“I had to abandon my university dreams and focus on resolving my immigration status. I am only 23, but I stand with the Windrush generation because I know what it’s like to suddenly feel unwelcome and unwanted in the country where you’ve lived most of your life, and which you thought was your home.
I was born in Jamaica but arrived in the UK aged eight to join my mum. I loved school, and in my final year was made head girl at Clapton Girls’ academy. I was so excited when I won a place at LSE to study law in 2013.
It was only then that I realised that my immigration status meant I would not be able to take up my place. I contacted the charity Just for Kids Law with a few questions about the Ucas process, but it became clear that my situation was far more complicated than I first imagined.
I spent the next few weeks in complete shock. I discovered that, rather than having “unsettled” status in the country I call my home, I had no “lawful” status at all. I made numerous phone calls to the Home Office, and was initially told that my family had a valid application and that our documents would be with us in a few weeks.
But this didn’t turn out to be the case. I was in the Just for Kids Law offices, desperate to take up my place at university, when I made the final call. I remember listening to the woman on the other end of the phone tell me that, despite what I had previously been informed, I had no status nor an active application at all. I went numb.
I had to abandon my university dreams and focus on resolving my immigration status. It took a long time and it was not a pleasant experience for a teenager to navigate, even with the support I had. I raised funds to pay the Home Office fees and found pro bono legal support. Since 2013, there has been no legal aid for this type of immigration case, even for children. I got my limited leave to remain in early 2014, but soon learned that I still would not be eligible for student finance and would be treated as an international student. I saw my whole world crumbling around me again. I’d watched all my friends go off to university, leaving me behind, but had refused to let them know about my situation. I felt too ashamed.
This is why I founded Let Us Learn. I realised there would be many others like me in the same situation, and I wanted to highlight what was happening to a generation of smart, ambitious young people. I also wanted to bring young migrants like myself together, to share our stories with each other and show that we had nothing to be ashamed of, and that we are not alone in our struggles. Our campaign group includes aspiring lawyers, doctors, scientists and astronauts, as well as people who want a career without going to university.
We initially campaigned on access to university for young migrants, and helped to change the student finance rules so that many more young people like us can go to university. We also had success in lobbying universities with our #younggiftedandblocked campaign to establish scholarship schemes for those who are still not eligible for student loans, like the one that enabled me to take up my place at LSE.
But more recently we have realised that, as important as education is to all of us, there is a much greater risk to our safety and wellbeing. The “hostile environment” is having devastating consequences on our friends and families.
For Let Us Learners, the issue that most urgently needs addressing is the extortionate cost of the Home Office applications we must regularly make in order to maintain our “lawful” status. Including the NHS surcharge, we will soon have to pay £2,033 to maintain our status. This is an increase of 238% from when I first applied as an 18-year-old, in 2014, and this does not even include any legal fees. We have to do this every two and a half years for 10 years, at a total cost of over £10,000, or we become “illegal”. This is not affordable, this is not a fair system. We have members who simply cannot afford to maintain their status. We know parents who have had to choose between one child and another. Whose status will be maintained? Who will have to become “illegal”?
Mental health is a serious and constant concern among our members, who live in constant fear of losing their status. Because losing one’s status after fighting so hard to get it is to lose everything. The ability to work, study, rent, hold a bank account, contribute, feel safe.
The hostile environment and these fees are making it impossible for young migrants like us who have grown up in this country to lead normal lives. We want to work with the government to create a route to British citizenship that is just, simple and affordable so it allows us to contribute all that we want to give to this country.
• Chrisann Jarrett is co-founder of Let Us Learn, a project led by young migrants and based at the charity Just for Kids Law