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 Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.