End detention of children!

child_detention_in_uk‘My three year old daughter realised we were locked in a prison. She would point at the window and say “out, out”. Even if they improved conditions inside, they still won’t get rid of this negative impact on children’. Laureine - member of Tyneside Community Action for Refugees (TCAR) who was detained in Yarl’s Wood with her two small children last year.

Recent headlines and parliamentary questions have highlighted the scandal of child detention in Britain.  Asylum seekers and campaigners have been calling for an end to this appalling practice for years and this sudden and belated interest is welcome but will only be of any practical use if accompanied by action, rather than simply by hand-wringing.

In December 2009 The Royal Colleges of Paediatrics and Child Health, GPs and Psychiatrists and the UK Faculty of Public Health issued a joint policy statement entitled Significant harm - the effects of administrative detention on the health of children, young people and their families.  This followed the highly critical report a few months earlier by the Children’s Commissioner about children’s’ experiences of detention in Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre (IRC). Both reports provoked disquiet amongst liberal commentators and backbench MPs, some of whom have no qualms about administrative immigration detention for adults.

More than 1,300 children were detained at three IRCs between July 2008 and September 2009. The average length of detention was 15 days but snapshot figures from June 2009 suggest that around a third of detained youngsters are held for more than a month.

The largest detention centre is Yarl’s Wood, which since April 2007 has been managed by private contractor, Serco Group plc. In this centre children and their parents have to pass through between seven and ten locked doors to get from reception to their rooms, so it is not surprising that even young children understand the reality of ‘administrative detention’ for what it is - imprisonment.

Medical professionals and parents are clear that detention should be stopped immediately. Bermine Lili, who was detained with her young son in January this year, spoke to FRFI from Yarl’s Wood: ‘They have many children here. It’s too sad. They’re crying all the time. Children need a good life but here they treat them like prisoners. Children need freedom’.*

According to the Children’s Commissioner, ‘the process of arrest and conditions during transportation were the main source of complaint from children and young people at Yarl’s Wood’. For the majority of children the experience of detention begins with a terrifying dawn raid on their home, often waking up to find immigration officers at the foot of the bed and being told to rapidly pack belongings, and in some cases seeing their parents handcuffed.

Lili was arrested by at least six immigration officers: findings by the Children’s Commissioner suggest that it is common for nine officers to be involved in arresting a single family with young children - a family who have committed no crime other than daring to seek sanctuary in imperialist Britain. With strangers in their home, children are then forced to get dressed in front of an immigration officer and watch their parents frantically pack possessions, often without adequate time. Some children are unluckier still and are separated from their parents, such as the recent case reported in The Guardian of an Iranian nine-year-old who was detained for three hours in a van while his mother was taken to hospital. Lili was not allowed to pack her toddler’s belongings. Immigration officers packed his clothes but no toys. Speaking from detention she said, ‘My son likes too much Thomas [the Tank Engine]. He keeps saying “Thomas, Thomas”, but where can I get him here? There are no toys inside’. According to the Children’s Commissioner’s report, loss of personal possessions is one of the most dehumanising aspects of the arrest process for adults and children. The UK Borders Agency (UKBA) has no clear policy about what happens to belongings, including jewellery, that families are forced to leave behind, particularly in cases when they are detained at a reporting centre and forbidden from returning home.

The journey to the immigration prison is particularly traumatic for children. Despite reassurances from UKBA Chief Executive, Lin Homer, on BBC Radio Women’s Hour that, ‘We do not use caged vans, we use people carriers’, transportation from reporting centres to detention centres is carried out by private subcontractors, who frequently use mini vans with mesh partitioning. Subcontracting allows UKBA to distance itself from the actions of drivers and escorts, which has repeatedly been reported to include laughing at distressed migrants, denying toilet breaks, even to young children, and physically mistreating detainees. The same is true for the privately-managed detention centres, with the companies running them continuing to get their contracts renewed despite consistent inspections, reports and testimonies pointing to inadequacies and outright human rights abuses occurring under their management.

In detention, sickness and diarrhoea are common among children, but no provision is made for small children who are too ill or tired to eat at allotted meal times. Parents are not allowed to take food to their rooms; instead they are told to wait until the next meal to feed their sick child. Parents are routinely denied access to anti-malarial drugs and basic vaccines that can prevent common illnesses such as measles after deportation to their countries of origin. According to the Lancet medical journal, only two out of 24 children being returned to sub-Saharan Africa in May 2008 were given anti-malarials. Moreover, the two who did receive medication were not given it for an adequate amount of time, rendering it useless. Unlike medical facilities in prisons, which since 2005 have been commissioned by the NHS, medical care in detention centres remains the responsibility of the Home Office. It is clear that the Home Office is failing in its duty of care to children, who are suffering physically and psychologically from the experience of detention.

In June 2009 protest by parents in the family unit at Yarl’s Wood was broken up by force.  In FRFI 210 (August/September 2009) we reported how the parents ‘were angered by their treatment and conditions but their central demand was an end to the detention of children’. The mainstream press, which has covered in detail the recent reports on child detention, refused to give any coverage to the protest, which was broken up by force by Serco guards.  Solicitors for some of the protestors have now lodged an application for judicial review of the decision by UKBA to refuse to allow an independent inquiry into the protest and are preparing civil claims for assault.


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