Category: mps

Man or mouse? Keith Vaz should demand urgent reform of the UK Border Agency

Clare Sambrook, this article first appeared in openDemocracy 11 January 2011.

‘Much of the delay in concluding asylum and other immigration cases stems from poor quality decision-making when the application is initially considered,’ says Keith Vaz, chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee whose latest report on the UK Border Agency’s work is published today.

Two cheers for Vaz and the HASC! It might be three if only they were clearer and more forceful in their criticism of an agency whose deficiencies are systemic and rooted in a culture characterised by denial and deceit.

The automatic disbelief that greets asylum seekers from their first moment of arrival, coupled with a shocking disregard for human rights, compounded by the lack of legal services that might check official incompetence have created a Kafkaesque nightmare for vulnerable people who come to these shores seeking sanctuary.

‘More consistent and rigorous scrutiny of applications would lead to fewer delays, fewer appeals, less uncertainty for the applicant, less pressure on the officials themselves, and probably lower costs for the UK taxpayer,’ says Vaz, noting mildly that this ‘is also likely to require more consistent and considered direction from those setting policy for the Agency than has sometimes been the case’.

The MPs ‘lack confidence’ in the Border Agency’s effectiveness in ‘making sure that its contractors provide adequate training and supervision of their employees in respect of the use of force,’ and add: ‘This is a fundamental responsibility of the Agency and is not simply a matter of clauses in contracts or formal procedural requirements.’

But Vaz and his colleagues must be aware that the failings go far deeper than that. Last March, when Dame Nuala O’Loan, investigating allegations that contractors’ staff had roughed up asylum seekers, found ‘inadequate management of the use of force by the private sector companies’ and made 22 recommendations for change, UKBA chief executive Lin Homer did something quite extraordinary. She attacked the doctors and lawyers who had brought the abuses to light, for ‘seeking to damage the reputation of our contractors’.

Homer, who has just left the Border Agency for the Department of Transport, does not escape today’s report unscathed. The MPs note her failure over months to complete an audit of the way UKBA implements (or rather fails to implement) the rule requiring that torture survivors, children and people with serious medical and psychiatric conditions should be detained only ‘under very exceptional circumstances’.

They remark that Homer has left unresolved their running complaint about the quality and the level of UKBA’s response to MPs’ letters on constituents’ behalf. They note that her £208,000-a-year salary exceeded that of the Prime Minister and the Permanent Secretary of the Home Office and say her successor should receive significantly less.

But today’s report does not touch upon the coincidence of Homer’s tenure with five years of Home Office misrepresentation and denial of the medical evidence that detention harms children, nor does it challenge or even probe the increasingly cosy relations between civil servants and the commercial contractors who run the detention estate.

According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s data on mandarins who lunch, Homer enjoyed two dinners with Serco in 2007, and tucked away a ‘contract review dinner’ in 2008, courtesy of Raytheon, master of the e-borders programme and leader of the big security companies’ club, the Trusted Borders Cabal, oops! — Consortium.

Homer lunched with former Home Secretary John Reid in September 2009 when he was a backbencher doubling up as a £50,000-a-year consultant to G4S, the company that runs UKBA’s Tinsley House immigration removal centre — where the very next month a distressed 10-year-old detainee tried to strangle herself. (Tinsley House is where the government plans to hold children now that it has purportedly ‘ended’ child detention.)

Last April, on the cusp of a general election that might have made a government uneasy with the idea of locking up innocent children for no good reason, the Border Agency nonetheless extended Serco’s £900,000-a-month contract to run Yarl’s Wood detention centre until April 2013. The extension is worth £32 million. Yarl’s Wood closed its doors to families in December.

For years UKBA has got away with abusing its power against some of the most vulnerable people imaginable. More boldness and greater clarity from the Home Affairs Select Committee is urgently required if the UK Border Agency is to feel pressure to change.

Get Behind the Sanctuary Pledge!

End Child Detention Now is urging all its supporters to get behind the inspiring Citizens for Sanctuary prospective parliamentary candidate pledge campaign which is especially emphasising the scandalous detention of children by the UK immigration authorities. Dozens of PPCs have signed up to the pledge – but many more have yet to declare their support.

You can check the list of candidates who have pledged so far by clicking here.

