Despite Clegg’s pronouncements that ‘one of the most child-friendly immigration systems in the developed world’ is being implemented, the harshness of the government’s new strategies for detaining and deporting children is now becoming clear.
The ‘end' of the detention of children in immigration removal centres came after a long fought campaign uniting a diverse array of detainees, health professionals, lawyers, anti-racist activists, faith groups and NGOs. The pre-coalition Nick Clegg described the practice as ‘state sponsored cruelty’ and played a part in ensuring that it remained a government priority after joining forces with the Conservatives. But the implementation of an overhauled removals process, which has recently come into force, has been met with trepidation that it will continue to cause physical and psychological damage.
Continued damaging practices
Little is being done to allay these concerns. The new removals system rests upon a four-stage process focusing on the quality of decision making, ‘assisted’ and voluntary returns, ‘required’ returns and ‘ensured’ returns. But outside of these euphemistic descriptions some of the most traumatic aspects of the detention process have carried on exactly as before. Last week, for example, the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) published an investigation into the conditions for immigration detainees in Heathrow Airport between February 2010 and January 2011. The report stated that failures to act on criticisms made in an earlier inspection, particularly about the detention of children, were ‘unacceptable on grounds of humanity’. Regardless of a new model of family removals, children and families continue to be detained, ostensibly on a temporary basis, in short-term holding facilities throughout the UK. And according to the IMB, the UK Border Agency (UKBA) ‘has again failed in its duty to treat everyone in its care in Heathrow holding rooms with decency’. Children are locked up in rooms with poor ventilation, substandard washing facilities and no natural light. 
Numerous studies carried out on the detention of children highlighted that one of the most systematically damaging aspects of the entire process was the practice of subjecting children to dawn raids. They, too, have continued as before. Last month, immigration officers entered a school in Cardiff, with a large number of asylum seeking children and unaccompanied minors and asked teachers to hand over one of their pupils who was liable for removal. The teachers had no idea that the school was going to be subjected to an immigration raid and the head later arranged to meet the UKBA to discuss how the arrest was handled. Jenny Willott, the local MP, described the arrest as ‘disgraceful’, explaining: ‘There are going to be other children in the same situation as him who [will] be terrified, particularly if they come from countries where that happens to other people.'
Weeks later, in what appears to be one of the first examples of the new removals process in action, a Pakistani father of four was asked to meet immigration officers in a reporting centre in Glasgow with his wife, but without his children. Upon arrival, he was taken to Dungavel immigration removal centre and given a date for his removal; his wife was sent home and told to go to Glasgow airport with her children and leave the country. A ticket had already been booked for their flight and she was given the choice of ‘voluntarily’ leaving and reuniting the family in a country where they reportedly faced danger, or staying and being detained. Is such entrapment what Sarah Teather, Minister of State for Children and Families, describes as a process having ‘compassion and children’s welfare at [its] heart’? 
Wider involvement in the removals process
The role of the children’s charity Barnardo’s in running the new ‘pre-departure accommodation’ facilities has been subjected to serious scrutiny by a range of groups which say that administering re-branded detention centres ultimately legitimises the detention of children, rather than challenges it. As former children’s commissioner Al Aynsley-Green asked, ‘has the children’s sector and its famous organisations forgotten the outrage of their founders?' But the action of Barnardo’s may well be the beginning of a much broader programme of involving civil society in the asylum process.
When a family is to be removed from the UK, newly established ‘family returns panels’ will from now on decide how this is done by helping tailor packages of return for the children in question in a way that caters for their ‘individual welfare needs’.  According to the interim chair of the panel, Chris Spencer, an open recruitment process will begin later this year for new appointments. Those with expertise in child protection issues such as independent doctors and social workers will be able to apply to be on the panels.
They would do well to remember that the pre-departure accommodation facilities are not the only things that can be described as re-branded versions of what happened before. Subjecting children to dawn raids, using their family members as ‘bait’ and locking them in airport rooms, so poor that they have been classed unacceptable on grounds of humanity, amounts to a curious understanding of child welfare.