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  • 30 Oct 2015

Why the “personal troubles” of young people without papers is a social issue for us all

In the 1950s, American sociologist Charles Wright Mills noted a phenomenon that should trouble us today when we consider the precarious lives of young migrants. He argued that a good society should not abandon individuals to struggle alone with what he described as “personal troubles”. Some troubles, he argued, should not be private matters, but rather “issues”.

“An ‘issue’ is a public matter,” he elaborated “when values cherished by the public are felt to be threatened […] it is the very nature of an issue, unlike even widespread trouble, that it cannot very well be defined in terms of the everyday environments or ordinary men. An issue, in fact, often involves a crisis in institutional arrangements.”

Mills put himself outside the mainstream of American social comment through his support for Castro and his critique of what he saw as US imperialism, and was also critical of what passed for contemporary sociology. But it was his call to action in The Sociological Imagination (1959) that resonates now: isn’t it time that we scrutinised our own institutional and policy arrangements, which place young people in impossible predicaments?

There are an estimated 60,000 young people living in the UK who have irregular immigration status. This tag is no mere administrative burden. It compromises their security and safety, their health and wellbeing and our ability to support those who are vulnerable and exploited by others. If you are young, and without the correct papers, then you are likely to be extremely quiet about it: you will try to manage alone the problems this generates. You will be unable get trusted advice and legal support. You will be unwilling to speak up about this for fear of being deported. You will be unsure about accessing the health and social support that most of us take for granted. You will not know who and what to trust. You will see both light and darkness in remaining invisible.

Last week, at a meeting of European charitable trusts at Paul Hamlyn Foundation, two organisations spoke to the assembled grant makers about what they were doing to make sure the personal troubles of so many become social issues that we address. Just for Kids Law talked about their work helping young migrants, many of whom have grown up as children in the UK, to access higher education. Swarm has developed a web portal through which young people and their families can work out how they can get help with their immigration status problems. Both charities are part of a wider collaboration, started by Paul Hamlyn Foundation and Unbound Philanthropy – two funders working in partnership. Supported Options uses grant making, research, convening, digital technology, story telling and direct service development to shine a light on the lives of young people trapped by their status, and also to point to policy and practice solutions.

We are rightly transfixed by the continuing refugee crisis and in the UK there has been a huge mobilisation of interest and offers of help from the general public. But we must not lose sight of those – such as young people without papers – whose stories are not being told, and who are not in the limelight. They are as deserving of our attention and our support as any young person in trouble. In the United States, a growing movement for change – led by United We Dream – has turned many undocumented young people into social activists and campaigners, and in this movement individuals find support and friendship. In the United Kingdom, a similar movement has been much slower in coming – but coming it is. Let Us Learn is a youth-led campaign that has already brought about a change in the law, with a recent Supreme Court decision securing access to higher education funding for many. We must nurture this movement and protect the brave young people who work selflessly for the rights and futures of others. “Coming out” as undocumented and speaking up for one’s rights and the rights of others is to put oneself in peril, but it is probably the only way that young people’s troubles become our social issue. We should reward their courage and dignity by helping them to study and ensuring that they can access legal advice and representation in order to make decisions about their futures from a position of stability and security.

This meeting of the European Foundation Centre’s (EFC) Diversity, Migration, and Integration Thematic Network brought together EFC members for two days, 20-21 October 2015, to network, learn from one another and identify potential areas of common interest.

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