This is why we need you to contact candidates in your constituency and to urge them to join the pledge. You can find a list of the candidates in your constituency by visiting the your next mp website. If a particular candidate has not signed the pledge email or call them to ask them why – the your next mp site provides contact details in most cases. Let us know what the candidates say or even if they decline to comment by dropping us a line at info@ecdn.org

So far the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru, and Respect have committed themselves as political parties to end child detention (other parties are invited to join this list by emailing us). However, the two largest parties in the previous parliament, Labour and the Conservatives have not given such an assurance, which is why it is so important to find out the views of individual candidates.

End Child Detention Now has no political affiliations but we know we speak for many thousands of voters in demanding that immigration gulags such as Dungavel, Yarl’s Wood and Tinsley House should be shut down. People are dying in detention centres and threatening to take their own lives – how can we call ourselves a civilised democracy when our government abuses human rights on a daily basis?

If your sitting MP condones this misery then send them packing, and if their would be replacements won’t commit to ending child detention please don’t give them your vote either.

This is our greatest chance to return a parliament that upholds the principle of refuge and that all children’s rights are for all children. Together with our friends and fellow campaigners let’s pledge to end child detention now!

Ask every party what they are going to do about ending child detention

Here are 3 key questions that we are urging supporters to ask their candidates during the current 2010 election with follow-up information.  Postings to on-line discussion forums, calls to radio and TV phone-ins and direct questions at public meetings are strongly encouraged.

We would also like to hear from you about candidates who have pledged to support an end to child detention in the next parliament (and those who prefer to sit on the fence or refuse to support the humanitarian treatment of children and their families) so that we can publicise the names on our website. Email us at info@ecdn.org


Question 1:

How does your party intend to address the scandal of children being locked up in immigration detention centres?

The practice of locking up children in immigration detention centres has been condemned by the three Royal Colleges of Medicine, the UK Faculty of Public Health, the then Children’s Commissioner for England, the Scottish Government, the Synod of the Church of England, the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, the Archbishop of Wales, the Chair of the Urban Bishops Panel, the Moderator of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, the Chair of the Office for Migration Policy of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, leading Rabbis, and all the major children’s charities as well as 121 Members of Parliament.

Question 2:

What will you do to ensure that every child matters – and that innocent children do not spend days, weeks and months locked up in conditions known to cause long term harm to their physical and mental health?

There is authoritative, irresistible and mounting evidence from the Children’s Commissioner for England, The Independent Monitoring Board for Yarl’s Wood, health professionals, welfare and rights groups, academics and inspectorates that children are being consistently and routinely harmed in detention. The Lorek report ‘The Mental and Physical Health Difficulties of Children Held Within a British Immigration Detention Center: A Pilot Study’, Child Abuse and Neglect, 33:573-585 details chilling accounts of the long term damage that babies, children and young people suffer. In 2008 the average length of stay in Yarl’s Wood IRC has actually doubled from 8–16 days, according to Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons and  at least a third of child inmates are detained for more than a month.

Question 3:

What is your position on Britain complying with Article 22 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child?

Britain removed its reservation against Article 22 of the UNCRC but continues to detain approximately 2,000 children per annum. Grave concerns were expressed by Thomas Hammarberg the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe in Sept 2008 concerning the detention of children including unaccompanied minors by the UKBA.

Can Labour ‘out-nasty’ the Tories on asylum?

Phil Woolas’s defence of the inhumane Yarl’s Wood removal centre reflects Labour’s shift to the right on asylum

A discredited policy ... Yarl's Wood immigration removal centre. Photograph: Sean Dempsey/PA

Simon Parker, The Guardian, Comment is Free, Thursday 25 March 2010, 15.00 GMT.

Phil Woolas’s response to a further damning report on Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre by the chief inspector of prisons shows that the government has to resort to scare tactics and lies to defend a policy that has been condemned by several royal colleges of medicine, the Faculty of Public Health, the former children’s commissioner for England, many leading Christian and Jewish faith leaders, all the major children’s charities, and 121 MPs — including 49 members of Woolas’s own parliamentary party.

It is simply untrue to assert, as the immigration minister does, that the only alternative to imprisoning children in high-security detention facilities such as Yarl’s Wood is separating them from their parents and putting them into local authority care. Australia and Sweden maintain families in the community even when their claims for asylum have been declared unfounded, and both countries have managed to achieve higher voluntary return rates than the UK’s as a consequence.

What is more worrying, however, is that Woolas appears to be backtracking on his own government’s commitment to seeking alternatives to immigration detention, such as the current community-based pilot scheme in Glasgow that is being run in conjunction with the local authority and the Scottish government.

