Home Office Select Committee calls Yarl’s Wood ‘a prison’ for children

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By Simon Parker

In a report released today the Home Affairs Select Committee expressed a number of concerns about the detention of children in the UK immigration system but failed to acknowledge that the detention of children for any length of time is abusive and harmful to their well being. In the first part of its report the Committee declares:

‘..it must be remembered that Yarl’s Wood remains essentially a prison…while we accept that conditions have improved, we still regret that such a facility is needed in the first place’.

Unfortunately the committee’s regret that the UKBA runs child prisons did not extend to recommending that the Home Office stop locking children up in them.

‘We are…willing to accept the detention of families and small children provided that this is for short periods of time which ideally are defined in advance, and when this is the very final stage in the immigration removal process’.

It is astonishing that the Select Committee could ignore the very clear advice from the Children’s Commissioner, Sir Al Aynsley Green that,

‘…depriving children of their liberty and detaining them for administrative convenience is never likely to be in their best interests and should be ended’

while they completely ignored the only peer reviewed medical research into Yarl’s Wood that showed that even short periods of detention are damaging to children’s physical and mental health.

The Select Committee’s argument that detention should only be used as ‘a last resort’ is one that the UKBA has repeatedly made—but all the evidence suggests that detention is being used more frequently against families and children to drive up immigration removal targets.

In declaring that ‘there is no evidence of families systematically “disappearing” or absconding’ the Select Committee has shown that one of the main arguments used by the Home Office to detain children and families is entirely bogus.

The figures given by the UKBA and on which the Home Office relies suggest that ‘nearly 1,000 children’ are detained each year, but the Select Committee was ‘unable to discover how many individual families with children have been detained in the last year’. The committee described the non-availability of such figures as ‘troubling’.  Even more troubling is that a third more children were detained in the last three months than in the previous quarter. According to Home Office’s figures released last week – 315 children entered immigration detention in quarter 3 of 2009, compared to 235 in the previous quarter. 240 of the children most recently detained were under 11 years old. The Home Office also declared that between July 2008 and July 2009 1,315 children were detained across ‘the detention estate’. The considerable fluctuations in these figures suggest that despite its scepticism the Select Committee is under-reporting the true extent of child detention, and that the Children’s Commission estimate of ‘nearly 2,000‘ detentions is much closer to the truth.

The Select Committee also appears to have completely accepted the ‘it’s all the fault of vexatious and frivolous legal challenges’ line from the Home Office without attempting to do more than cite one source from the National Audit Office on the number of unsuccessful requests for judicial review. In fact most challenges to removal succeed because, against all odds a handful of dedicated lawyers are prepared to challenge a shockingly high number of poor initial caseworker and immigration tribunal decisions.

Given the difficulties in accessing even basic, qualified legal advice very few detained families make applications for judicial review. In fact, judicial review is notoriously difficult for any regular plaintiff to achieve and the Law Society has rebuked Woolas for claiming that such cases were only brought to prolong an applicant’s stay. Thus far from indulging in ‘frivolous appeals‘, as Woolas misleadingly asserts, detained asylum seekers are more poorly served by the legal system and more heavily discriminated against than any other group in British society.

For example, in the case of the parents of a very young child all of whom were detained in Yarl’s Wood earlier this summer, we had to telephone 31 separate firms of solicitors before eventually finding a lawyer who was prepared to help. Such a task would have been impossible for the highly traumatised family concerned, and had it not been for this fortunate intervention, instead of winning leave to remain the family would have been forcibly returned to the country from where they fled persecution and arbitrary imprisonment – an irony that seems lost on their British government jailers.

Mr Vaz and his Select Committee colleagues may be willing to accept the detention of families and small children, but fortunately many of his fellow MPs and thousands of citizens and voters do not. Those who put the interests of children before the profits of the detention industry are rushing to sign Chris Mullin’s early day motion calling for child detention to end. Thousands more are signing the No10 petition in favour of keeping children in the immigration system out of jail. Please join us in declaring that imprisonment should be a ‘non resort’ not a ‘last resort’ for children. Together we can end child detention now.

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