Deporting lone children to Afghanistan is inhumane

Will a “reintegration centre” in Kabul guarantee the safety of unaccompanied children?

The Guardian reports today that the government is to set up a "reintegration centre" that will allow it to deport unaccompanied minors to Afghanistan.

Each month, the £4m centre in Kabul will accommodate 12 boys who are under 18, as well as providing "reintegration assistance" for 120 adults. According to the Guardian, these plans are "part of a wider European move" to start removing children to Afghanistan.

This is a drastic -- and unwelcome -- change in government policy. I have had close experience of the horrendous reality faced by those seeking asylum in the UK, through voluntary work and writing about the issue, and the treatment of unaccompanied children is frequently more humane than that faced by adults. Of course, there are instances when the Home Office refuses to believe their account of who they are or, crucially, their age, but child protection laws guarantee that they will not be left destitute and homeless.

While the default position for most adults -- whether they are torture victims or rape survivors -- is disbelief, and a barely disguised wish to get rid of them (whether through deportation, detention, or enforced destitution), children who are in the UK without their parents are generally allowed to remain if their safety upon return cannot be guaranteed. According to Home Office figures, there are currently 4,200 of these unaccompanied children, many of them living in care homes.

We know that Afghanistan is unsafe and war-torn, because it is a war that we are fighting. It is very difficult to see how it is in a child's best interests to be returned there. The plans give no indication of how long the children will be kept in the centre (with 12 new boys arriving every month, it will surely reach capacity at some point), what the conditions and pastoral care will be like, and what steps will be taken to locate their families.

Sadly, the move probably has two main motivations. The first is the automatic position of disbelief, outlined above. This characterised the Labour government's attitude to asylum-seekers, and looks set to continue to do so. Deporting children aged 16 or 17 removes the risk that they could be lying about their age.

The second is cost-cutting. A policy paper circulated in Brussels by the British government in February said that formal safeguards such as guardianship are "immensely expensive to put in place". Perhaps this is so, but isn't it right that all possible precautions should be taken when dealing with children?

As Donna Covey of the Refugee Council points out: "There has been little said about how these children would be kept safe . . . if they have no family to whom they can be returned safely, should they be returned at all?"

Upon coming to power, the coalition government pledged to end the detention of children in UK immigration centres. That promise begins to look meaningless as it finalises plans to forcibly remove traumatised children with no adult protection to one of the world's most dangerous places.

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Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide