Month: January 2011

Keep Your Promise Campaign Launches

At a Conference in Birmingham today (Saturday 22 January), delegates from the Baptist Union, Methodist and United Reformed Churches will be asked to send postcards to Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg urging the coalition government to keep its promise on ending child detention.

The postcards were designed by the young people from Shpresa Programme, an Albanian Refugee Community Organisation in East London that has worked with ECDN to draw attention to the plight of children and young people in immigration detention.  The Keep Your Promise campaign is a result of Shpresa young people expressing their concern that while the government has promised to bring an end to child detention, children will continue to be detained at Tinsley House, near Gatwick, at least until May 2011.

The Baptist Union, Methodist Church and United Reformed Church together with ECDN believe that the current alternatives to detention proposed by the Deputy Prime Minister fall a long way short of the commitment that he gave in May 2010.  While welcoming the closure of the family detention facility at Yarl’s Wood, we are particularly concerned that children may continue to be detained with their parents prior to removal at a facility that has been condemned by several reports from Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons.

Esme Madill, campaign coordinator for End Child Detention Now said:

‘The Keep Your Promise campaign is a reminder that the coalition government continues to detain children and families despite Nick Clegg rightly describing the practice as a “moral outrage”. We are also concerned that the alternative system proposed for dealing with the removal of refused asylum seekers still allows for the arrest and detention of children and families at Tinsley House near Gatwick. We call upon the government to keep its promise by passing legislation to ban the practice of detaining families prior to removal and to transfer the consideration of asylum claims away from the UK Borders Agency to an expert independent body whose decisions will not be linked to arbitrarily imposed removal targets.’

Rosemary Kidd of the Baptist Union of Great Britain said:

‘Churches, along with other faith groups, students and community organisations, have been campaigning to end the detention of children for immigration purposes for a long time.  We hope that many people across the country will join in organising postcard writing events around the theme of Keep Your Promise to end
child detention now.’

If you or your organisation would like to send Keep Your Promise postcards please send an email to info@ecdn.org indicating the quantity your require (in multiples of 50) and we will let you know the value of the postage stamps you need to send and the address to send your request.

An end to child detention?: how a High Court judgement brings us closer

Simon Parker

This article originally appeared in openDemocracy, 13 January 2011.

In the High Court on Tuesday, Mr Justice Wyn Williams might have driven the last nail into the coffin of Britain’s infamous and long-running child immigration detention policy. The detaining of children for immigration purposes has been denounced as a ‘scandal’ and a ‘moral outrage’ by the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, yet the current Home Secretary has spared no expense in expertly and robustly defending the policy.

The action was brought at the end of last year by Public Interest Lawyers on behalf of a Malaysian family of three and a Nigerian mother and her baby. Liberty and Bail for Immigration Detainees supported the action (Suppiah and Others vs SSHD and Others). In a judgment that noted Nick Clegg’s repeated disavowal of child detention as morally repugnant, the judge found that:

“The Defendant’s current policy relating to detaining families with children is not unlawful. There is, nonetheless, a significant body of evidence which demonstrates that employees of UKBA have failed to apply that policy with the rigour it deserves.”

Specifically, the UK Border Agency were held to have breached the families’ rights to liberty, privacy and family life (their Article 5 and Article 8 rights), though not Article 3, which relates to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

The Home Office does not contest that both families were arrested in the early hours of the morning, were given only a short time to pack, transported in locked and caged vans, and that a very young girl was body searched with her arms outstretched to the obvious distress of her mother.

Reetha Suppiah and her two sons, and Sakinat Bello and her baby, were then locked up at the infamous Yarl’s Wood Detention centre. As with many thousands of families to be sent there, soon after being taken into detention the children became sick and suffered from diarrhoea and vomiting. Reetha’s eldest son continues to suffer from a fear of authority and recalls seeing ‘policemen everywhere’ in detention.

In finding that “the detention of children is not something which should ever be lightly countenanced or allowed to continue except in such circumstances which clearly justify it and which do not reasonably permit of alternatives”, Justice Williams gave a clear and resounding rebuke to the policy of previous home secretaries, immigration ministers and their senior civil servants. Read more

Yarl’s Wood: Learning the lessons

This article is reproduced by kind permission of Public Interest Lawyers

Reetha Suppiah and Sakinat Bello and their young families are typical of the hundreds of recent victims of our immigration detention system.  Over the course of their time in Britain, they have integrated into our society and formed significant ties to it.  After years of fear and violence in their home countries, they were able to live in a comparatively peaceful environment, reporting regularly to the authorities.

