Waking nightmares: arrest and detention of children

Waking nightmares: arrest and detention of children


Written by: Frances Webber, Frances Webber

A new report by the Children’s Commissioner reveals the impact of immigration detention on children and calls for its abolition.

To come out of sleep to loud knocking and shouted orders, to open your eyes to uniformed strangers milling about in your home, sometimes pulling you by the arm or pushing you onto the floor, handcuffing your parents as if they were criminals. To be brusquely and summarily pushed out of your home into a van, with no time to collect belongings, to have medicine confiscated and medical complaints ignored. Not to be able to dress or use the toilet in privacy. Not to be told where you are being taken. To be transported in caged vans which were dirty and smelled of urine or vomit while guards laughed. This is not Stalin’s Russia or Nazi Germany, but are some of the terrifying experiences gone through by children in families facing immigration detention in the UK, as described to the Children’s Commissioner Sir Al Aynsley-Green and his team of investigators and reported in The arrest and detention of children subject to immigration control.

Ever since Sir Al’s appointment as the first Children’s Commissioner for England in March 2005, he has expressed particular concern about the administrative detention of children under the immigration acts. In 2006, he joined with children’s and migrant support organisations in a campaign against children’s detention, ‘No place for a child’, and, with UN and parliamentary committees, campaigned for the government to remove its reservation from the UN Children’s Rights Convention (CRC) which subjected children’s welfare to the imperatives of immigration control. The campaign resulted in the announcement in 2008 that the government would lift the reservation, so as to ensure that the best interests of children are a primary consideration in all administrative procedures The new report of 11 Million (the national organisation headed by the Children’s Commissioner, its name reflecting the number of children and young people in England) is based on interviews with children detained with their families at Yarl’s Wood, where about half of the 2,000 children detained annually are held. The average length of time children stay at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) in Bedfordshire has gone up from eight days to 15 days, but some children stay for more than a month and at least one child has been detained for more than 100 days. The report’s findings on all aspects of children’s detention make shocking reading.

‘Children’s physical and mental health rarely appears to inform the decision to maintain detention’, the report noted, finding that ‘children who had serious illnesses such as Sickle Cell Anaemia, or whose condition deteriorated in detention, remained detained’. The pattern of neglect continued: ‘the preventative healthcare arrangements prior to removal, for example immunisations and the provision of malaria prophylaxis, were found to be so inadequate as to endanger children’s health’.

Immigration minister Phil Woolas accused Sir Al and his team of failing to make it clear that detention only occurs when families won’t leave voluntarily, and that children are only detained so as not to split up families. All those detained, he said, are treated with ‘sensitivity and compassion’. But experienced immigration lawyers pointed out that their clients were often detained before fresh claims had been decided. They treated Woolas’ claims of a sensitive and compassionate approach with disbelief and derision, pointing to the series of critical reports from (among others) HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, who has repeatedly found the care of children in the detention estate wanting, and who in 2006 complained about ‘dehumanising’ treatment at holding centres, where some detainees were treated as if they were ‘parcels, not people’.[1]

The report notes improvements and developments since the May 2008 visit, including new healthcare procedures, the new UK Border Agency (UKBA) code of practice on ‘Keeping children safe from harm’, and staff training to try to implement the code’s aims of ensuring that the best interests of the child are always considered. But it concludes that it is never in children’s best interests to detain them, and calls on the UKBA to develop community-based alternatives to detention.

The Refugee Council praised the Children’s Commissioner for exposing the administrative detention of children, which it described as as ‘one of the UK’s most shameful practices’.

Related links

Download an executive summary of The arrest and detention of children subject to immigration control (pdf file, 1.5mb)

Download the full report of The arrest and detention of children subject to immigration control (pdf file, 2.4mb)

[1] HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, unannounced inspections of short term holding facilities at Heathrow Airport between 10-13 October 2005, at Calais between 2-3 August 2005, 5 April 2006. The arrest and detention of children subject to immigration control by the Children's Commissioner for England can be downloaded at the links below.

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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