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Children of migrants in the UK

22 Jul 2022

This briefing examines what we know about children of migrants living in the UK. It looks at numbers and shares of foreign-born children and those who are non-UK citizens, what immigration statuses children hold, their pathways to citizenship, economic circumstances and academic performance.

  1. Key Points
    • In 2019, 6% (896,000) of children under age 18 who were living in the UK were born abroad, and 8% (1,082,000) were non-UK/non-Irish citizens
    • EU citizens – including children – living in the UK are less likely to apply for UK citizenship than residents with a non-EU nationality
    • More than a quarter (3,839,000) of children under age 18 living in the UK have at least one parent who is born abroad
    • At the end of 2021, at least 224,576 non-EEA citizens under age 18 would be expected to have ‘no recourse to public funds’ (NRPF)
    • An estimated 46% of children under age 16 in non-EU born households experienced some degree of deprivation in 2018-2020, while this share is 32% among households where all their members are UK born
    • At age 15, foreign-born children and children of foreign-born parents scored lower on standardized tests than students with both UK-born parents, but the gap is smaller in the UK than in most EU-14 countries
    • In 2018, the share of population with childcare responsibilities using childcare services was lower among people born in new EU accession countries (12%) or in South Asia and Southeast Asia (11%) than among those born in the UK (20%) or EU-14 countries (28%)
  1. Understanding the Evidence

    This briefing focuses on the children of migrants in the UK, who include both children under age 18 born overseas and children born in the UK with at least one parent born abroad, regardless of their citizenship. ...Click to read more.

    We also include information on children by citizenship, as acquiring UK citizenship can be considered important for their integration as full members of British society (Home Office Indicators of Integration framework, 2019: 18). For a discussion of migration terminology and its effects, see the Migration Observatory briefing, Who Counts as a Migrant: Definitions and their Consequences.

    This briefing uses a variety of data sources, including the Labour Force Survey (LFS)/Annual Population Survey (APS) 2019, the EU-Labour Force Survey Ad-Hoc Module 2018 on reconciliation between work and family life, the UK Household Longitudinal Survey (UKHLS) 2018-2020, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2018 survey, and Home Office Migrant Journey: 2021 report data. Given the multiple data sources used for the briefing, we will not describe in detail each of them here, although we include links to each data source in the reference section.

    In regard to the APS/LFS, we opted for using 2019 data instead of the most recent from 2021. We consider data from 2019 to be more reliable than those from 2020 and 2021, especially for analyses by region of birth or nationality. This is due to the impact that the change in the mode of data collection during the pandemic had on the survey response rate.

    With the exception of Home Office data, children’s country of birth and citizenship are self-reported (or reported by their guardian in the case of children under age 16) in all data sources with the exception of Home Office data. The APS/LFS only captures the first citizenship mentioned by respondents (i.e. children’s guardian), which means that these surveys are likely to underestimate the number of people who have naturalised, as some people recorded as non-UK citizens will in fact hold dual citizenship. In addition, some migrant parents might not know whether their underage children are British citizens or entitled to apply for citizenship (Lagrue et al. 2020). 

    Margins of error in the estimates

    Because surveys and rely on probability samples, the estimates come with margins of error. This means that small differences between numbers or percentages may not be statistically significant. A difference between two groups is considered statistically significant when the probability that this difference is caused by chance is very small. In that case, we assume that the differences we observe in the data are likely to exist in the population. Note that small differences between estimates for different groups may not be statistically significant, if they are not described in the narrative of the briefing.

  1. Understanding the Policy

    Most policies that specifically focus on children of migrants tend to be implemented as education policies, as children spend a substantial amount of their time at school. In England, schools collect information on children who have English as an Additional Language (EAL), many of whom are foreign born. ...Click to read more.

    Having a low proficiency in English is one of the main factors explaining children of migrants’ disadvantage in education, particularly of those arriving when they are older, who are likely to require intensive help with language (Department of Education, 2019; Hutchinson, 2018).

    Children of migrants are also indirectly affected by multiple immigration policies, to the extent that these policies condition the lives of their parents. For example, children whose parents have the ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ (NRPF) condition attached to their immigration status –which applies to most non-EEA citizens who are subject to immigration control­– cannot, for example, receive child benefit support or live in social housing. The UK government has recently extended free school meal eligibility to children in all households with NRPF, provided they qualify based on their income.

