Each year the UK Border Agency (UKBA) detains around 1,000 children in immigration removal centres (IRCs). The reason: their parent or parents have been identified for forced removal from the UK.
They range in age from babies to older teenagers, but are mostly in the age range of 10-12 years. Most have spent many years in the UK while their parents’ case for asylum has been processed, and speak with British accents after being educated at British schools.
They have committed no crime. Yet suddenly they are arrested and imprisoned – for weeks at a time, out of sight of the press and the courts. Some spend only a few days in detention at Yarl’s Wood in Bedfordshire, the main IRC with family facilities; others many weeks, or even months. The average is 15 days – described as “unacceptable” by the children’s commissioner for England, Sir Al Aynsley-Green. When they are released, less than half of them are put on a plane back to their parents’ country; most go back to where they were before they were detained. Many are detained more than once.
Mark Easton, the BBC home affairs editor, wrote in April 2009: “What sort of country sends a dozen uniformed officers to haul innocent sleeping children out of their beds; gives them just a few minutes to pack what belongings they can grab; pushes them into stinking caged vans; drives them for hours while refusing them the chance to go to the lavatory so that they wet themselves and locks them up sometimes for weeks or months without the prospect of release and without adequate health services? My country, apparently.”
Almost every child who is detained suffers some injury to their health, physical and mental. Being arrested, transported and locked up is, in itself, traumatic: they recall with horror being woken early in the morning by uniformed officers breaking down the front door, told they have just minutes to pack their most essential belongings, then watching their parents being handcuffed. “Children, even the youngest, are deeply affected and traumatised by these events,”
Sir Al reported in 2008. “Many of them have recurring nightmares about them, and they often demonstrate changes in behaviour. They can become persistently withdrawn, cling to their parents, refuse food or wet the bed. Children's best interests appear to me to be entirely invisible during the arrest and escorting process.” Many of these children have put down roots in Britain after many years, and are torn from their friends and belongings. “I speak to these children in places like Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre,” Sir Al wrote, “and they answer my questions in regional British accents acquired over many years of integration into our communities and schools. It seems positively cruel to rip up the hopes and aspirations of these young people, who have become settled and enjoy close ties with friends, teachers and neighbours, due to the historic problems of managing the asylum system inefficiently.”
The children’s commissioner wrote a report on Yarl’s Wood in 2009, noting certain improvements but calling for the practice of child detention to end. “We stand by our contention that arrest and detention are inherently damaging to children, and that Yarl’s Wood is no place for a child”.
The health profession has been queueing up in recent years to denounce the practice. A coalition of royal medical colleges said in a joint report in December 2009 that mental health problems, self-harm and even suicide are some of the consequences of detaining children. They say that the practice exposes children to “significant harm”, a term used to trigger child protection policies.
The Guardian, New Statesman and the Observer have long called for the practice to end. Petitions have been signed and parliamentary motions tabled. Faith and civic leaders and many NGOs have called for an end to the detention of children, which is incompatible with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and is at odds with the Government’s own statutory commitment to safeguarding the welfare of children.
There is a consensus that the practice must end.
The Government says that it doesn’t want to lock up children but sees no alternative. "If people refuse to go home then detention becomes a necessity,” the immigration minister, Phil Woolas, told the BBC last year. “We don't want to split up families, so we hold children with their parents.”But this assumes that families who have reached the end of their claim process do “refuse to go home”. On the whole, they don’t.
The real purpose of locking up families is to make the removals process more efficient. Bureaucratic considerations are being put before human dignity. Sweden and Australia are among the countries which have now put an end to the practice without in any way undermining the removals process. (Swedish law retains the right to detain children, but for a maximum of three days). In Canada and Australia, schemes in place make detention very unusual - -and compliance with removals are around 90%. When a group of MPs looked into the matter in 2006, they found no evidence that families with children would be less likely to allow themselves to be removed, and concluded that “the most obvious alternative to detention is simply not to detain”. There is a strong case that children who have spent many years in the UK and have been educated in British schools should be given the right to remain in the UK. In August 2004, the Home Office made Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR) available to families who had at least one child under 18 in the UK on 2 October 2000 or 24 October 2003, and whose principal applicant had lodged their asylum claim before 2 October 2000. The rationale driving the one-off exercise was both moral and pragmatic: where families have been in the UK for a substantial period of time, their children are likely to have integrated into UK society, may have little or no meaningful links with their country of origin and removal would have a significant impact on their well-being. Claims are now processed much faster and people returned to their countries more quickly. But many of those children who are detained are part of an administrative backlog, the product of the breakdown in the Home Office’s ability to process claims around 2001-2003. They should be given ILR on a similar basis to the 2004 initiative.
In those very rare cases where the Home Office could, hypothetically, demonstrate that there was a significant risk of absconding, there are still alternatives to detention: a bail scheme, for example, where the family seeking sanctuary might agree to live at a certain address, with friends agreeing to act as surety.
As a last resort, electronic tagging of the parents is at least preferable to detaining their children.
The time to end this shameful practice is NOW
The time to end this shameful practice is NOW