Month: November 2011

Ending child detention – the most achievable human rights goal?


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.

Further action:
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.

Glasgow Unity in bid to halt dawn raids re-starting in Scotland

Earlier this week Glasgow Unity held a successful day-long protest outside the Border Agency Enforcement Unit at Brand Street to protest against the arrest and removal of Govan family Funke Olubiyi and her five year old son Joseph to the Home Office’s new family detention centre near Crawley in Sussex. To loud chants of ‘end child detention now’ activists ‘locked on’ outside the gates of the reporting centre and a protester took several hours for police to remove from a tripod while supporters from the national coalition of anti-deportation committees kept up the vigil.

Govan & Craigton Integration Network drop-in, and GCIN members are shocked and angry that their friend has been treated in this way. Terrorised in their home, then detained and deported within a week with no chance to gather their possessions, or say goodbye to their friends, let alone mount any kind of legal challenge.

This is the real face of the Tory coalition government’s ‘family friendly’ approach to the treatment of asylum seekers.

Most children detained in UK ‘pre-departure accommodation’ held for more than 72 hours.

Despite coalition government pledges that the new ‘pre-departure accommodation’ in the Sussex village of Pease Pottage would be used as a ‘last resort’ and that children would normally be held for less than 72 hours, a Freedom of Information request from the campaign group ‘No-Deportations’ discovered that of the 11 children who entered Cedars pre-departure accommodation in September 2011: 3 children spent 1 day in detention, 2 spent 2 days, 2 spent 4 days, 3 spent 7 days, and the remaining child, having spent 4 days in detention was still detained as at 30 September 2011.

All six children kept imprisoned for more than 72 hours would need to have had their detention personally approved by Immigration Minister, Damian Green, a man who rashly promised that he would dress up as Father Christmas if a single child was kept in detention last Christmas (one child actually was but Green did not don his Santa suit)

Of the 10 children being detained in ‘Cedars’ who left in September 2011, 7 were removed and 3 were granted temporary admission or release. This means that even by the Home Office’s own admission 30% of the children detained should never have been arrested in the first place—despite the fact that every family admitted to Pease Pottage was meant to have been vetted and approved as 100% deserving of removal by the Home Office’s so-called ‘Independent Family Returns Panel’.

The 11 children were in 8 families; including 7 single mothers and 1 mother and father. According to the Home Office, none of the children leaving Cedars in September 2011 were returned to detention again in September 2011 (the latest date for which figures have been published on occurrences of people entering detention), but we do not know if any families held in September were subsequently re-detained in October. Home Office figures for October reveal that 3 of the 7 children held under immigration powers were detained in the high security immigration removal centre Tinsley House. Unless forced to disclose data by the Freedom of Information Act – tellingly the Home Office does not release figures on the length of detention or the number of re-detentions, or those held at ports of entry for less than 24 hours.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg told the Liberal Democrat conference in September that the coalition government had ended child detention. Anne Marie Carrie, Chief Executive of the children’s charity Barnardo’s, justified her charity’s involvement in the new family detention centre at Pease Pottage on the grounds that ‘children and families may need to be kept in secure pre-departure accommodation for a very short period of time’.

Given that medical evidence has demonstrated that even short periods of detention can cause significant harm to children—the fact that a leading children’s charity is complicit in detaining nine out of the eleven children held at Pease Pottage for more than 4 days is an absolute disgrace, and vindicates all the warnings that End Child Detention Now and fellow campaign groups have made about the collaboration of charities with the UK Border Agency


Official lying in the UK: what child detention reveals about how we are governed

Anthony Barnett, This article originally appeared in openDemocracy on 21 November 2011

About the author
Anthony Barnett is the founder of openDemocracy and the Co-Editor of its UK section, Our Kingdom.

For almost two years OurKingdom has been exposing the gap between official rhetoric and practice in the UK government’s appalling treatment of the vulnerable children of asylum seekers.

Today we present a disturbing new dossier by OurKingdom Co-Editor, the award-winning author Clare Sambrook — Official lying and how it harms our democracy (which can be opened as a PDF).

The dossier arose in response to an invitation from the House of Lords Communications Committee. The peers invited Clare to give live evidence on 11th October for their current inquiry into the future of investigative journalism. This dossier is being submitted to the committee today as an additional briefing paper.


The peers asked: what are the threats to journalism? Sambrook answers: the biggest threat to journalism and our democracy is official lying, and here is a narrow but deep sample of the way that officials communicate. “If the systematic mendacity recorded here is representative of the way government functions,” says Sambrook, “then our democracy is in serious trouble.”

