Tuesday, 11 May 2010

We just made history! New coalition government pledges end to child detention

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." Margaret Mead

Today we can celebrate a moment when a small group of committed citizens - no more then 500 people across our nation who met with their Prospective Parliamentary Candidates to ask them to sign the Sanctuary Pledge -managed to change the world.

David Cameron is still forming his new coalition government, and we have no idea who the new Home Secretary will be. But we do know that the coalition government is committed to ending the detention of children for the purpose of immigration control. This is a huge victory for CITIZENS for Sanctuary teams across the UK who have been campaigning hard for an end to child detention, taking on their Prospective Parliamentary Candidates in the run-up to the election.

Here's a potted history of the campaign:
  • Summer 2008: Independent Asylum Commission (IAC) recommends an end to child detention

  • January 2009: CITIZENS for Sanctuary launches as a CITIZENS UK campaign to use community organsing to implement the IAC's recommendations

  • August 2009: CITIZENS for Sanctuary persuades leading faith organisations to support a campaign in the run-up to the election calling for an end to child detention.

  • September 2009: CITIZENS for Sanctuary launches the Sanctuary Pledge campaign at the Lib Dem, Labour and Conservative party conferences. After a presentation on the issues and an emotional testimony by a Zimbabwean leader, Lib Dem MPs and advisers agree to support the Pledge. One of Nick Clegg's advisers tells us: "Your intervention has influenced the Lib Dem manifesto - we will call for an end to child detention."

  • December 2009: Canon Nick Sagovsky and 'St Nicholas' are turned away from Yarl's Wood detention centre when attempting to deliver gifts to the children there. The story makes national news and raises awareness of the Sanctuary Pledge. Soon after, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg writes to Gordon Brown calling for an end to child detention.

  • January 2010: CITIZENS for Sanctuary leaders and organisers contact the immigration spokespeople of each party and inform them about the Sanctuary Pledge. The Lib Dems, Greens, Plaid Cymru and Scottish National Party agree to support the Pledge.

  • January-March 2010: CITIZENS for Sanctuary community organisers train groups of community leaders in 15 locations across the UK in how to build powerful coalitions and negotiate effectively with their local parliamentary candidates. Over 500 people are trained, and begin to approach their candidates.

  • March 2010: Child Detention Minister, Meg Hillier, meets with Barbara Nalumu, Lorin Sulaiman and organisers from CITIZENS for Sanctuary to explore options to reduce child detention. At a further meeting there is a strong commitment to reduce child detention, but no clear action plan for taking this forward.

  • March 2010: Leaders of the 18 partner organisations formally launch the Sanctuary Pledge at the Mothers' Union HQ in Westminster, and write to the Home Secretary and his opposition equivalents, seeking their response.

  • March 2010: CITIZENS for Sanctuary leaders successfully deliver Easter eggs to the children detained at Yarl's Wood.

  • April 2010: The Lib Dem, Green, Plaid Cymru and Scottish National Party manifestos all contain commitments to ending child detention as a result of lobbying by CITIZENS for Sanctuary.

  • April 2010: CITIZENS for Sanctuary leaders meet with their Prospective Parliamentary Candidates and persuade many candidates from all the mainstream parties to back the Sanctuary Pledge.

  • April 2010: Members of London Citizens meet with Labour's Meg Hillier to clarify the party's position on child detention. She agrees to set up a working group to reduce, and ultimately end, the detention of children, and promises that CITIZENS UK will be represented on that group.

  • May 2010: Over 300 CITIZENS for Sanctuary leaders from across the UK attend the CITIZENS UK Assembly of 2,500 people where Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg and David Cameron are asked to commit to ending child detention. Nick Clegg is unequivocal, David Cameron describes the practice as "unacceptable" and promises to set up a working group to look into the issue, Gordon Brown also commits to a working group. Both agree that CITIZENS UK will play a key role in the working group. There is now a cross-party consensus on the issue. All of the leaders agree to meet with CITIZENS UK at least once a year to be held to account for their promises.

  • May 2010: Gordon Brown writes a letter announcing his endorsement for the Sanctuary Pledge and promising to encourage other candidates to sign.

  • May 2010: The election result is indecisive. What we do know is that at least 60 of those elected from all of the major parties have personal relationships with CITIZENS for Sanctuary teams in their constituencies, signed the Sanctuary Pledge, and agreed to meet with them six months later to be held to account for progress they have made in implementing the Pledge.

  • May 2010: David Cameron and Nick Clegg agree a coalition between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems. Thanks to the lobbying of the Lib Dems, the coalition commits to ending the detention of children for the purposes of immigration control.

Obviously the battle is not won until every child is out of detention. But what is clear from this potted history of the campaign is that community organising works! If it wasn't for the power of citizens who lobbied hard at both local and national level, striking relationships with power players in all of the main parties, putting the issue on the Lib Dem agenda at party conference last year, getting it included in four manifestos, gaining Conservative acquiescence at the CITIZENS UK assembly, and pushing Labour to endorse the Sanctuary Pledge - then history would not have turned out like this.

So well done to those committed, thoughtful citizens who really struggled hard to make the Sanctuary Pledge campaign a success. You just made history.


  1. Hold your horses. My Christian education is a little rusty but I seem to remember. . . By their deeds ye shall know them. This govt hasn’t done anything yet. We may need to step up the pressure in order to end child detention now.

  2. Clare, you are quite right about the need to make sure the commitment is delivered. As this article points out, we won't rest until all the children are out. That's why we have arranged a) to have Cameron and Clegg come to another CITIZENS UK assembly to be held to account and b) our Sanctuary Pledge teams across the country have meetings booked with their MPs in a few months time to hold them to account too. However, it would be churlish not to celebrate a phenomenal achievement at this moment. A metaphorical day of rest after six days of hard graft - or a campaign Sabbath to rest and reflect if you want to keep it biblical!