In the runup to the general election it is increasingly clear that New Labour want to “out-nasty” the Tories when it comes to denigrating asylum seekers and refugees. Woolas described those detained in Yarl’s Wood as “illegal immigrants” even though he knows full well that the vast majority made perfectly proper and legal asylum claims. The fact that over half of the families in Yarl’s Wood are later released, as Dame Anne Owers points out in her report, completely undermines the minister’s claim that their removal has been properly decided by the independent courts. In fact hundreds of families who pass through Dungavel and Yarl’s Wood are subsequently granted indefinite leave to remain or refugee status because on closer inspection their claims turn out not to be “illegal” or “bogus” but well-founded.

An increasing number of families are being held in Yarl’s Wood under the “detained fast track” system – ie while their cases are still being determined by Home Office officials – a practice that has been condemned by the European commissioner for human rights and the European courts, but that the Leader of the House of Lords, Lady Royall, describes as “an unavoidable necessity for the DFT process”.

Woolas and his government are in clear breach of the council of ministers directive, which “provides for the special vulnerabilities of asylum-seeking children and minimum standards for arrangements for their welfare, treating the best interests of children as a primary consideration”. The directive came into force in UK law in February 2005 and requires states “to make special arrangements for the accommodation of children to meet their needs and best interests. This does not equate to detention”.

The Home Office’s increasing resort to scare stories about child trafficking follows on from a similar piece of nonsense that junior minister Meg Hillier came out with on the BBC’s Daily Politics show on Friday. She suggested that if the government stopped locking up children then childless asylum seekers would have an incentive to acquire a “get out of detention free kid” from a passing child trafficker.

The government’s constant talk of “illegal migrants”, “would-be child traffickers” and “frivolous” and “vexatious” abusers of the judicial system is intended to deflect attention from its own failed policies in treating asylum seeking families fairly and humanely, and to foster a climate of disbelief and contempt in relation to those who seek the sanctuary of our shores. No country can call itself civilised if it engages in the persecution of the persecuted, however popular the contempt for them may be among the public at large or how many votes a government that is desperately clinging to power thinks it may salvage.


More than half of all children are released after detention

In an adjournment debate called by  the Conservative MP for Bedfordshire North-East, Alastair Burt, the Home Office Minister, Meg Hillier, told the House of Commons that in the financial year 2008-09, 1,116 children entered detention. She went on to report that ‘some 539 of those children, slightly fewer than half, were removed, and 629 were released’-no fewer than 53.8% of all the children who had been detained.

Although the government issued its customary health warning that these figures are based  on ‘management information’ and therefore not subject to the detailed checks that apply to the publication of national statistics, this nevertheless confirms the fact that the detention of families is not being used when the independent courts have determined that the parents or children have no lawful right to remain, but as an arbitrary instrument of policy in order to drive up removal figures.

Despite reassurances to Parliament that the detention of children and families would be used for ‘the shortest time possible’, as Diane Abbott MP pointed out the average length of detention has continued to grow. According to the Minister, the average length of detention for children was 16 days in 2008-09, which is double the figure for 2007. The snapshot figure for 30 September 2009, found that 25 children had been detained for seven days or fewer, five for eight to 14 days, five for 15 to 28 days and ten for 29 or more days but less than two months. No figures were provided on the proportion of children who may have been subject to re-detention in the previous 12 months.

Ms Hillier, conceded that a child going through this process [of being woken in the early hours of the morning by complete strangers in uniforms and forcibly driven in a locked van to an immigration removal centre] ‘will find it very challenging’. Alastair Burt  asked if the Minister was ‘somewhat painting a picture that parents are making a deliberate choice to go into detention and have their children with them as if the alternative were an easy one’.

I would like her to recognise that for many parents, that choice is not easy at all. That is the dilemma in which they are caught and which the system has somehow to try to deal with – Alastair Burt, MP

The debate had been called by the Conservative Deputy Chief Whip, whose constituency includes Yarl’s Wood following a protest of women hunger strikers on Monday 8 February, during which 70 women were locked inside a hallway in the women’s wing of the removal centre without access to toilet facilities for several hours. One woman suffered a serious asthma attack, and the four alleged organisers of the protest have been sent to HMP Holloway. None of the women who were removed from Yarl’s Wood have been charged with any offences. Up to 5o women remain on hunger strike after more than 10 days.

The Minister was unmoved by the protests or the plight of families facing imminent deportation: ‘…many people will choose anything rather than willingly return to a situation. That can be for all sorts of reasons, and not just because they feel in physical danger. In the end, the parents make the choices that face them, however difficult they are, so some responsibility needs to lie there’.