Also giving evidence the same day was Ian Hislop. He helped the peers understand some basic distinctions, for example that hacking is not investigative journalism. He also made a striking point, for me at least, when asked to define investigative journalism. In part, he answered, it is saying the same true thing again and again and again and again until the penny drops. It is not just that Private Eye runs a story, its influence comes from repeating it over and over again.

There is an important lesson here. What matters is not revealing something that is wrong. The ice soon closes over. What matters – and what of course costs time and money – is continuous, informed, accurate repetition so that exposé of the wrongdoing will not go away. Hackgate can be seen as a classic vindication of this analysis. It did not just explode with the Milly Dowler revelation. Had the Guardian, or any other paper, run that story out of the blue, there would have been shock but no other consequences, certainly not the closure of the News of the World and the Levenson Inquiry.  Without Nick Davies’s (who gave evidence alongside Sambrook) utterly dedicated (for years ignored) persistence and the Guardian’s commitment to him, there would have been no explosion.

This led me to reflect on the impact of Clare Sambrook’s coverage of child detention. It was backed by a campaign: just over two years ago Clare and five friends working unpaid and unfunded launched End Child Detention Now. OurKingdom was able to open its doors and let the campaign publish repeatedly and at will. We didn’t say, “Oh, we have already ‘covered’ that”. And boy did Clare and her ECDN colleagues invest their time.  In the process OurKingdom learnt how to combine ‘investigative comment’ with openness. I had not fully understood the importance of repetition as part of effective exposure.

Just how much work this means you can see for yourself, in the brief sample of Sambrook articles listed below. (The entire ECDN press campaign published so far is here). Now Sambrook’s dossier on official mendacity takes the argument a step further. For in the intense, relentless process of exposing the scandal of child detention another perhaps even greater scandal emerges. The British state and its civil service, which presents itself as an honest public service, is suborned. There is a clear pattern of persistent official lying used in defence of the punitive practice of arresting and detaining asylum-seeking families.

It is very important to understand that we are not talking about politicians being ‘economical with the truth’, or being misleading or downright lying — which everyone expects. It is not a matter of broken promises made on the stump to win votes. Clare Sambrook exposes repeated and systematic cover-up by officials, by civil servants employed by the taxpayer, of reputable medical evidence that children were being harmed. In the dossier she highlights attempts by officials to mislead ministers about the significance of safeguarding failures in a case of alleged child sex abuse at Yarl’s Wood, the UK Border Agency’s notorious Bedfordshire detention centre.

Urging a restoration of respect for information, Sambrook writes: “The role of government and local government press officers should be to serve the public with truth, not to serve ministers by spinning to the public.” To achieve this she suggests that “every press release and public statement issued by officials should be signed off by an official who takes responsibility for the accuracy of the information. It should be forbidden for civil servants to mislead Parliament or its committees, just as ministers are forbidden from so doing.”

The issue could hardly be more important if there is to be any trust in government.

At one point in the Committee hearings, committee chairman Lord Inglewood asked Ian Hislop and Alan Rusbridger: “Do you think there is masses of scandals out there that just never get revealed at all?” Hislop replied: “There is plenty that nobody knows anything about. Every time something turns up, I do not know about you, I say, ‘Good grief, I didn’t know that’.” I felt everyone in the room was reflecting on their secrets, little and perhaps not so little, for who knows? Baroness Fookes chipped in: “Like the perfect murder, we do not know about it.”

Indeed. But how much more perfect is it for everyone to know that the truth is being murdered while neither preventing nor reporting it.

A look back through the OurKingdom archive of Sambrook’s journalism that is grounded in her work with the pro bono citizens’ campaign End Child Detention Now:

January, 2010: In Roll calls, body searches and sex games, what Parliament isn’t being told about children’s lives inside a UK detention centre, Sambrook exposed official efforts to undermine medical evidence that children being locked up for administrative convenience were suffering lasting psychological harm.

March 2010: She exposed the practice of classifying vulnerable unaccompanied children as adults (thus denying them the care and protection that is due to minors) in Take one traumatised child, classify as ‘adult’, arrest, lock up, and bundle onto plane, bound for danger.

April 2010: In Surveillance + detention = £Billions: How Labour’s friends are ‘securing your world’, Sambrook examined the commercial outsourcing companies running the “detention estate”.

