When the newly-elected government announced it would end the detention of children, IRR News cautioned against early optimism. This week’s developments explain why.
The Guardian‘s exposé that the UK Border Agency (UKBA) plans to set up a £4 million ‘reintegration centre’ in Kabul for unaccompanied minors shows that when it comes to unaccompanied minors, it’s business as usual. And in line with the previous government’s policy, deportation targets trump children’s rights.
While the latest UNHCR statistics suggests that there has been no increase in the number of asylum seekers entering Europe in 2009-2010, EU policy makers, who this year launched the European Asylum Support Office in Malta to facilitate joined-up thinking amongst member states, are concerned at the numbers of unaccompanied minors still arriving. An estimated 100,000 unaccompanied minors enter Europe each year. The vast majority are boys aged 16-18 from Iraq and Afghanistan and some African countries, notably Somalia. These boys, many of whom first arrive in Greece, live a hand-to-mouth existence. Many are homeless while others are herded into primitive detention centres, such as the Pagani detention centre in Lesbos, where unaccompanied children from Afghanistan, Palestine and Somalia staged a hunger strike in September 2009. The neglect of these boys has become an international scandal, and courts in countries such as Norway and Germany have questioned the deportation of Afghan and other children back to Greece under the Dublin II regulations. But now the EU is seeking to bypass the inconvenience posed by legal interventions in favour of these vulnerable children by furthering special returns programmes for unaccompanied minors which have a thin veneer of legitimacy.
The ‘reintegration centre’ plan is basically the UK government revisiting its 2006 plan to construct and fund orphanages in countries of origin in order to justify the return of children to some of the most violent regions of the world, or to countries where child trafficking is rife. Back in 2006, the UK government had in its sights African children from Angola and the DRC as well as unaccompanied children from Vietnam. The children’s rights lobby was then quick to point out that state-run orphanages were phased out in western Europe long ago, in recognition of the degrading conditions, neglect, abuse (sometimes sexual abuse) that vulnerable children experienced in such institutions. So how come such orphanages were now acceptable for foreign children? And it was also pointed out that Vietnam was a source country for child trafficking and under the Home Office’s proposals those removed were most likely to be girls in their early teens, smuggled into Britain by human traffickers to work in nail bars, brothels and cannabis farms. What would prevent them becoming victims of child trafficking again? The UK government could in 2006 cite the precedent set by the Netherlands which had financed and modernised the Mulemba orphanage in Luanda, describing it as a ‘Dutch safe zone’ in war-torn Angola. But it has since emerged that only one unaccompanied Angolan child deported from the Netherlands actually took shelter at the orphanage. Other children were picked up by ‘relatives’, with the Dutch government insisting that it ‘knows’ that the children were not obtained by unauthorised persons, without quite explaining how it ‘knows’ this.
Back in 2006, the government’s special returns scheme ran into all sort of difficulties. But the Home Office is more confident today that the plan will go ahead because it has the weight of the EU Justice and Home Affairs Council behind it. The European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Cecilia Malmström, advocates a common EU approach to unaccompanied minors which includes a new programme whereby those who are ruled to have no grounds for protection will be returned. Even before the UK announcement, Denmark, Norway, Netherlands and Sweden had announced plans to identity suitable care centres in Iraq and Afghanistan (Denmark proposes to provide 5 million Kroner of development aid to a Kabul care centre to ‘shelter’ the Afghan children Denmark does not want to shelter). According to Claes Jull, legal advisor to Amnesty International Denmark, the Danish plan violates the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, as the Danish state is responsible for any child on Danish territory and that means affording them a life without violence.
The children of Afghanistan have already suffered enough – are we really ready to allow the British government and its European counterparts to force them to suffer more?
Guardian article: ‘UK to deport child asylum seekers to Afghanistan’
Read a IRR News story: ‘How good is the good news on child detention?’
Read about the IRR’s report: They Are Children Too: A study of Europe’s deportation policies