Then, one February morning, their homes were raided by teams of UK Border Agency officials.  Danahar, Reetha’s eleven year-old son, assumed that he had done something wrong and that he was being taken away by “policemen” in the dawn raid.  Sakinat’s two year-old daughter, Ewa, was lifted from her bed whilst still asleep and awoke in the arms of a uniformed stranger.  The families were loaded into vans with meshed windows for onward transportation to Yarl’s Wood, a notorious detention centre the Children’s Commissioner has described as “no place for a child”.  Its family wing was finally closed last month, but children are still detained at a centre near Gatwick Airport.

Reetha and her boys spent 17 days in detention.  Sakinat and Ewa were released after 12 days, despite the fact that nine days earlier Ewa had been declared “unfit to fly” by a doctor.  All the children became sick almost immediately upon arrival.

The Court was presented with little evidence of child and family welfare having been taken into account at any stage prior to detaining the families.  The detentions were thus unlawful “for their entire duration.”  At no time did anyone ask the most basic question: “Is detention necessary?”.  On the facts of this case, the answer could only have been “no”.

The lamentable failures ranged from the depressing (such as a failure to complete the crucial Family Welfare Form) to the ludicrous (the assessment that a 2 year-old child ought to be accorded 90 points out of 100 on a “Harm Matrix” upon being checked in to Yarl’s Wood).  Those failures had to be viewed alongside the compelling evidence presented by Liberty, the human rights group, which detailed the many similar cases in which children are detained unnecessarily.  Detentions lasted an average of 16 days, but periods of 61 days were not uncommon.  Given the expert consensus on the inherently harmful effects that detention has upon children, the reckless, tick-box manner in which the Suppiah and Bello families were consigned to these prison-like conditions is indeed, in the words of Nick Clegg, “a moral outrage”.

The judge made clear that the proper interpretation of the Home Secretary’s power to detain children was that it could only be used in “exceptional circumstances” – circumstances that did not prevail here.   These families’ basic human rights – to liberty, to security of the person, to private, home and family life – were summarily violated.  The Government breached its statutory duties under the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009 and its own policy which, on paper, should mean that detention is used only as a last resort.  Mr Justice Wyn Williams adjudged that it would be “premature” to hold that the relatively new policy was incapable of being applied lawfully in practice, or that it gave rise to an unacceptable risk of unlawfulness.  This was due to the existence of certain key elements.  But the application of that policy to Reetha, Emmanuel, Danahar, Sakinat and Ewa was unlawful from start to finish.

The courage shown by these families in the face of the spectre of removal from the UK is remarkable.  The dignified way in which they fought for redress should send a clear signal that asylum seekers may be vulnerable but are not helpless.  They must be treated with the same level of respect accorded to everyone else.

As the Coalition prevaricates in its attempts to end child detention, it must ensure that the interests of the child lie at bedrock of its alternatives.   Jim Duffy, Public Interest Lawyers

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.

Mind the Gap! Coalition claims and realities for child detention in the UK

Clare Sambrook

(This article originally appeared in openDemocracy on 31 December 2010)

When Nick Clegg announced two weeks ago, ‘Today marks a big culture shift within our immigration system,’ I was struck by a vivid image of horses struggling to push carts. A big culture shift is exactly what is needed at the Home Office, but there is no sign of its happening any time soon.

The Deputy Prime Minister was speaking to a Citizens UK rally in London on December 16th. He claimed, ‘We are setting out, for the first time, how we are ending the detention of children for immigration purposes . . . That practice, the practice we inherited, ends here.’

But it didn’t end there, as shown by the evidence gathered by the campaign End Child Detention Now and set out in this dossier, which can also be opened as a PDF. The Government’s December commitments do not end child detention; they repackage it. No longer will children be locked up at Yarl’s Wood. They’ll be locked up instead at Tinsley House, until May 2011. Thereafter they’ll be locked up in . . . wait for it: ‘family friendly secure pre-departure accommodation’.

As if the horse / cart conundrum were symptomatic of a deeper neurological problem within Government, a Home Office press release billed the plans as a ‘new compassionate approach to family returns’.

It’s true that the returns process lacks compassion. The bigger problem is the automatic disbelief that too often greets asylum seekers from their first moment of arrival. That is compounded by the shrinking availability of legal advice that might protect them (and the system) from sloppy decision-making. Compassion might be a stretch for some at the UK Border Agency. A proper respect for evidence would be a start.

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