In other words, it is the fault of the parents that their children are locked up, not the government or its agents who arrest and imprison them. However, the UKBA’s persistent claims that it always acts humanely and within the law are coming unstuck as a growing number of decisions by the independent courts are finding the Home Office guilty of wrongfully imprisoning asylum seeking families. Meanwhile hundreds of children continue to have their lives blighted by our country’s ‘firm but fair asylum and immigration system’.

Roll calls, body searches and sex games

END CHILD DETENTION NOW exposes UKBA’s misleading claims to parliament on damning medical report.

This piece was written by Clare Sambrook and first appeared at OpenDemocracy

Back in October, a study by NHS paediatricians and psychologists, Lorek et al, found that babies and children were being harmed at Yarl’s Wood detention centre.

The doctors recorded children’s ‘increased fear due to being suddenly placed in a facility resembling a prison’, their weight loss and tummy pains, how older children were so stressed they wet their beds and soiled their pants.

The study related the photographing and the fingerprinting, the roll calls and the body searches, the ID cards that children must carry at all times, the ten locked doors between freedom and the family centre, the steep deterioration in parents’ mental health and parenting abilities, the self-harm and the suicide attempts.

Read more

End Child Detention Now candle lit vigil in York 30 December 2009

Campaign supporters gathered outside St Martin le Grand Church in the centre of York just before New Year  to protest the detention of children in immigration removal centres over Christmas and to call for an end to all detention of children by the UK immigration authorities.

The government’s Border Agency imprisons between 1,000 and 2,000 children each year many for several weeks despite opposition from the Children’s Commissioner, several Royal Colleges of Medicine and over 100 MPs from all political parties. There is overwhelming evidence that detention is harmful to the health and well being of children, while the Home Office admits that families are very unlikely to abscond when removal directions are issued.

Campaign organiser Esme Madill said: ‘We know of several York families whose children were detained at Yarl’s Wood and who are still fearful of being taken to “the camp” again despite the fact that their case for asylum was subsequently upheld and that they have been granted leave to remain’.

‘No other civilised country treats vulnerable children in this way and we are determined to make 2010 the year when the government’s commitment to respect the rights of the child is genuinely upheld by closing these dreadful children’s prisons once and for all’.

Paddington Goes to No10 with children’s stop detention petition

corbyn&shpresaJeremy Corbyn MP for Islington North (second from right) joined with ECDN coordinator Esme Madill and Lulji Nuzi, Director of the Shpresa Programme  and a group of young former refugees from Kosovo in presenting 200 hand prints made by refugee children all across North London together with many signatures collected by supporters of the campaign from across the UK to the Prime Minister at No 10 Downing Street on Thursday.

Mr Corbyn greeted the end child detention petitioners by declaring: ‘What you are doing here is really important’.

They were accompanied by Paddington Bear who travelled from Darkest Peru more than 50 years ago. Paddington carried a message from his creator Michael Bond which read:

Whenever I hear about children from foreign countries being put into detention centres, I think how lucky I am to be living at number 32 Windsor Gardens with such nice people as Mr. and Mrs. Brown. Mrs. Bird, who looks after the Browns, says if she had her way she would set the children free and lock up a few politicians in their place to see how they liked it!’ Paddington Bear.

The full report from Community Care can be found here.

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

yarl's wood_SP

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.

Read more

Kamila Shamsie, Jeanette Winterson, Gillian Slovo, Hanif Kureishi, Ian Rankin and Nick Hornby among dozens of leading writers calling for child detention to end – Petition shoots past 1,500 – 81 MPs join call to end child detention

In today’s Guardian leading writers urge government halt to child detention:

We have been disturbed by Guardian reports (Children made ‘sick with fear’ in UK immigration detention centres, 13 October) about the government’s detention of asylum-seeking children. Doctors’ findings that children at Yarl’s Wood suffered from confusion, fear, sleep problems, headaches, abdominal pain, severe emotional and behavioural problems, illuminate the deceit in UK Border Agency claims that: “Treating children with care and compassion is a priority.” Locking up innocent children in conditions known to harm their mental health is neither caring nor compassionate. Nor is it necessary. Families with children are the very least likely to abscond. Other countries have found more humane arrangements allowing families to stay together in the community while their cases are being considered, or before their return. Asylum-seeking children are already among the most vulnerable members of our society. Detention wrecks young lives. It must stop, now.

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