    It is important to clarify that having NRPF is not the same as facing financial hardship – only a small share of those with NRPF will be in this situation. It is not possible to know precisely how many families with NRPF are at significant risk of falling into poverty or destitution with the current data. Recent research has, however, highlighted that children in families on the Family and Private Life ten-year routes to settlement are particularly at risk due their NRPF condition as they are more likely to be on low income households (The Children’s Society, 2020). The NRPF condition can be lifted if certain criteria are met (Gower, 2020). The policy now recognises that people with NRPF can apply for public funds is they are at imminent risk of destitution, that is, before they actually experience financial hardship or destitution.

    Children of undocumented migrants, a share of whom might be eligible to become UK citizens, also face notable restrictions to access public services. Their exact number is unknown due to lack of accurate data on both the number of non-UK citizens in the UK and the number with right to remain (see Migration Observatory briefing Irregular Migration to the UK for information on estimates of the undocumented population living in the UK).

    Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 places a general duty on local authorities to provide services to children in need or at risk of destitution regardless of whether their families have NRPF or are undocumented, although local authorities have discretion to judge what the child’s needs are (for detailed information, see section 3 of the online guidance by the NRPF network on children and families with NRPF). Previous research has shown that there is substantial variation across local authorities in their assessments and services provided to children in need from families with NRPF, which can be explained by factors such as the strength of local advocates or the existence of dedicated NRPF teams (Price and Spencer, 2015).

In 2019, 6% (896,000) of children under age 18 were born abroad, and 8% (1,082,000) were non-UK/Irish citizens

In 2019, 6% (896,000) of children under age 18 living in the UK were born abroad, with half of those children born in EU countries (202,000 in EU-14 countries and 199,000 in post-2004 EU accession countries) (Figure 1). Among the non-EU born population under age 18 (495,000), 88,000 were born in India (17%) and 84,000 in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and Central Asian countries (17%).

Figure 1

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About 40% of foreign-born children moved to the UK at age 3 or younger

Children who arrive in the destination country when they are younger tend to find it easier to learn the language, if necessary, and to adapt to the new environment (Rumbaut, 2004). For example, in 2018, children with English as an Additional Language (EAL) who started school in England before age 9 have a similar average attainment at the end of Key Stage 4 compared to non-EAL students. By contrast, those arriving after age 12 and, especially, after age 14, performed worse than their non-EAL peers (Department of Education, 2019). In 2019, about 61% of foreign-born children moved to the UK at age 6 or younger (544,000) and 8% (69,000) moved to the UK at age 13 or older (Figure 2).

Figure 2

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EU citizen children and adults are less likely to apply for UK citizenship than residents with a non-EU nationality

EU citizens have traditionally been less likely to apply for UK citizenship than citizens from non-EU countries. This explains why the share of EU citizen children among the total non-UK citizen population under age 18 (66%) is higher than the share of EU-born children (45%) (Figure 3). Since the Brexit referendum, the number of EU citizens granted UK citizenship increased sharply from previously low levels and it is possible that this upward trend may continue in the coming years. For more information about differences in citizenship acquisition across migrant groups, see the Migration Observatory briefing Citizenship and naturalisation for migrants in the UK).

Figure 3

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In 2019, about 39% (421,000) of non-Irish/non-UK citizens under age 18 were born in the UK

Children who are born in the UK are not necessarily British citizens. In 2019, about 39% (421,000) of non-Irish foreign citizens under age 18 were born in the UK (Figure 4). This included 46% (314,000) of EU citizens (excluding Irish) under age 18 and 27% for children with a non-EU citizenship (108,000). Irish citizens, by contrast to other EU citizens, are considered ‘settled’ from the moment they take up residence in the UK.

Figure 4

If children under age 18 were born in the UK to at least one British or settled parent (e.g. with indefinite leave to remain [ILR] or settled status) at the time of birth then they are automatically UK citizens and do not have to pay any fees for their citizenship application. Children can also apply to register as UK citizens (and thus pay a fee for their application) by entitlement if (a) they were born in the UK and their parents became British citizens or settled residents; (b) they were born and lived in the UK until age 10; or (c) if they were born in the UK, have always been stateless, have lived in the UK for the last five years and are under 22 years old at the date of the application. There is also a general discretion for the Home Secretary to register any child as British, but this type of application usually requires legal guidance due to the complexity and will be decided by the Home Office on a case by case basis (CORAM Children’s Legal Centre, 2017).

In 2019, there were an estimated 177,000 children with non-UK citizenship who had been living in the UK for at least 10 years (Table 1).

Table 1

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In 2019, more than a quarter of children under age 18 living in the UK lived with at least one parent who was born abroad

More than a quarter (28% or 3,839,000) of children under age 18 living in the UK have at least one parent who was born abroad (Figure 5). An estimated 14% of children living in the UK are UK born themselves and have both parents born abroad (1,927,000). The share of children with a parent born abroad and a UK-born parent is 9% (1,201,000).

