No place for children

The UK has one of the worst records in Europe for detaining children but accurate figures on how man

It is shameful that UK law allows children who are not British to be detained without time limits and without judicial oversight. Many of the 2,000 or so children detained for administrative convenience every year have been here seeking asylum with their families. Others arrive on their own and are detained because, in the absence of identification papers, the immigration authorities refuse to believe that they are children.

The UK has one of the worst records in Europe for detaining children. However, accurate figures on how many children are detained, and for how long, remain hard to come by, despite repeated requests to the government from campaigners and parliamentarians for better information. Without such data, how can we be reassured by the government's claim that detention is used "only when absolutely necessary and for the shortest possible time"?

In recent years, there has been a growing consensus that the practice must end. According to a paper produced by a cross-bench group of MPs and peers for a campaign led by the Refugee Council and other NGOs in 2006, "There is a broad consensus that locking children up with their families is inherently harmful and to be avoided wherever possible. The UK's children's commissioners, the UK's chief inspector of prisons, international and national non-governmental organisations and community groups have all spoken out against the policy or conditions of detention." Yet despite such stringent criticism, the government has remained largely impervious to the devastating effects of detention on children.

The position usually taken by the government is that detention is used only when all other avenues to persuade families to leave have failed. Furthermore, the seemingly lengthy periods of detention endured by children are blamed largely on parents' attempts to frustrate removal from the country. However, the evidence to substantiate this argument has never been produced. Critics of the policy argue that Home Office decision-making remains poor. They say the emphasis on speed makes evidence hard to collect, and that asylum-seekers face a "culture of disbelief" that relies excessively on unsafe findings on the credibility of their stories. They also argue that there is a dwindling supply of competent legal representation for asylum-seekers, due to changes in legal aid. If the critics are right, it is not surprising that many asylum-seekers resist removal because their fear of return may be both genuine and well founded. But even if we leave aside these arguments, a real political commitment to community supervision as an alternative to detaining families has never been articulated or pursued. I have often heard it said that detaining families is a tried and tested way to keep removal statistics high, at a time when public confidence in the immigration system remains low.

Many of the children the government currently locks up have been here for a considerable time while their families' asylum claims are being processed. I speak to these children in places like Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre, and they answer my questions in regional British accents acquired over many years of integration into our communities and schools. It seems positively cruel to rip up the hopes and aspirations of these young people, who have become settled and enjoy close ties with friends, teachers and neighbours, due to the historic problems of managing the asylum system efficiently.

For more recent arrivals, there is the potential for better decision-making and closer contact management of families in the new "case ownership" system, in operation since April 2007. This could have been the basis for a dialogue between families and case owners, assigned by the Home Office to work on single cases from start to finish, to explore the reasons why asylum-seekers are not returning to their country voluntarily. However, in the experience of families I have talked to, detention always comes as a surprise and a shock, and one that they are unprepared for. I say categorically that this should never be the case. Children's experiences of the process of arrest and detention are truly shocking.

"We didn't have time to collect anything and we don't have any personal belongings, clothes or anything. They even take your phone."

Boy, aged 11, in Yarl's Wood immigration removal centre, May 2008

When I visited the Yarl's Wood removal centre in May this year, I talked to nearly all the families and children there about their experiences. At the top of the list of concerns was the process of being taken into detention. We were told of early-morning raids on their homes - sometimes involving the breaking down of doors and a disproportionate number of officers - to arrest two, three or four people. Some claimed that aggressive officers gave them insufficient time to pack even minimal possessions, or to gather up medicines and items of personal importance or value. With the exception of one family who had contacted relatives to collect their belongings, none of the families interviewed knew what had happened to the possessions they had left behind.

We were told of children denied the use of a toilet (or allowed to go only while being watched with the door open) before lengthy journeys in caged vans. Girls claimed they were made to get dressed in the presence of male officers, and boys vice versa. Virtually every child spoke of their fear and distress at being awakened and shouted at by adults in uniforms who had entered their homes violently. Children said they were separated from their parents, were not told where they were being taken, and were humiliated in front of friends and neighbours as parents were handcuffed and they themselves were marched into vans. One child told me of being removed from his class at school by uniformed officers. Children, even the youngest, are deeply affected and traumatised by these events. Many of them have recurring nightmares about them, and they often demonstrate changes in behaviour. They can become persistently withdrawn, cling to their parents, refuse food or wet the bed. Children's best interests appear to me to be entirely invisible during the arrest and escorting process.

Girl: "It's a prison. You can't call it anything else, it's a prison."

Boy: "You're not free here. You're not able to go into friends' rooms and things."

