There’s only one country in the EU that detains children indefinitely – and that’s the UK. We lock up around 2,000 kids a year in removal centres while the UK Border Agency processes their parents’ asylum applications.
Some of these detained youngsters were born in this country and have been wrenched from their homes, possessions, friends and pets. Others have escaped persecution and endured a long journey to a land of strangers. All are deprived of decent education and healthcare while in detention, and all are traumatised.
We don’t do the same to the children of murderers, armed robbers, benefit cheats or anyone else. It’s only the children of immigrants, who haven’t been accused of any crime, that we treat in this inhumane way, and we do it in contravention of the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).
Up until September 2008, we were one of the few countries – Somalia was another – which maintained a reservation to this convention. We reserved the right to treat children going through the immigration or asylum process less favourably than other children, as though to punish them for doing something wrong.
In September 2008, however, we finally agreed to protect and promote the wellbeing of every child on British soil – irrespective of their immigration or asylum status.
So why are we still imprisoning 2,000 of them every year?
Sir Al Aynsley-Green, the Children’s Commissioner for England since the post was created in 2004, says elements in the UK demonise youngsters. He points to tabloid headlines about ‘yob culture’ and ‘feral children’ prowling the streets. ‘Our government even wants to x-ray immigrant children to assess their age. That’s a dangerous procedure, it’s de-humanising and it doesn’t work. Think of your own schooldays, when some 15-year-olds could get served in pubs while others looked their age or younger.’
Another example of demonising, he says, is the ‘mosquito’ ultrasonic deterrent device which emits a sound irritating to young ears (older people can’t hear it) and which is being installed in areas where our own home-grown, but troublesome, youngsters congregate. The device is utterly indiscriminate and doesn’t have the magical power to affect only people who are misbehaving. Can you imagine the outrage if similar devices were deployed which only affected adults?
Aynsley-Green was addressing last week’s AGM of Medical Justice, a group that campaigns on behalf of immigration detainees, including victims of torture and rape, HIV sufferers and hunger strikers. He told the meeting that, on 16 May 2008, he used the power of entry given to him by parliament to visit the Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre to see conditions there. He also listened to children and their families talking about their experiences of the detention process.
He found that 991 children had been detained in Yarl’s Wood alone in 2008. The majority of the children and young people (that is to say, those under 18 years old) that he met there had either lived in the UK for many years or were born here. They had been given insufficient time when arrested to bring their personal belongings with them. Healthcare, including treatment for mental illness, pregnant and nursing mothers, and their babies and infants, was inadequate. Less than half had legal representation.
Aynsley-Green’s subsequent report listed 42 recommendations. One was to end altogether the ‘administrative detention of children for immigration purposes’ since it was ‘never likely to be in (the child’s) best interests’. Another was to develop community-based alternatives to detention that ensure children’s needs are met. A third was that the UK government should monitor compliance with the standards set by international human rights treaties and the UNCRC.
‘We must see asylum-seeking children in the wider context of children in British society,’ Aynsley-Green said. ‘Otherwise, to echo the recent Save the Children campaign, the UK will remain "No place for a child".’