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25 September 2008

One step forward . . .

The government has announced a new commitment to equal rights for asylum-seeking children. Now they

By Alice O'Keeffe

The government has taken an important step towards a more humane immigration system for children. At a meeting with the UN’s Committee on the Rights of the Child on 23 September, it announced that it would sign the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) in full. For the past 17 years, the UK has retained an immigration “reservation” to the UNCRC. In other words, it has said that refugee and asylum-seeking children who live in Britain do not have the same rights as those with British citizen ship. During that time it remained unmoved as hum an-rights organisations – and the UN itself – criticised the hypocrisy inherent in the reservation. As one campaigner has said: it “contravenes the whole spirit of a treaty that sets out universal children’s rights”.

The decision to drop the reservation signals a significant moral victory for all those who have worked to expose the brutal treatment of children in the UK immigration system. It establishes the principle that the best interests of children are more important than government deportation targets. And, although the UNCRC is not enforceable in UK courts, it will add force to arguments put forward by detained children’s legal representatives. It also increases pressure on the government to amend legislation such as the 2004 Children Act to include measures to cover refugee and asylum-seeking children.

There is little doubt, however, that this is primarily symbolic. It helped to show goodwill in the UN committee meeting, in the face of stinging criticism of UK immigration practices from the children’s commissioners and other human-rights organisations.

It does nothing to change the reality for the thousands of children who pass through the UK’s immigration detention centres every year. Indeed, far from decreasing the number of detained children and families, the government recently announced plans to increase the capacity of the detention estate – including plans to double the size of Yarl’s Wood, where children and families are currently held.

Only when the government brings in practical measures aimed at changing the culture and practices of the Home Office and the UK Border Agency, which currently show such cruel disregard for child welfare, will it have realised its commitment to uphold the rights of all children. As Lisa Nandy, asylum adviser at the Children’s Society, says: “Having sent a clear message that these children matter as much as any other, the government must now go further and end its policy of detaining children and their parents.”

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