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.