The invisible child detainees – Prison Inspectorate reveals neglect of children in short term holding facilities

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons has recently published a review of the last six years’ inspections of short-term holding facilities. These facilities are intended to hold people detained for immigration purposes for short periods of time before or after arrival in the UK, and those awaiting transportation to long-term places of detention. One of the main criteria for assessing the effects of short-term holding facilities is safety:

Are detainees held in safety, with due regard to the insecurity of their position? In the case of children, the answer appears to be overwhelmingly no.

The review found that during the detention process

  • insufficient attention was given to ensuring the dignity of detainees
  • the use of handcuffs by immigration staff still prevalent
  • one centre recorded how a mother had been handcuffed during the journey there, despite the fact she was accompanied by her two young children

The use of unnecessary restraints can cause significant mental harm, particularly to children, and the review highlights the urgent need for UKBA and its contractors to establish a more stringent policy regarding their usage when dealing with potentially vulnerable people.

The majority of short-term holding facilities are not designed for long-term or overnight stays, and are without the most basic amenities. The review found that detention for over 12 hours was common, with many people being held for over 24 hours in non-residential facilities, without washing or sleeping facilities. Foil blankets, it was reported, were often the only means of keeping warm during these long periods of time.

These findings are particularly harrowing when considering the treatment of children.

As recently as 2010, an inspection of the Terminal 5 holding room at Heathrow Airport found that 68 children had been held in the preceding four months, 10 of whom had been detained for over 18 hours, with the longest detention recorded as 25 hours.

In addition to the long periods of time kept in holding, many facilities were found to be in urgent need of repair, whilst others were small and cramped, and sometimes exceeded maximum capacity. In these conditions, it was found that there was often no way to hold children and families separately, requiring staff to place children with unrelated adults:

There had been an incident when a man had harassed an unaccompanied 15-year-old girl and another young woman. Staff had challenged the man but had been unable to separate him or the young people for more than a few minutes as there was nowhere else to put them.

(Heathrow Terminal 3, 2007)

As this review highlights, the duty of care required of those operating short-term holding facilities was not being sufficiently met, particularly in the context of child detention. Whilst the facilities themselves often result in cramped conditions, with few options for separation of unrelated detainees, the holding of vulnerable children for undetermined periods of time without residential requirements is an infringement of those basic human rights that we often take for granted.

It is also entirely contrary to the coalition government’s promise to end the immigration detention of children, which the Deputy Prime Minister repeated to loud fanfare in December of last year.

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