Child detention review: the challenge for NGOs

Child detention review: the challenge for NGOs


Written by: Harmit Athwal

How should the voluntary sector respond to the government’s review of children’s detention?

The review (the terms of which were published on 10 June, allowing consultation till 1 July) will examine the way the UK Border Agency (UKBA) deals with asylum applications from families, including contact arrangements and access to legal representation; current arrangements for detention; alternatives to detention projects and models of good practice from other countries; improving voluntary returns to increase families’ take-up; and how to achieve a new family removals model which protects children’s welfare while ensuring the return of those with no right to be here.

An accompanying letter to voluntary organisations asked particularly for contributions on improving the take-up of voluntary return, and how to deal with families who reject voluntary return. Organisations are asked to contribute written submissions to the review, and to participate in events in Scotland, Wales and England. Meanwhile, the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund, which funds several organisations working in the field, is co-chairing a working group made up of a variety of civil society organisations.

The decision as to whether to participate in the review places many voluntary sector organisations in an acute dilemma: how far should they co-operate with the government in finding alternatives to detention whose object is to ensure the removal of the families concerned? There can be no doubt about this aim. In a parliamentary debate on the issue on 17 June 2010, Damian Green made it quite clear that ‘[t]he challenge is to develop a new approach to family removals that remains cost-effective and delivers the return of those who have no right to remain in the UK’.

Although at one point in the Westminster debate Green appeared to acknowledge that children’s detention is not effective to ensure families’ removal, quoting figures which showed that under half of the 1,100 or so children detained last year were actually removed, while over 600 were ‘released back’ into the community, he continued to insist that more family removals is the quid pro quo for ending child detention. To that end, Green made a number of suggestions – from the provision of more help and advice and better ‘marketing’ of voluntary return programmes to ensure that those with no right to remain leave voluntarily, to separating families who refuse to go voluntarily, detaining a parent while leaving the children with the other parent. He also refused to rule out the detention of children in families for a ‘short period’ before removal – ‘where keeping the family together is seen as being in the best interests of the children, which of course must be the paramount concern’.

This could be construed as a threat that the detention of children in families will not be ended after all, unless the groups assisting migrants ‘deliver’ the aim of ensuring the families’ voluntary return. The previous government’s policy was to detain children ‘for the shortest period possible’, to effect removal, and from Green’s comments the current government’s thinking is not too different.

This is not the first time that voluntary sector organisations have been faced with the dilemma of whether to engage with UKBA, necessarily on its terms, or to continue principled objection which runs the risk of being ignored because it fails to provide the ‘solutions’ UKBA is looking for.

A similar quandary faced NGOs at the end of the 1990s, when the Home Office was seeking voluntary sector partners to provide support and accommodate asylum seekers as sub-contractors from the National Asylum Support Scheme (NASS). Organisations which decided to work with the Home Office soon found that they were having to end support and evict those they were supposed to be helping at the end of the asylum process. Their partnership with the Home Office meant enforcement of Home Office policies (such as withdrawal of support) to which they were opposed. Similarly, an earlier pilot scheme on alternatives to detention for refused asylum seeker families, run for ten months from November 2007 at the Millbank centre in Kent, was managed jointly by UKBA and the charity, Migrant Helpline. The pilot attracted severe criticism, and according to the Refugee Children’s Consortium (RCC), an independent evaluation found that the project’s focus on the cost and the number of families leaving the UK was at the expense of children’s welfare.

But groups involved in support for migrants and asylum seekers cannot in conscience support the government’s aim of increased family removals, when return is too often the outcome of a system where the odds are so heavily weighted against claimants that it is fatally flawed and cannot do justice.

The Refugee Children’s Consortium (RCC), a coalition of thirty immigration and children’s organisations, appreciates this difficulty and refuses to engage in any removals project. As it points out in its briefing for the parliamentary debate:

  • ‘Ending the detention of children is not dependent on establishing “alternatives to detention” projects, or new processes for families.
  • Discussion on policies and practice on returns are not needed to end the detention of children.
  • Discussions that focus on finding solutions to the problems at the end of the process need to consider a family’s entire experience of the asylum and immigration processes.’

Green and his government give a nod to the need for ‘early legal advice’ – but a government that can watch with equanimity the demise of the biggest provider of free legal representation, Refugee & Migrant Justice (RMJ), in an already decimated legal market, is not interested in ensuring the kind of advice and assistance that wins cases, only the kind of advice which tells people to go home. But even better legal help does not avail against the barriers to justice erected over the past decades, from fast-track decision-making to legal presumptions that a particular strife-torn country is safe or that an asylum seeker is not telling the truth. A decision-making process designed to deal with abuse is not good at recognising those with good claims.

Couple all that to a returns programme which frequently acts against the advice of international refugee agencies like the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and it is not hard to understand why so few are willing to return. No one voluntarily returns to a situation which puts their family at risk, whether the risk is of genocide, political or religious persecution, civil or tribal war, or death from malnutrition or preventable disease. Who would voluntarily return to Iraq, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo or Somalia – countries which between them account for the majority of refused asylum seekers in the UK?

The failure to take in the whole asylum determination procedure, or to seek to ensure that the process resulting in removal is fair and the destination countries are safe and viable, makes the detention review a dangerous trap for those who co-operate with UKBA on its own terms.

In the Westminster Hall debate, it was left to the Lib Dem MP for Cambridge, Dr Julian Huppert, to point out, ‘The main alternative that I can think of to detaining 1,000 children a year is not to detain them.’

Related links

Read about the UKBA Review into ending the detention of children for immigration purposes

Parliamentary Debate on 17 Jun 2010: Alternatives to Child Detention

Download a copy of the Refugee Children’s Consortium Briefing for the debate on alternatives to child detention, June 2010 (word doc, 88kb)

Refugee Children’s Consortium (RCC)

Read an IRR News article: ‘Deportation targets trump children’s rights’

Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign (SPSC), c/o Peace & Justice Centre, Edinburgh EH2 4BJ. Tel: 0131 620 0052. Email:

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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