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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How austere will Philip Hammond be?

The Chancellor must choose between softening or abandoning George Osborne's approach in his Autumn Statement. 

After becoming Chancellor, Philip Hammond was swift to confirm that George Osborne's budget surplus target would be abandoned. The move was hailed by some as the beginning of a new era of fiscal policy - but it was more modest than it appeared. Rather than a statement of principle, the abandonment of the 2019-20 target was merely an acceptance of reality. In the absence of additional spending cuts or tax rises, it would inevitably be missed (as Osborne himself recognised following the EU referendum). The decision did not represent, as some suggested, "the end of austerity".

Ahead of his first Autumn Statement on 23 November, the defining choice facing Hammond is whether to make a more radical break. As a new Resolution Foundation report notes, the Chancellor could either delay the surplus target (the conservative option) or embrace an alternative goal. Were he to seek a current budget suplus, rather than an overall one (as Labour pledged at the last general election), Hammond would avoid the need for further austerity and give himself up to £17bn of headroom. This would allow him to borrow for investment and to provide support for the "just managing" families (as Theresa May calls them) who will be squeezed by the continuing benefits freeze.

Alternatively, should Hammond merely delay Osborne's surplus target by a year (to 2020-21), he would be forced to impose an additional £9bn of tax rises or spending cuts. Were he to reject any further fiscal tightening, a surplus would not be achieved until 2023-24 - too late to be politically relevant. 

The most logical option, as the Resolution Foundation concludes, is for Hammond to target a current surplus. But since entering office, both he and May have emphasised their continuing commitment to fiscal conservatism ("He talks about austerity – I call it living within our means," the latter told Jeremy Corbyn at her first PMQs). For Hammond to abandon the goal of the UK's first budget surplus since 2001-02 would be a defining moment. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.