A fair deal for children

The government claims to be looking into alternatives to detention for minors - but so far its pilot

There has been much discussion about the detention of children since the New Statesman launched its campaign four weeks ago. From the Children's Commissioner to the Home Office, there is widespread acceptance that detention is damaging to minors, but there is little discussion about what should happen instead. Is there a workable alternative to locking up children?

It's a question that has been troubling the government, so much so that the Home Office last year began a pilot scheme to persuade families at the end of the asylum process to return home voluntarily. It makes financial sense to invest in voluntary return: in 2006, a House of Commons committee revealed that it costs on average £9,000 forcibly to remove someone from the UK. But the pilot scheme has been a disaster, with very few families co-operating in their expulsion, and with evidence emerging of the harm and distress caused to the children involved.

The pilot programme took place at Millbank Induction Centre in Ashford, Kent, and ran for ten months from last November. The idea was to house families that had been refused asylum in a hostel where an independent charity, Migrant Helpline, would work with them for a short length of time to help them consider how best to return to their home countries. It differed from conventional detention centres in that the families were free to come and go.

Initially, many charities welcomed the idea. Asylum-seeking families need to feel safe, but are often very fearful at the prospect of returning home; and, having left everything behind, they find it takes a huge change of mindset to consider going back. Children will often have no memory of the country they have left, and their parents find it difficult to imagine how they will survive or what their lives will be like. A good system hinges on trust, and giving families the breathing space to talk through these concerns with someone independent makes sense.

Yet very quickly it became clear that Millbank was not working: after three months, not a single family had entered the hostel, and the referral criteria were so unclear that some of the families eventually sent there could not leave the UK because it had already been judged unsafe for them to return home. Others were taken to the centre straight from detention, and were so damaged by their recent experiences that they were unable or unwilling to trust anybody.

We tracked down some of the families to find out from them, their legal representatives and charity support workers what had gone wrong. The families told us that it was never made clear to them why they were being sent to Millbank: they were simply given 14 days to enter the pilot or have their benefits stopped; some had less than a week to make arrangements and take their children out of school. Some families did not know where they were going until they arrived at Millbank. One mother was taken straight there after several months in Yarl's Wood detention centre; she arrived with her baby, scared and confused, and left the hostel soon afterwards.

Support workers and legal representatives were equally unsure of what was happening, meaning there were few people to give the families informed and impartial advice. In the absence of information, rumours circulated, resulting in a climate of fear. Most of the parents we spoke to had few complaints about the care they received from Migrant Helpline and were grateful their children were allowed to attend school - but it was nevertheless clear they were living in fear and unable to engage with the process. The children, sensitive to the tensions, reacted as they often did to detention - refusing to eat, becoming ill and distressed, and behaving badly at school.

Free to go, many families did just that. Those we spoke to had returned to their original asylum accommodation and enrolled their children back into school, citing the need for normality and stability. The Home Office regards these families as "absconders", even though they had been free to leave Millbank and many had informed the authorities of their location. One family became "absconders" when the officials went to the wrong address to collect them. The Home Office suggests that the number of families which "absconded" proves that detention of children is necessary, but our evaluation shows that this is a myth.

The essential element of any workable, humane system is confidence: without gaining the trust of an asylum-seeking family - and those who support them - there is no meaningful way to explore voluntary return. The government made it clear from the outset that it was not interested in the impact of the pilot on the minors involved; it was concerned with cost and with the number of families leaving the UK.

The merits of trust have been demonstrated by models in other countries, such as the Hotham Mission in Australia. In a two-year pilot, more than 200 asylum-seekers were given an independent charity worker to support them through an asylum process designed to integrate them into the community or help them to return home. Eighty-five per cent of those refused asylum were not detained and returned home voluntarily. None absconded.

Detention is not a sensible policy. The first presumption in any case must be freedom, and any restrictions on liberty must be proportionate: there is no evidence that families, which tend to need access to health, education and social support, abscond if they are released into the community. A study in the UK by South Bank University found that less than 9 per cent of high-risk, single asylum-seekers attempted to evade immigration control after being released on bail. It concluded that the detention of asylum-seekers was largely unnecessary and "a vast waste of public money". It costs the taxpayer £1,280 a week - nearly £67,000 a year - for a single asylum-seeker to be detained, yet virtually nobody is calling the government to account over how the money is spent.

Neither effective nor civilised

Where there is a compelling risk that a family may go missing, the Home Office has a range of measures at its disposal. Families can be asked to post bail or to report on a regular basis to the police or the Home Office. Other methods trialled elsewhere have ranged from the coercive, such as electronic tagging in Florida, to the non-coercive, such as the supervision of asylum-seekers by a charity, in New York, and by social workers, in Sweden. These initiatives confirm that threats and coercion do not encourage families which have already suffered serious upheaval and distress to comply. The schemes that succeed work in a supportive, transparent way, so that the families and their advisers understand the system and can feel confident that they have been given a fair hearing.

Finding a humane and sensible solution requires a significant investment of energy, time and commitment. It will take a brave government to do just that in the face of public concern and misunderstanding about immigration. But there is a precedent. In July, the Australian government ended a seven-year policy of automatic detention of asylum-seekers and pledged that no child would ever again be detained. The Austra lian prime minister, Kevin Rudd, said it was neither "an effective nor a civilised response".

After the failure of Millbank in this country, we need a serious discussion about realistic alternatives. Next month, Bail for Immigration Detainees and the Children's Society will launch an initiative to end the detention of minors within three years. In an effective asylum system, no child need be detained.

Lisa Nandy is policy adviser for asylum and refugee children at the Children's Society