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The promise to end child detention in the UK – and how it was broken

United Kingdom
Child detention

Children are still subject to the experience of being imprisoned which in itself can cause significant psychological harm. Lentaro92 under a Creative Commons Licence

Though no more than an unfunded group of angry friends, End Child Detention Now have been campaigning against the detention of children for immigration purposes for several years. These days, nobody in their right mind speaks in favour of child detention. We’ve come a long way since the UKBA defended the locking up of 2,000 children a year. Back in 2009, Nick Clegg called the practice ‘state-sponsored cruelty’, and rightly so.

So we welcomed the announcement in the 2010 coalition agreement of the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat government's commitment to bring an end to the detention of children. Some charities and NGOs immediately celebrated, congratulated the government and stopped campaigning. Children’s charity Barnardo’s went one step further, signing a contract to help run a new-style family detention unit with private security company G4S.

The numbers of children in immigration detention have been significantly reduced when compared to the appalling figures under New Labour, but the government is still detaining children under immigration law for administrative convenience. As long as it continues, politicians are destroying the lives of scores of children, not to mention ensuring that the spectre of detention overshadows the lives of many more.

The coalition has built a new detention centre for the sole purpose of holding families and children. The centre is called Cedars – a government acronym for Compassion, Empathy, Dignity, Approachability, Respect and Support. The new facility is referred to as ‘pre-departure accommodation’, but the wire fences, CCTV and 24 hour security - not to mention inspections by the HM Inspectorate of Prisons - show the truth that children sent to Cedars are being detained. The intention was that Barnardo’s brand will make this detention seem compassionate. The truth is that Barnardo’s have entered the detention business.

These children are still subject to the experience of being imprisoned which in itself can cause significant psychological harm. The campaign against child detention has always called for an absolute end to the practice, not colourful décor or comfy sofas.

Barnardo’s argue that they are able to do more from inside the process, and have promised to speak out if they witness any of several published ‘red lines’ being breached. But even at the outset, former Children's Commissioner Sir Al Aynsley-Green questioned how an organization can retain the independence necessary to criticize government policy when they are receiving government funding for their services, or are deeply involved in the implementation of that policy.

Barnardo’s have proven reluctant to speak out about any events witnessed at Cedars, despite the widely condemned use of force against children and pregnant women, which was only belatedly prohibited due to a looming high court challenge. Before this, the Home Office had no published policy on such use of force at Cedars, since it was not covered by immigration detention centre regulations. This left Cedars as a regulatory vacuum and in some respects, children there were afforded less rights than they had at the much criticized Yarl's Wood detention centre.

One ‘red line’ specifically states that Barnardo’s will withdraw their services if there are more than two instances when ‘any family has stayed at the pre-departure accommodation more than once’. The first report by the HMIP found six such occurrences.

There have been long-running campaigns to hold Barnardo’s to account but several large refugee and children’s organizations have been very circumspect on the issue, in many cases to the point of absolute silence.

Now that attention has moved away from the issue of children in detention, the numbers are back on the rise. From a low of around 100 in 2011, these figures crept back up past the 200 mark in 2012. Figures are incomplete for 2013, but those released so far total more than 170.

As Emma Mlotshwa, Co-ordinator of Medical Justice said, Barnardo’s collusion: ‘ruined the campaign to end the detention of children, which campaigners felt was achievable as the government had already promised it.’

Read Jan/Feb 2014's magazine on immigration detention around the world: 'Why are we locking up migrants?

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