More than half of all children are released after detention

In an adjournment debate called by  the Conservative MP for Bedfordshire North-East, Alastair Burt, the Home Office Minister, Meg Hillier, told the House of Commons that in the financial year 2008-09, 1,116 children entered detention. She went on to report that ‘some 539 of those children, slightly fewer than half, were removed, and 629 were released’-no fewer than 53.8% of all the children who had been detained.

Although the government issued its customary health warning that these figures are based  on ‘management information’ and therefore not subject to the detailed checks that apply to the publication of national statistics, this nevertheless confirms the fact that the detention of families is not being used when the independent courts have determined that the parents or children have no lawful right to remain, but as an arbitrary instrument of policy in order to drive up removal figures.

Despite reassurances to Parliament that the detention of children and families would be used for ‘the shortest time possible’, as Diane Abbott MP pointed out the average length of detention has continued to grow. According to the Minister, the average length of detention for children was 16 days in 2008-09, which is double the figure for 2007. The snapshot figure for 30 September 2009, found that 25 children had been detained for seven days or fewer, five for eight to 14 days, five for 15 to 28 days and ten for 29 or more days but less than two months. No figures were provided on the proportion of children who may have been subject to re-detention in the previous 12 months.

Ms Hillier, conceded that a child going through this process [of being woken in the early hours of the morning by complete strangers in uniforms and forcibly driven in a locked van to an immigration removal centre] ‘will find it very challenging’. Alastair Burt  asked if the Minister was ‘somewhat painting a picture that parents are making a deliberate choice to go into detention and have their children with them as if the alternative were an easy one’.

I would like her to recognise that for many parents, that choice is not easy at all. That is the dilemma in which they are caught and which the system has somehow to try to deal with – Alastair Burt, MP

The debate had been called by the Conservative Deputy Chief Whip, whose constituency includes Yarl’s Wood following a protest of women hunger strikers on Monday 8 February, during which 70 women were locked inside a hallway in the women’s wing of the removal centre without access to toilet facilities for several hours. One woman suffered a serious asthma attack, and the four alleged organisers of the protest have been sent to HMP Holloway. None of the women who were removed from Yarl’s Wood have been charged with any offences. Up to 5o women remain on hunger strike after more than 10 days.

The Minister was unmoved by the protests or the plight of families facing imminent deportation: ‘…many people will choose anything rather than willingly return to a situation. That can be for all sorts of reasons, and not just because they feel in physical danger. In the end, the parents make the choices that face them, however difficult they are, so some responsibility needs to lie there’.

In other words, it is the fault of the parents that their children are locked up, not the government or its agents who arrest and imprison them. However, the UKBA’s persistent claims that it always acts humanely and within the law are coming unstuck as a growing number of decisions by the independent courts are finding the Home Office guilty of wrongfully imprisoning asylum seeking families. Meanwhile hundreds of children continue to have their lives blighted by our country’s ‘firm but fair asylum and immigration system’.

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