Category: royal colleges of medicine

‘Barnardo’s! Please quit the child detention business’

Alida Alisis, this article originally appeared in openDemocracy on 8 August 2011.

Back in March, almost a year after the government had promised to end what Nick Clegg called the “shameful practice” of locking up asylum seeking families in conditions known to harm their mental health, Barnardo’s stunned children’s advocates by revealing that it had agreed to work with the UK Border Agency and security giant G4S at the new immigration detention centre for families with children at Pease Pottage near Gatwick that’s opening later this Summer.

Frances Webber, vice chair of the Institute of Race Relations, accused Barnardo’s — Britain’s biggest children’s charity — of providing “a cloak of legitimacy to the continued detention of children”. Former children’s commissioner for England and internationally renowned paediatrican Sir Al Aynsley-Green wrote in OurKingdom that this “worrying development” sparked the question: “are the big children’s organisations effective advocates for children, or are they friends of government?

Stung by such criticism Barnardo’s chief executive Anne Marie Carrie last month made comments widely reported as a tough-talking “ultimatum” to UKBA, saying the charity would pull out of the working partnership if children and families were not treated properly. But can we trust Barnardo’s to stand up to the government?

We, being students and members of SOAS Detainee Support who visit immigration detainees and offer them support, have campaigned hard against child detention. In May last year we picketed G4S’s annual meeting, argued with the company’s chief executive Nick Buckles (who, by the way, is paid almost £5000 every day), and landed a picture in the Daily Telegraph’s city pages. In June last year, we ran the Release Carnival, bringing together campaigners and child refugees to march on Downing Street.

When this past March Barnardo’s threw in its lot with Nick Buckles and the UK Border Agency we felt utterly dismayed, let down, betrayed. When we visited Barnardo’s HQ at Barkingside in Essex to express our disappointment. We were sent away and told to study Barnardo’s website so we’d understand what they were doing. We read. It still looked wrong. We made a second visit, intending to distribute a leaflet outlining our objections to staff as they left work. Barnardo’s diverted workers to a rear exit.

Lately we’ve scrutinised Barnardo’s “ultimatum”. Here’s what we make of it.

Barnardo’s says:

Barnardo’s seeks to support the most vulnerable children. The families and children held in this accommodation are at their most vulnerable and desperately need our support.  Barnardo’s will always help the most vulnerable children in the UK and will work to ensure that asylum seekers are treated humanely throughout their time in the UK.

We say:

In May 2010 the coalition government pledged to end the detention of children for immigration purposes – finally recognising the lasting psychological harm it caused. Former Barnardo’s chief exec, Martin Narey, slammed the imprisonment of asylum-seeking families as “unnecessary” and “shameful”.  But another ConDem u-turn has meant child detention continues, simply rebranded as “family-friendly pre-departure accommodation”.

As many as 4,445 children could be jailed each year at de facto prisons run by G4S (who may face corporate manslaughter charges over the death of Jimmy Mubenga on a deportation flight). Barnardo’s involvement has already given this sham a fig leaf of legitimacy with councillors who granted planning permission at Pease Pottage reassured by Barnardo’s involvement.  Rather than offering a new face to the same agenda of abuse and degradation in immigration detention Barnardo’s should urge the government to keep its pledge and end child detention.

Barnardo’s says:

Under new immigration processes families will be given every opportunity and help to leave voluntarily. If they choose not to then an independent return panel, which includes child psychologists and medical experts, will oversee the most appropriate method of return and any specific safeguards which need to be in place.

We say:

The ‘independent’ return panel is to provide advice or offer amendments to UKBA on the method of removing the family from the UK. They do not decide the method of removal.  UKBA does not have to accept the Panel’s advised amendments. Disagreements will be referred to the immigration minister who will decide how to proceed.  Information given to the Panel is kept secret from the family who are unable to contest it even if the information given to the panel is wrong, out of date or fresh evidence has become available. The advice the Panel gives the UKBA is kept secret.  There is no built-in external scrutiny and the panel cannot be considered independent due to many members being UKBA and governmental staff.

Barnardo’s says (about the Government’s new immigration processes and UKBA’s pre-departure accommodation):

All this adds up to a system which has ambitions to be fundamentally different — which seeks to safeguard children and treat families and children with compassion.

That is why one of my first decisions as chief executive was to agree that Barnardo’s provides the welfare and social work services within the accommodation.

 We say:

But how can Barnardo’s talk of ‘a system which has ambitions to be fundamentally different — which seeks to safeguard children and treat families and children with compassion’ when the UK has lately lost its two largest providers of legal aid representation to migrants and asylum seekers and more reputable voices tell us tens of thousands of the most vulnerable in our society are at the mercy of the UK Border Agency’s arbitrary and often unlawful actions?

Barnardo’s says:

As a last resort, a short stay should include expert family support to ensure humane treatment.  Barnardo’s accepts that, as a last resort and after consideration by an independent panel, children and families may need to be kept in secure pre-departure accommodation for a very short period of time.  Barnardo’s wants to ensure that these families are treated humanely with respect and dignity, and are given the correct support through access to welfare and social work services ahead of their departure.  It is critical that families and children have someone to turn to during this extremely stressful and difficult time.                      

We say:

It is critical that, after an analysis of all the medical evidence, families and children are not detained at all. Barnardo’s saying they are making the situation better by being there is like someone agreeing to be a hangman because they can make the death less painful than another. The families detained will be those who — except in ‘exceptional circumstances’ — have not complied with any of the other attempts at removal. This might very well be because they are terrified to go back, and being locked up will be extremely frightening and traumatic. The presence of Barnardo’s will not ease this fear as long as they are still locked up and facing deportation.

