A HUMAN rights group has called for British citizenship fees for children to be scrapped, after figures obtained by The Detail show the Home Office has earned more than £1.3 million from immigrant families in Northern Ireland.
Children born to immigrant parents are not automatically classed as British - unlike those born to British or Irish parents.
If parents are later granted permanent residency, or have lived in the UK for a decade, their children can register as a British citizen, provided they pay a £1,012 fee.
Data published by the Home Office showed that the cost to the department to process an application was only £372.
Fees have increased sharply since 2012, when it cost £540 to make an application.
Between 2012 and 2021, 2,281 citizenship registrations were made on behalf of children born to non-EU nationals in Northern Ireland, totalling just under £2m in fees.
When the cost of processing the registrations is taken into consideration, the Home Office is estimated to have earned almost £1.33m from families in Northern Ireland.
Human rights groups have warned that British citizenship fees can prevent children from applying for the right to live in the UK, access free health services, and gain employment.
Without being classed as British, vulnerable children, including those in care, are also at risk of being deported.
Stringent requirements mean that children as young as 10 can have their citizenship registrations rejected if they have ever come to the notice of police, even for minor issues.
The Republic of Ireland has a similar child citizenship system but an application only costs €375 (£322).
When asked by The Detail why the British application fee was so high, the Home Office said the money helped fund the immigration system.
“We do not make any profit from application fees and the income is used to fund other vital areas of the migration and borders system,” a spokesman said.
According to the New Statesman, the Home Office is estimated to have made more than £240m from child citizenship registrations made across the UK between 2010 and 2021.
The number of citizenship registrations for children is expected to rise as more immigrants settle in Northern Ireland.
According to 2021 census figures, 57,000 citizens of non-EU countries live in Northern Ireland, a 58% increase on the 36,000 citizens recorded in 2011.
Brexit has also contributed to the issue.
European Union citizens are now treated the same as non-EU nationals and must go through the same application process if they wish their child to be classed as British.
Mairéad McCafferty, chief executive at the Northern Ireland Commission for Children and Young People (NICCY), said many families cannot afford citizenship fees.
“The Home Office is aware that a significant number of families are in situations where they simply cannot afford these fees and any additional legal costs involved,” she said.
“It is unacceptable that barriers are being put in the way of such a fundamental right for so many children and simply beggars belief that a profit of more than £1m has been made from this situation.
“NICCY calls for urgent action to ensure that access to citizenship rights is not hindered by economic circumstances or cumbersome bureaucracy.”
Campaigners have said that fees to register children as British should be reduced significantly, or scrapped altogether.
Úna Boyd, immigration solicitor at the Committee for the Administration of Justice (CAJ), said registering as British is hugely important for many children.
“What is particularly frustrating is that registration can open up a route to children who are otherwise destitute, to become British and can resolve very difficult situations,” she said.
She added: “CAJ would support a fee reduction which reflects the actual cost of processing an application, or indeed free applications for children.”
Brian Moss, a solicitor at Worthing Law in Belfast who has dealt with citizenship applications, said the £1,012 fee is “quite an expensive application as far as anything to a government body goes”.
“For example, if you are applying for a British passport, it's around £120,” he said.
Concerns have also been raised that citizenship registrations for some children have been rejected on ‘good character’ grounds.
While there is no set definition of good character, any interaction with the justice system, including police cautions, can lead to an application being turned down.
The BBC reported in 2018 that hundreds of children as young as ten have had their citizenship registrations refused on good character grounds.
Mr Moss said an application would normally be refused if minor issues happened in the
last three years.
“So if you had kids mucking around, eggs thrown at a person's window, and the police apprehend them and they go through a diversionary process, they get a caution,” he said.
“Even if they only got a police warning for an offence, that application (for citizenship) will normally be refused if it happened within the last three years.”
Mr Moss said families who do not have access to legal advice are particularly vulnerable.
“There is enough here to catch you out, if you don't have an immigration advisor or solicitor,” he said.
He said solicitors’ fees of around £1,200 also add to the cost - meaning that parents could pay around £2,212 for an application.
Mr Moss said although employing a solicitor does increase the overall cost “if a mistake is made on this complicated application form, then it will be refused and no refund of the fee”.
Following a legal challenge against the Home Office by the Project for the Registration of British Children, the Government announced in June 2022 that applications would be free for children in care.
Other applicants can apply for a fee waiver if they cannot afford it.
However, Mr Moss said the waiver process can add further complications:
“It's a high bar to get a fee waiver,” he said.
“Either you have to show that you are already destitute, or that you or your child would become destitute if this fee had to be paid.”