Both in Yarl's Wood, May 2008

I first visited Yarl's Wood in October 2005 to see for myself the journey of a child from first point of reception at the centre. I noted then that the numbers of locked doors a child would have to go through before reaching the family unit would be a minimum of eight. Once in the family unit they would have to pass through a barred cell door and be subjected to a search. Even babies' nappies were inspected. While I was pleased that when I returned in May this year the current management had opened the unit out, removed the barred cell door and ceased searching children, it was clear to me that from a fairly young age many children are deeply conscious - and ashamed - of being in what they regard as a prison.

The lack of privacy, the locked doors, the lack of access to treasured possessions, the restrictions on where you can go and at what time, the intrusive and regular roll counts (as if families with children were likely to escape en masse) and the unappealing, institutional food all contribute to many children feeling powerless and frustrated.

Furthermore, detention often puts older children in the position of emotionally "carrying" their parents, who may be experiencing extreme distress, depression and detachment from their parenting role as a result of their situation. In practice, many children are used informally as interpreters between the administration and their parents, when they accompany a parent to the health centre, for example. Some older children shared their parents' fears of return and were utterly convinced that they would be killed if they were sent back. There are no children's mental health services in Yarl's Wood to assist them in dealing with these experiences and worries. On one occasion, I used my powers of entry to interview a teenage girl admitted to hospital from Yarl's Wood who had threatened to kill herself as a consequence of her profound distress.

Children told us time and again how they missed their friends, their pets, their schools and the lives they had built for themselves in the places they had lived before being detained. Some felt cheated because they had not been able to say goodbye, while others didn't want to return because the process of arrest in front of neighbours or school friends had been so humiliating. Despite government policy to the contrary, we came across one young person - about to turn 16 - who had been detained just as his GCSEs had started. He felt that all the work he had done had been wasted; there are no facilities for taking examinations at Yarl's Wood.

There is no specialist paediatric input into health care or clinical governance there, either. Nor does the decision to detain appear to be informed by any risks it may pose to a child's health. Both these features of the detention process can have serious and even catastrophic consequences.

Many parents we met at Yarl's Wood were extremely worried because their children and babies were losing weight. There is grave concern that the imperatives of security mean that babies are routinely put at risk, for example, by not giving mothers access to facilities in their rooms at night to make fresh feeds for bottle-fed babies. Other mothers are unable to sustain breastfeeding because of emotional turmoil and an absence of support from breastfeeding counsellors.

Where a child is under paediatric care prior to detention, it does not appear that there is continuity of the care regime once the child is taken to Yarl's Wood. Some children with long-standing illnesses are denied their scheduled appointments at hospital clinics. A mother who is HIV-positive recently complained to her case worker that the family's detention had meant that her three-month-old child had missed her BCG vaccination. This was the response she received:

It is considered that this risk [of contracting tuberculosis] is purely speculative but even if she were to contract tuberculosis on return to [country of origin], it is not considered that this would reach the threshold [of cruel or degrading treatment or punishment] imposed in the case of N(FC) v SSHD [2005] UKHL 31.

The paediatrician with care of the little girl in the case cited above had not been notified of the child's detention and described her missing her BCG as a "tragic misfortune". In contrast, this mother's case worker at the Home Office viewed the issue not from the perspective of the child's health, but only in terms of whether this could be a "barrier to removal". I surely cannot be alone in thinking that such policies are crass, insensitive and utterly unacceptable.

Public outrage

On our recent visit, we considered, among others, 14 sets of medical notes of children from sub-Saharan Africa. Only two showed that they had been given anti-malarial prophylaxis - and even then both for inadequate lengths of time. This puts these children at serious risk of life-threatening malaria if returned. We would not dream of exposing our own children to such risk if travelling to the same countries. Detaining children significantly increases the risk that, when removed, they will die from preventable diseases given the level of paediatric support that would otherwise be available in their communities in the UK. The interests of children who have no right to remain in the UK are best served by keeping them in the community where their health and education needs can be taken into account fully when planning any removal.

We welcome the recent moves to create a more child-friendly immigration system. We were encouraged by the government's decision to review the UK's immigration opt-out on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and its recent commitment to change legislation to make the UK Border Agency subject to a duty to promote the welfare of children. In light of these welcome developments, we hope now to see serious consideration given to ending the detention of children who are subject to immigration control.

We stand a far better chance of achieving that goal if the public expresses its outrage. I welcome the New Statesman's commitment to this aim and hope the glare of public exposure will hasten the end of this shameful breach of a child's basic right to liberty. The government has rightly earned praise for the "Every Child Matters" policy programme. It is now time for it to live up to its rhetoric by making sure that every child really does matter, including those caught up, through no fault of their own, in a system that can only be described as inhuman.