A report from Save the Children suggests the need for an entirely new approach towards children who are subject to immigration control.
Children in Young Offenders’ Institutions have rights, children in immigration detention do not. Children who are convicted of a crime know how long they have to serve; those in immigration detention have an indefinite sentence. Those detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure know their ‘crime’, those in detention have not committed one.
It is estimated that 2,000 children with their families are being detained each year in the UK for the purpose of immigration control. And a number of unaccompanied minors, young people whose age is disputed by the authorities, are also being detained. Heaven Crawley and Trine Lester examined thirty-two cases of children being detained, visited two detention centres and interviewed policy-makers, government officials and practitioners for this study of the impacts, alternatives and necessary safeguards for children in UK immigration detention.
This detention for the purpose of immigration control contravenes standards set by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the UNHCR. In recognition of the vulnerability of children, international law places the needs of children above the requirements of immigration control. But the British government entered a Reservation to the UNHCR which effectively allowed it to exclude those children who would be subject to immigration control from protection.
Though the Chief Inspector of Prisons has recommended that detention of children should be exceptional and only for short periods, evidence is emerging that detention is being used to meet government targets regarding fast-tracking of applications and deportations.
This study found that:
- children are being detained for up to 268 days,
- children’s mental health suffers and this can have long-term consequences,
- children are not eating balanced diets and often suffer from lack of sleep and persistent coughing,
- the learning environment in detention has a damaging impact on education
- safeguards are inadequate for protecting age-disputed children from abuse, especially when the young are detained with adults in communal sleeping facilities.
The report recommends that an entirely different approach is needed for children, one that puts their needs and interests at the centre of decision-making; and that alternatives to detention should be introduced. In the meantime, a maximum stay of seven days detention for children should be brought in, statistics on detention of children and age-disputed cases should be regularly published and welfare assessment panels should be introduced for all children in detention.