It was always too good to be true. From its very first week, the coalition pledged to end the detention of children in immigration removal centres. This appeared to be a welcome move away from the practice of imprisoning some of the world's most vulnerable people and their sometimes very young children.
However, it seems that the pledge will not be carried out quite as the many children's and refugee groups which endorsed the move had wished. Some of these groups had favoured bail or electronic tagging as alternatives.
The Guardian reports today that immigration officials have launched a scheme that will give families with children two weeks in which to leave the country voluntarily. If they do not leave, they will face deportation "at some point" in the two weeks after this.
The briefing paper, leaked to Socialist Worker, shows concern from the UK Border Agency that families facing deportation could have more opportunities to launch community campaigns against their deportation. It says:
The alternative is not to inform the family of the exact time and date of removal, so that they are not prepared. However, this has its own difficulties, which would need analysing and addressing.
It's hardly in keeping with Nick Clegg's observation last week that we need to "restore a sense of decency and liberty to the way we conduct ourselves" on this issue.
In most cases, speedy deportation is simply not humane, particularly when there are children involved. Many of these families will have been in the UK for many months or even years. Their lives are here; the children have been socialised here. The trauma of being uprooted and deported at such breakneck pace is hardly better than that inflicted by being locked up.
The other key point, frequently overlooked, is the danger of returning to many of these countries. There is a culture of denial in the Home Office -- cases are turned down on technicalities, due to a very rigid reading of the Refugee Convention. If an individual or family can't prove that they personally are being targeted or persecuted, they will not qualify for refugee status, regardless of whether they are fleeing from a conflict zone or somewhere with high instances of human rights abuses.
Return to these countries is frequently unsafe and even, in many cases, impossible to arrange. Just because an asylum-seeker's claim has been refused does not mean they have no reason to fear for their safety on return. This is imbued with extra importance when children are involved.
Clegg was right to describe child detention as a "moral outrage". Sadly, that description fits this new strategy, too.
The New Statesman's "No Place for Children" campaign is here.