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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.

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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.