Figure 5

Among children whose parents were born in different regions, the most common combination is to have a UK-born parent and a parent born in North Africa, the Middle East or an Asian country (408,000 children, of which 255,000 have a South-Asian born parent); and a UK-born parent and a parent born in an EU-14 country (302,000 children) (Figure 6). Among children whose parents were born in the same non-UK region, the most frequent combination is having parents born in South Asia (550,000), which represents over two thirds of children in the ‘MENA and Asia’ category (Figure 6).

Figure 6

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At the end of 2021, at least 224,576 non-EEA citizens under age 18 would be expected to have ‘no recourse to public funds’ (NRPF)

Most children who are non-EEA citizens (citizens from countries other than EU-27, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland) and who do not have permanent residency in the UK (ILR or settled status) have valid leave to remain with the ‘no recourse to public funds’ (NRPF) condition attached to their immigration status, which prevents them from accessing most state-funded benefits, tax credits and housing assistance. By the end of 2021, there were at least 224,576 children under age 18 who would be expected to have NRPF based on their visa status (Table 2). In January 2020, this number was 175,643; this increase is mostly explained by the higher number on people coming on work and study visas during 2021, many of whom brought children with them.

This includes children under age 18 on student visas (56,177), many of whom are dependants; children who moved to the UK as family members on their parents’ work visa (97,994); children on a family visa who joined one of their parents in the UK (22,296); and children in the ‘other’ visas category (21,574), which include grants of leave outside the Immigration Rules, grants of discretionary leave, private life, and other small miscellaneous categories. Children in the ‘dependants’ category (26,535) also have NRPF and include dependants in certain visa categories that are not classified under their parents’ visa category. Note that some of these children might have had their NRPF condition lifted as a result of a change of conditions application (which allow the removal of the NRPF condition when visa holders are at risk of becoming destitute), although the number is likely to be small.

There was a sharp increase in change of conditions applications during the lockdown (Home Office, 2020b), but the numbers returned to pre-pandemic levels in Q3 and Q4 2021 (UK Visa & Immigration Transparency Data Q4 2021, table CoC_01). The Home Office has also extended the criteria for granting recourse to public funds to people who apply for leave to remain on the basis of family or private li​fe, following a high court decision in May 2020.

The total number of 224,576 children likely to have NRPF does not include children of parents who cannot access public funds or services because they do not have a legal immigration status. The exact number of children with an irregular immigration status is unknown because there is no administrative data on the number of people with leave to remain who have not naturalised (for a discussion of the problems to measure the number of irregular migrants in the UK, see the Migration Observatory briefing ‘Irregular Migration in the UK’). The Greater London Authority produced an estimate of 215,000 undocumented children in the UK, which includes UK-born children of undocumented migrant parents (Jolly et al., 2020).

Table 2

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The exact number of eligible children who have not yet applied to the EU Settlement Scheme is unknown

EEA citizens and their qualifying family members living in the UK before the 31st of December 2020 were required to apply to the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS) before the 30th of June 2021 in order to secure their right to continue to live lawfully in the UK. Nonetheless, the Home Office is still accepting late applications. Between 1 July 2021 and 31 March 2022, a total of 212,000 late applications were submitted, some of which will be from children.

By the end of March 2022, the EUSS scheme had seen 600,860 grants of settled status and 381,010 grants of pre-settled status given to children under age 18 (Table 3). Parents or legal guardians can link their EUSS application to their children’s; in these cases, all family members included in a linked applications will receive the same status.

It is not possible to know the exact number of eligible resident children who have not yet applied because the UK does not have a population register which collects information on residents’ immigration status. In addition, it is not clear how many children who are UK residents are eligible to apply. This means we cannot make straightforward comparisons between the Home Office data on (pre-)settled status applications and the ONS estimates of the EU citizen children population based on the Annual Population Survey (Lindop, 2021). For a discussion of the EU Settlement Scheme, see the Migration Observatory report Not Settled Yet? Understanding the EU Settlement Scheme using the Available Data.

Civil society organisations have raised concerns about eligible children in care in the UK not being properly identified by local authorities (The Children’s Society, 2020). Based on a survey of local authorities conducted by the Home Office, there were 3,895 eligible children and care leavers, although new eligible children were still being identified throughout 2021, including 170 identified in the 5 months after the deadline. Many local authorities do not routinely collect data on the nationality of their children in care, so it is possible that some eligible children remain unidentified.