Barnardo’s says:

We see an important part of our role as shedding light on the whole immigration process to ensure it supports those children within it. We are absolutely clear that if policy and practice fall short of safeguarding the welfare, dignity and respect of families, then Barnardo’s will raise concerns, will speak out and ultimately, if we have to, we will withdraw our services.

We say:

The “red-lines” set down by Barnardo’s are no use at all. The research (and common-sense!) shows that even one week in detention is long enough for a child to be severely affected.  As a children’s charity Barnardo’s should not help the UKBA detain and deport people, it should speak out against child detention FULL STOP.

We’re visiting Barnardo’s again today to ask them to stop spinning and start listening to and defending vulnerable children such as this child detainee quoted in the Medical Justice report State Sponsored Cruelty: “I am so scared of the Home Office. It is hard times for me and my mum. She would rather kill herself than go back.”

Former Children’s Commissioner calls for fundamental change in culture and mindset of government over child detention

The first Children’s Commissioner for England, Sir Al Aynsley-Green, writing in The Guardian, calls on the government to release the families from Britain’s asylum prisons now.

Aynsley-Green who has done more than any single person to expose the arrest and detention of innocent children, the injustices and sheer horror of their lived experiences, urges: ‘a fundamental change in the culture and mindset of the government, its ministers, its civil servants and its contractors so that the welfare and best interests of children are put first, before the administrative convenience of government.’

This is his first published article since leaving his post as Children’s Commissioner in February 2010.

Nothing in my 30 years’ experience of being a children’s doctor prepared me for my first visit to Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre (IRC) in 2005, soon after becoming children’s commissioner. Using the power given to me by parliament to enter any premises other than a child’s home to interview any child, I asked to be treated as a newly arrested child and to follow their journey through the prison.

I saw a bewildered 10-year-old, smartly dressed in his school uniform alongside his distraught mother – they had been snatched from their home in a “dawn raid”. He asked if his friends knew where he was, worried about his belongings, and didn’t understand what had happened to him, even though I was told he would be deported the next day.

I passed through barred and locked doors where even babies had their nappies searched by prison-like officers, keys a-jangling; withdrawn and deeply traumatised children clinging to their mothers, refusing to eat the unhealthy food provided, with developmental regression, bed-wetting and soiling; mothers struggling to maintain breast feeding; inadequate play and schooling – the litany of human misery was endless. I was appalled and resolved that children seeking refuge would be an immediate priority for my new organisation.

We studied the “journeys” of children seeking asylum – the screening process where unaccompanied children’s claims for asylum were assessed; the process of age determination, including the use of X-rays; the experiences of young people in the care of a local authority, and, through subsequent visits to Yarl’s Wood IRC, the process of arrest, detention and deportation of families, many of whose children were born in the UK, and were well integrated into schools and local communities.

We published rigorous reports of our findings, and exposed to media and parliamentary attention the truth of the appalling life experiences of these children.

Much that is good has now happened – the joint report by the medical Royal Colleges confirming the physical and psychological damage caused by detention; the removal by government of its reservation to article 22 of the UN convention on the rights of the child, thereby giving asylum-seeking children the same rights as British children; the duty of care on statutory bodies to promote the welfare of children; the improvements in the physical environment in Yarl’s Wood IRC; and now, the announcement last week by Damian Green, the new minister for asylum and immigration, of a review to end the detention of children.

But there is unfinished business.

We need a fundamental change in the culture and mindset of the government, its ministers, its civil servants and its contractors so that the welfare and best interests of children are put first, before the administrative convenience of government. A speedy end to the detention of children. The promised “review” should not be an excuse for civil service prevarication. The evidence of harm is overwhelming and for a country that takes pride in safeguarding its children, it is indefensible, and frankly shameful, to force a small group of them into detention where their welfare is known to be at risk. They should be released now. The Local Children’s Safeguarding Board in Bedfordshire is currently investigating serious allegations of sexually harmful behaviour and safeguarding failures in Yarl’s Wood exposed by my most recent report. The full results must be published quickly.

We must know more of what happens to those children deported to their parents’ countries of origin. Are they safe, are they well and are they being cared for?

We need urgent research to establish an ethically sound approach to the assessment of age of individuals who claim to be a child but who have no papers to prove it. Exposing children to radiation (X-rays) for immigration control without medical benefit to them is unethical and, where a child cannot give informed consent, potentially unlawful. The Labour government’s commitment not to use X-rays, extracted under pressure, must prevail.

There must be full public and evidence-based debate about the ethics of using new medical technology – such as DNA analysis – for administrative purposes to assess paternity and country of origin.

The government must monitor the impact of financial cuts to local authorities on the welfare of unaccompanied minors (children who have no parent to look after them) who already are often poorly served.

These are all challenges for the new government and I urge that they are taken seriously. I welcome the news that alternatives to the detention of children will be reviewed. Much remains to be done to show that the UK is seen internationally to be an example of best practice. Will the new coalition government rise to the challenge?

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.


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’.

Widespread media coverage of royal colleges statement

There was widespread reporting of the Royal Colleges of Medicine statement against child immigration detention in the media with live interviews on BBC television and radio and extensive reports in The Guardian news pages and comment is free, The Independent and The Times.

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