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through barred and locked doors where even babies had their nappies searched by prison-like officers, keys a-jangling; withdrawn and deeply traumatised children clinging to their mothers, refusing to eat the unhealthy food provided, with developmental regression, bed-wetting and soiling;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.