Table 3

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About 46% of children under age 16 in non-EU born households experience some degree of material deprivation, while this share is 32% among households where all family members are UK born

The material deprivation index for children (under age 16) aims at capturing their living standards and measures the inability of households to afford particular goods and activities that are typical among children, irrespective of whether they would choose to have these items. In order to measure children’s material deprivation, parent(s) (or children’s guardian) are asked questions such as, for example, whether they could afford to go on holiday once a year, whether children have access to an outdoor space where they can play, or whether they can afford eating fresh fruit and vegetables every day. Not all items are equally important and hence the index of material deprivation gives different weights to each of them.

Children with both foreign-born parents are more likely to experience material deprivation (i.e. lacking at least one of the items of the index because their families cannot afford it) than children in households where all family members are UK born (Figure 7). Material deprivation is highest among children living in households where all their members are non-EU born (46% of non-EU households experience some material deprivation). For example, 14% of children in non-EU households don’t have access to a space outdoors to play, while this share is 4% among UK-born households.

Figure 7

Children in recently arrived migrant families are also more likely to live in poverty compared to those in UK-born or long-term resident families, according to research (Vizard et al., 2018). This is because they are more likely to live in households where at least one adult is not in employment, in privately rented accommodation and are more likely to have NRPF due to their parents’ immigration status.

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Foreign-born children and children of foreign-born parents scored lower in standardized tests at age 15 than students without a migrant background, but their disadvantage is substantially smaller in the UK than in most EU-14 countries

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a worldwide study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to evaluate 15-year-old students’ performance in maths, science and reading. This PISA survey allows us to compare students’ skills in these three subjects across multiple countries over time. In most OECD countries, children with non-migrant parents outperformed children born abroad as well as those born in the country with parents born abroad (OECD, 2019).

The gap in performance is, however, much smaller in the UK and Ireland compared to other EU-14 countries, such as the Netherlands, Germany or France (Figure 8). Countries that separate students into different academic and vocational paths at an early age (e.g. Germany or the Netherlands) tend to have larger gaps in performance between migrant and non-migrant students at age 15 simply because migrants are more likely to be in vocational schools. However, migrant students are also heavily disadvantaged in other EU-14 countries with educational systems that do not separate students before age 16, e.g. Sweden, Italy, or Spain.

Figure 8

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The share of population with childcare responsibilities using childcare services is lower among people born in new EU accession countries (12%) or in South Asia and Southeast Asia (11%) than among those born in the UK (20%) or EU-14 countries (28%)

The data from childcare use were last collected by the EU-Labour Force Survey in 2018. Among adults with childcare responsibilities, those born in EU-14 countries were most likely to use childcare services (28%) in 2018, while this share was 12% among adults born in post-2004 EU countries, and 11% among those born in South Asia and Southeast Asian countries (Figure 9). Differences in childcare services use can be explained by factors such as economic resources or the number of economically inactive or unemployed adults in the household, among others.

More than half of respondents said that the main reason for not using childcare services is because they managed to take care of their children alone, with their partners or with further informal support (Figure 9). However, cost was more of a barrier for migrant parents than the UK born. The share of people who did not use childcare services due to the high cost was lowest among the UK born (15% among those who do not use these services) and highest among Sub-Saharan African born adults (24%).

Migrant parents granted leave with NRPF are not allowed to apply to all the existing childcare schemes, so these different entitlements might explain some of the observed differences across migrant groups. Since September 2019, the eligibility criteria to access government-funded early education and childcare has been extended to include 2-year-old children in low-income NRPF families, and this would not yet be reflected in the statistics below, which are from 2018.

Figure 9

Evidence gaps and limitations

This briefing uses multiple data sources and addresses different topics that are relevant to understand the situation of children of migrants in the UK. Each data source and section of the briefing has thus its own limitations. One of the main limitations, especially in the COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis, is the inability to identify the exact number of children in NRPF families that are facing economic hardship. This is because surveys do not ask respondents about their immigration status and Home Office administrative data does not have information on visa holders’ economic situation or labour market status.

This briefing does not include information on the exact impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on migrant children’s educational outcomes. Next year Department of Education statistics based on the National Pupil Database will shed some light on the differential impact that remote learning and school closure might have had on children living in economically disadvantaged families.

Thanks to CJ McKinney, Rupinder Parhar and Ilona Pinter and Carlos Vargas-Silva for providing valuable feedback on an earlier draft. This briefing was funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation (PHF). The Paul Hamlyn Foundation is an independent funder working to help people overcome disadvantage and lack of opportunity, so that they can realise their potential and enjoy fulfilling and creative lives. This briefing was also made possible by the University of Oxford Social Science Division’s Economic, Social, Cultural and Environmental Impacts of Covid-19 – Urgent Response Fund.


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