As campaigners across the world prepare for the first ever coordinated international day of action against immigration detention on 8 April, Liz Fekete charts the growing resistance to the detention of asylum-seeking children in Europe.
Over the years, European governments have been locking up more and more asylum- seeking children and, in this way, rendering them invisible. But over the last year, something has changed. Issues relating to detained children (whether unaccompanied or members of families) are being discussed in the media. Asylum seeking children are becoming visible.
National demonstrations in countries such as the UK and Belgium (where children pinned soft toys at the bars of the gate to the Vottem detention centre in Liège) have helped generate media interest. A growing number of reports and statements in favour of asylum-seeking children’s rights, by prominent national and international bodies, are also having an effect. The Commissioner for Human rights at the Council of Europe,the UNHCR, Amnesty International (AI), the Greek Ombudsman for Children, the Dutch Inspectorate for Implementation of Sanctions (a supervisory body for prisons and detention centres) and, in the UK, the Chief Inspector of Prisons and the Children’s Commissioners for England and Scotland have all forcefully criticised the harmful effects of detention on children. The fact that children’s normal psycho-social development is at risk when they are exposed to ‘isolated, deprived and confined conditions’ has been highlighted by psychiatrists writing in the British Medical Journal (4 February 2006) who further warned that such treatment ‘bodes poorly’ for the children’s ‘future adaptation, whether they are ultimately resettled or repatriated’.
Locked up for administrative convenience
Despite the fact that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child stipulates that the primary consideration for any action undertaken by a state must be the best interests and protection of the child, children are all too often locked up for the administrative convenience of the authorities. AI reports that the Italian government provides no statistics indicating just how many children are detained. It also states that detention of children is not used, as stipulated by international law, as a measure of last resort, but merely to suit the government’s administrative convenience. Similar concerns were voiced by the UNHCR in its study of two detention centres in Belgium; the 127 centre in Melsbroek and the 127bis in Steenokkerzeel. Of the 121 asylum seekers held in these two centres at the start of December, sixty-six were children. Some of the children had been detained for months.
In the UK, where the government is increasingly in the spotlight over its treatment of asylum-seeking children, a report by Save the Children revealed that the number of children being detained for purposes of immigration control is increasing. Contrary to government statements, around 2,000 children are detained with their families each year and an increasing number of children are held in detention on the false assumption that they are adults. The charity Barnardos, the Chief Inspector of Prisons and the Children’s Commissioner for England have all highlighted the problems that children face at Yarl’s Wood removal centre, Bedfordshire (which holds fast-track applicants as well as failed asylum seekers pending removal). Here, children are detained in prison-like conditions with excessive levels of security and an unhealthy diet. There is poor educational provision and inadequate facilities for teenagers as well as a failure to provide for children with special needs. Although detention at the centre is meant to last a matter of days, some children have been detained for up to fifty-seven days. A report by the Children’s Commissioner for England, following a visit in October 2005, concluded that conditions at Yarl’s Wood violated the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Evidence of harm
One phrase that is used time and time again by human rights bodies is that the detention of children is not ‘age appropriate’. Treating children as though they were adults is extremely harmful, both to their physical and mental well-being, as courts increasingly recognise. Article 37b of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that detention of a child shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time. But children can be held in detention for months, as has been shown by several campaigns in the Netherlands. The Dutch branch of Defence for Children International (DCI-NL) has intervened in a number of cases such as that of a 12-year-old Armenian girl who had been held in detention for four months and an 8-year-old boy who had been detained alongside his father at the detention centre at Rotterdam airport for several weeks.
An increased focus on the detention of children in the Netherlands has had some positive effects. In August 2005, a court in The Hague ruled that the detention of a family with four children aged between 6 and 13 was unlawful and that they should be moved from the centre in Rotterdam to a more open setting. In Germany, in March 2005, a Berlin court of appeal declared unlawful the pre-deportation detention of a 16-year-old Liberian girl and stressed that a child’s need for care and accommodation with access to education should always be prioritised.
Poor and unhygienic detention conditions are one source of harm that affect children’s mental and physical health. The Athens office of the UNHCR finds it unacceptable that at the Lavrion centre in Greece children are placed in overcrowded rooms with adults, and sometimes they have no bed or sleep on balconies. (A journalist on the magazine Tahydromas found that women and children, including babies, detained at the Amygdalzeza centre were living in unhygienic conditions in small cells and were only allowed out once or twice a week to go to the yard.) The Commissioner for Human Rights at the Council of Europe was adamant that the only measure that could improve living conditions at Spain’s Llanos Palados centre for unaccompanied foreign minors in Fuerteventura – located next to a municipal tip -was its immediate closure. ‘The situation in Llanos Palados is incompatible from all points of view, with proper protection for foreign minors’, he said. ‘I appeal to the island and autonomous authorities to rectify it with utmost urgency.’
Another source of harm arises from a lack of child protection policies in detention centres, something identified by Anne Owers, Chief Inspector of Prisons in the UK during an inspection of Yarl’s Wood removal centre in October 2005. In response to Owers’ claim, Home Office minister Des Browne said that child protection policies would be introduced as soon as possible in such centres and that independent monitoring systems would be established. Yet specific recommendations made by Owers to improve child protection at Dungavel removal centre in Scotland had not been implemented two years later. In response to mounting criticism, immigration minister Tony McNulty has promised to make removal centres ‘child friendly’, which, one would have thought, rather misses the point!
Monitoring mechanisms urgently needed
The treatment of unaccompanied children, including their detention, is another issue highlighted in reports by the European Social Network, ChildFocus in Belgium and AI, among others. In Belgium, Ilse Derluyn of the University of Ghent has produced a study which reveals the very high incidence of serious emotional problems among unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. Some 47 per cent of them showed signs of depression, 45 per cent serious symptoms of anxiety and 58 per cent post-traumatic stress disorder. AI reports that the Italian government has breached national law and international standards by detaining unaccompanied minors and has called on the authorities to implement an independent monitoring system to listen to the opinions of detained children.
In fact, Article 12 of the Children’s Convention stipulates that states should provide children with opportunities to express their views. But this is just not happening, as a joint statement by the Children’s Commissioners for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland confirms. ‘No one seems to be listening to what the children themselves have to say’, they stated, ‘or considering the impact that their experiences before and since coming to this country may have had on them.’