The heralded end to the detention of children in centres like Yarl’s Wood has to be treated with caution.
The immediate ending of children’s detention in Scotland, announced as part of the coalition deal on 15 May 2010, has not resulted in the release of children. Instead, families with children, including Pakistani victim of domestic violence Sehar Shebaz and her eight-month-old daughter Wanya, have been sent to the notorious Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) in Bedfordshire – condemned as ‘No place for a child’ by former Children’s Commissioner for England Sir Al Aynsley-Green and former HM Chief Inspector of Prisons Dame Anne Owers. Ms Shebaz was reportedly vomiting with distress the night before their expected removal on 19 May, and was distraught about the prospect of her daughter enduring a nine-hour journey in the back of a van. She has claimed that Dungavel staff threatened that if she did not cooperate her child would be taken from her and driven down separately.
This is not an auspicious start to the new government’s supposedly child-friendly policy. But the pledge by the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition to end the immigration detention of children, while being warmly welcomed in many quarters, has been greeted with caution and sometimes suspicion by organisations working with migrants and human rights and immigration lawyers. Familiar with governments’ weasel words, they are concerned at the continuing detention of children pending the comprehensive review of alternatives to detention promised by the coalition, which is likely to take several months, and fearful that the end of children’s detention may simply mean separation of families.
Children’s immigration detention has attracted strong condemnation over recent years, from Sir Al, Dame Anne and the royal colleges of paediatricians, GPs and psychiatrists among others. Their hard-hitting reports have described the extreme distress of the 1,000 or more children detained with their families every year, and the disastrous long-term damage done to them, while the Refugee Council described children’s detention as ‘one of the UK’s most shameful practices’.
The issue has been of particular concern to Sir Al ever since his appointment as England’s first children’s commissioner in 2005, and in 2006 he joined with children’s and migrant support organisation to campaign against children’s detention. The campaign to end the detention of children, Outcry!, run by the Children’s Society and Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID), has attracted widespread support. Sir Al’s February 2010 report – his last on the issue before stepping down from the role – included accounts of medical neglect of young detainees with serious medical needs – including a child waiting for fifteen hours for treatment for a fractured arm – and of children who became so distressed that they reverted to bedwetting, lost their appetite and in the case of one ten-year-old, attempted self-harm by swallowing shower gel.
In 2008, the campaigning seemed to pay off as the government decided to lift the UK’s reservation to the UN Children’s Rights Convention. The Convention held that in all administrative acts the welfare of children was to be a primary consideration, but the UK reservation, entered when the Convention was ratified in 1991, put immigration control before children’s welfare. Campaigners hoped that the lifting of the reservation, and the statutory duty to safeguard the welfare of children in immigration matters introduced by the 2009 Borders, Immigration and Citizenship Act, would put an end to children’s detention. But nothing changed and ministers justified the continuing detention of children as necessary to avoid splitting up families.
Now, what organisations including the Children’s Society and immigration and asylum lawyers fear is that the new government will continue to detain a parent or parents of families, in what used to be known as ‘hostage’ orders – detaining a member of the family to ensure that the others report as required and do not abscond – regardless of the impact of the detention on other family members. Already, a number of single mothers are held without their children at Yarl’s Wood, where the women’s desperate concerns for their separated children add to their distress at being detained and frequently result in mental health problems and self-harm. Where there are no family members who can take over the care for the children, detention of parents means children going into care.
A pilot ‘alternatives to detention’ project run by UKBA in Millbank, Kent in 2007-8 ended in failure, and was condemned as ‘a missed opportunity’ by the Children’s Society for the way it was designed and implemented. But the Society and BID point out that such schemes have worked well in other countries, including Australia and Sweden. Work has been done on alternatives to detention by (among others) the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), the International Detention Coalition, and such projects are widely seen to provide the least damaging way of accommodating families with children pending their removal or departure, as well as the most cost-effective. The big question is, will the government put the necessary thought and work into devising and implementing real, community-based alternatives to detention – or will it, once the euphoria of victory has worn off, go down the old, discredited road of detaining parents and splitting up families?
Meanwhile, campaigners work to free Sehar Shebaz and her daughter. Positive Action in Housing, the Glasgow organisation assisting the family commented, ‘the coalition government is not simply transferring the shameful practice of child detention from Scotland to England in the interim while alternatives to detention are found’.
Bail for Immigration Detainees (http://www.biduk.org/)
The Children’s Society (http://www.childrenssociety.
org.uk/all_about_us/how_we_do_) it/campaigning2/OutCry!/19866. asp
Read an IRR News story: ‘Waking nightmares: arrest and detention of children’ (https://irr.org.uk/2009/
The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.