Let’s make sure they really do end child detention now

If they mean the immediate closure of Yarl’s Wood, that should be a cause for great rejoicing. This is why we must hold them to it

By Clare Sambrook (from OpenDemocracy, 12 May 2010).

‘We will end the detention of children for immigration purposes,’ says today’s coalition agreement. A stunning victory for children, decency and the Liberal Democrats if this pledge proves good. That may be a very big if.

Days before the election David Cameron offered to set up a ‘working party’ including charities to ‘review child detention’. What’s to review? NHS paediatricians and psychologists Lorek et al six months ago found that children at Yarl’s Wood were ‘clearly vulnerable, marginalized, and at risk of mental and physical harm as a result of state sanctioned neglect (inadequate care and protection), and possibly abuse in the sense of exposure to violence within the detention facilities themselves.’ The Children’s Commissioner Sir Al Aynsley Green, himself an eminent paediatrician working from irresistible evidence of harm, called repeatedly on the Labour government over years to stop detaining children.

To borrow Australian psychiatrist Professor Patrick McGorry’s description of his own country’s detention centres, ours too are ‘factories for producing mental illness’.

‘We will end the detention of children for immigration purposes.’ They better had. And quickly too. Arrest and detention causes children swift and lasting damaging, rendering them confused, fearful, unable to sleep, according to Lorek et al. Children suffer headaches, tummy pains and weight loss and exhibit severe emotional and behavioural problems.

Dr Frank Arnold, a torture scars expert who cares for detainees said today, ‘If for any reason the government delays or reneges on this promise I would like to invite the immigration minister to join me in examining a willing family in detention for them to learn first hand the harm that continuing detention is doing to people.’

Delay or prevarication over this policy which has no proper purpose — a UK Border Agency executive let slip last year that the Agency knows families don’t abscond but persists in detaining them anyway because it’s a deterrent — will invite rising pressure on the government and on the corporations that profit from this shameful business.

Yesterday Dr Arnold put a question to Chris Hyman the Pentecostal Christian who races Formula 3 Ferraris and trousers £4,325 every day running Serco, the security giant that runs Yarl’s Wood detention centre for profit.

At the company’s annual meeting at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, Dr Arnold said:

‘Serco is expanding its activities in Healthcare to include NHS hospital management, polyclinics and GP services. At the same time, the company is receiving serious criticism and reputational harm because of its role in the incarceration of children at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Detention Centre under contract to the UK Border Agency. As the Chief Inspector of Prisons and Children’s Champion have publicly insisted, it is not possible to lock up children (who have done no wrong) without harming them. Will the board agree to take legal steps to obtain release from its contracts with UK BA over administrative detention to improve the company’s reputation?’

Hyman, who chairs the Prince of Wales’s charity In Kind Direct, said Serco had made improvements not required by its government contract, including a new school building at Yarl’s Wood — called Hummingbird House — and cooking facilities where families may prepare ‘culturally appropriate meals’. Hyman invited Arnold to see for himself.

Arnold, a regular visitor to detention centres, said:

‘Many of these children suffer neglect of serious medical conditions, both physical and psychological which are frequently made worse by their imprisonment. Examples include children detained while in sickle crisis, continuing detention in ignorance of a vital central venous feeding line in place, failure to provide immunisation and malaria prophylaxis when due, weight loss, behavioural regression, onset or deterioration of pre-existing PTSD and depression, and suicidal behaviour. All of these failures of care have been documented by clinical experts and in parliament and the media.’

Arnold went on:

‘Serco are contracted to manage people in detention but also, through Serco healthcare, to certify them as fit for detention. This is an insoluble conflict of interest and must cease. However prettily you paint the walls, these children are still imprisoned, dealing with the traumas of dawn raids and being locked up. The administrative detention of children is simply too harmful to be accepted in a civilised society.’

If the immediate closure of Yarl’s Wood is what is meant by, ‘We will end the detention of children for immigration purposes,’ then that is cause for rejoicing and huge thanks to Nick Clegg. But not yet. We must hold them to it.

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