirror (May 19, 2016), http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/britains-undocumented-children-who-living-8008238