While in opposition, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg had called Labour’s policy of arresting and detaining asylum seeking families “state sponsored cruelty”, and his party made ending child detention a manifesto promise. The coalition agreement included the unqualified assertion: “We will end child detention”. But instead of ending detention, the Coalition government ordered a “review of the alternatives” which excluded the very obvious alternative of not detaining children. To run this review it appointed, not a person of proven independence, but the UK Border Agency’s own Dave Wood, director of criminality and detention, and a staunch defender of the detention policy who had gone so far as to undermine peer reviewed medical evidence of harm to children in a misleading memo to Parliament.

15 December 2010: The Review of alternatives was to climax in a pre-Christmas Mission Accomplished-style speech from Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. On the eve of Clegg’s announcement, Sambrook’s dossier Five years of denial: the UK government’s reckless pursuit of a punitive asylum policy — never mind the evidence of harm was published — and distributed to reporters — explicitly to encourage scepticism ahead of the fanfare.

The next day Nick Clegg duly proclaimed: “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.

As on 31 December 2010: Sambrook and End Child Detention Now demonstrated in Mind the Gap! Coalition claims and realities for child detention in the UK.

February 2011: Among the Coalition’s claims made soon after its formation and frequently repeated was that no child would be detained at Christmas 2010. And no child was, claimed the UK Border Agency as late as 10 January 2011. That wasn’t true either. A Freedom of Information request revealed that the Border Agency had indeed locked up an 11 year old girl in a detention centre on Christmas Day. “This story betrays UK Border Agency incompetence and contempt for democratic process, proving yet again that it is not fit to be entrusted with children’s care,” wrote Sambrook in these pages.

In July 2011, more than a year after the government promised to end child detention, we published Sambrook’s Frisk the 5-year-old: the UK Government’s new compassionate approach to child detention, revealing how a 5 year old, wrongly listed as a “visitor” to a UKBA detention facility at a Heathrow Airport detention facility and thus not recorded as a detainee, was subjected to a “rub down search” by a custody officer saying, “You’re a big boy now, so I have to search you.”

The government’s newest detention facility, “Cedars” in Pease Pottage, near Gatwick, freshly rebranded as “family friendly pre-departure accommodation” opened this past September. According to the Home Office this marked completion of  “The final stage in the government’s pledge to end the detention of children for immigration purposes”.

Last week, on 15 November, in the House of Commons Nick Clegg faced this question from Labour MP Lisa Nandy:

“Last year, the Deputy Prime Minister, speaking in a professional capacity, set out how he would end child detention by May. It is now November. Does he still believe this practice is immoral and does he still plan to keep his promise? If so, will he tell the House when?”

Mr Clegg replied, “Compared with the previous Government’s record of thousands of young people being detained—yes, immorally—behind bars when they were entirely innocent, the new arrangements are a complete, humane, liberal revolution, of which I am very proud indeed.”

The work goes on.


STAR Conference In STOP! Child Detention plea

Delegates at the STAR (Student Action for Refugees) Conference which took place in London this weekend (19-20 November 2011) organised ‘a simple act’ of protest against the continuing detention of children in support of the End Child Detention Now Campaign (below). Student activists dressed as crossing patrol attendants in demanding that the government STOP! the detention of children for immigration purposes, which despite Nick Clegg’s promise to end this ‘state sponsored cruelty’, has been re-instituted through the opening of so-called ‘pre-departure accommodation’ for families with children in the Sussex village of Pease Pottage where they can be detained repeatedly for up to a week.

STOP! Child Detention

The nationwide network of student groups is celebrating its 17th annual conference this weekend with representatives from 34 universities and several refugee support organisations and NGOs.

Delegates heard speeches from many figures who work to help and support refugees across the UK and took part in workshops on subjects such as volunteering, campaigning and running events to protecting refugee and migrant rights and raising funds.

Details of the conference can be found here. If you are a student and would like to find out more about STAR please visit the national website for more details.

The Pinocchio Protocol

with thanks to Martin Rowson

The auction raised £350 for End Child Detention Now’s fundraising appeal. Donations are still welcome by cheque made out to “Shpresa Programme” (please mark ECDN on the back of the cheque) and addressed to Shpresa, Mansfield House, 30 Avenons Road, Plaistow, E13 8HT.

Pictured Dr Nick Lessof (left)  collecting ‘The Pinocchio Protocol’ from Martin Rowson at a venue in central London which looks suspiciously like a pub.

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