Don’t replace child detention with enforced separation
New immigration plans will end child detention but we should be wary of substituting one form of state abuse with another.
Simon Parker, Comment is Free, The Guardian, Friday 28 May 2010.
The announcement in Tuesday’s Queen’s speech that along with a cap on non-EU immigration, the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat government no longer intends to detain children under immigration control powers comes as a welcome boost to the many thousands of concerned citizens who have signed petitions, lobbied their MPs and parliamentary candidates, written to the local and national press, and organised vigils and demonstrations in order to bring this shameful practice to an end.
However, before we begin any premature celebrations, there are some troubling aspects of the new coalition agreement that deserve especially careful scrutiny. The first point is that Nick Clegg and his team rightly sought to insist that the declaration would commit to ending the detention of families, but the Conservatives struck this out and insisted that the no-detention policy would apply only to children.
Damian Green also declared that while the review was underway, the existing policy of detaining children would remain in place, despite the fact that the government now appears to accept that the practice of detaining children is harmful and unwarranted. The shocking case of the arrest and detention of Sehar Shahbaz and her eight-month-old baby in Dungavel and their nine-hour journey in a prison van to Yarl’s Wood, which Colin Firth highlighted in a letter to the Guardian, if anything suggests a hardening of minds rather than the “changed mindset” that Sir Al Aynsley Green has called for in the Home Office.
Indeed, an Iranian family of five, including the pregnant mother, were arrested and detained on the day it was announced child detention was due to end – and were issued with removal instructions to a brutal regime whose response to political dissent involves torture, lengthy jail sentences and state execution.
Campaigners should at least take heart that the review is about to start soon and that it is expected to conclude within weeks rather than months. But as yet there is no commitment to a timetable for implementing any alternatives to detention, or a promise not to arrest and detain families in the meantime.
A major concern for refugee, asylum and children’s welfare organisations is the clear implication that by agreeing only to spare children from detention, the Home Office is considering the option of taking children into care while their parents are detained. This would be to substitute one form of state child abuse with another, and would not only be contrary to article 8 of the European convention on human rights, it would be opposed, one would hope, by every local safeguarding children board and director of social services in the country – not least because it would make social workers complicit in damaging rather than protecting the welfare of the child.