TOM SANDERSON, THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE ICHRP BLOG ON 28 NOVEMBER 2011
Human rights issues are notoriously controversial. Debates rage around numerous issues, not least the validity and universality of human rights themselves. However, the detention of children for immigration purposes stands out as one human rights issue for which there is a remarkable extent of consensus, in both the damage it causes and the need for action to bring it to an end.
Several studies have shown beyond doubt the severe psychological damage and physical danger that child detention leads to, even where that detention is for very short periods of time. Such studies have been reported in the British Journal Child Abuse and Neglect, and Australian psychiatric journals. Numerous accounts have been reported of children self-harming and attempting suicide in detention centres in the UK alone, while other reports identify the mental health problems that can occur in later life as a result of periods of detention.
These are children, we must remember, who have committed no offence and broken no law. The only reason for their detention is that their parents have applied for asylum in our country. Furthermore, it is widely accepted that among undocumented migrants, children and families with children are some of the least likely candidates for absconding. Even David Wood of the UKBA admitted this to the Home Affairs Select Committee back in 2009.
The campaign group ‘End Child Detention Now’ is one of a huge number of groups working on this issue just in the UK. Many more provide similar opposition across Europe and indeed the world. Here, we have had assurances from the UK coalition government that the practice that Deputy PM Nick Clegg has called ‘state-sponsored cruelty’ would end.
So, given this widespread opposition to the practice and general agreement from those in power, it is surprising that entirely innocent children can still be detained in the UK, due only to the arbitrary lottery of nationality. While the government has taken some action to reduce the practice, there is no real end in sight.
Government promises count for little, as we have seen first-hand. This is why a concerted effort must be made to apply as much pressure as possible during the Ministerial Level meeting of all UN member states at the UNHCR in Geneva next month. This meeting is taking place to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the 1961 Refugee Convention, on the 7th and 8th December, and it is a perfect opportunity to convince our governments to make international commitments to ending child detention.
The International Detention Coalition is running a letter-writing campaign in coordination with the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, and Amnesty International, and you can find out more about this here. They have a template letter, adaptable to your organisation and national situation, which can be downloaded here.
News of the death of Miep Gies reminds us that an ordinary Dutch family summoned extraordinary courage to shield German refugees, the Franks, from the Gestapo.
Until the Nazis invaded Holland, Anne Frank’s family had been able to find work and safety in their adoptive country.
If they had fled to present day Britain, the Franks might be woken at dawn by perhaps a dozen security officers breaking down their door. Given only minutes to pack just a few belongings, they would be forcibly arrested and taken to a secure detention facility, for weeks or months, then, perhaps, returned to the country from which they’d fled. All this without having had access to a lawyer.
Had they resisted boarding a ‘removal flight’ Anne’s parents would have been handcuffed.
Unlike Miep Gies, we don’t have to risk our lives to protect the thousand or more children and babies who, with their traumatised parents, will experience the terror of UK Border Agency raids this year.
We can sign the petition at http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/NoChildDetention, write to our MPs, open our eyes to the serious physical and psychological harm caused to children who are already among the most vulnerable members of our community. We can lend them our voices, and protest.
The Shpresa Programme – a charity for Albanian-speaking refugees, asylum seekers and migrants was joined by its members, friends and supporters for a candlelit vigil on behalf of children in detention over the Christmas period.
The vigil which was held at the Lifeline Community Church in Dagenham, Essex is part of the End Child Detention Now campaign. In just two months 3000 people have signed the online petition, including Paddington Bear author Michael Bond and dozens of leading writers and illustrators, hundreds of health professionals, lawyers, teachers and social workers, Bishop Michael Campbell of Lancaster, Emma Thompson and Colin Firth. The St Vincent de Paul Society are committed to collecting signatures across the country on the paper petition. 70 signatures were collected from just one church in York on Sunday 13th December.
Lord Alf Dubs, who was himself a child refugee, said: “Congratulations on your petition and your campaign calling for an end to detention for child refugees. I very much support what you are doing and wish you all possible success.”
Luljeta Nuzi, the Project Director of the Shpresa Programme said: “When you are waiting to hear for a decision about your claim for asylum it is hard enough even without being detained. Putting children in detention is damaging, they can’t understand why they needed to be locked up. We have had to explain to them that it is because they have asked for asylum and they become very upset”.
Esme Madill of campaign group End Child Detention Now said: “It is the sad truth that each year around 1,500 children are detained in the UK. This costly and unnecessary policy is extremely harmful to children. We want Prime Minister Gordon Brown to think about these detainees as children first, and to give them the same rights to be free from fear and distress as other children”.
Jeremy 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.