Despair, hope and despair again: the rollercoaster ride towards ending child detention

By Clare Sambrook

The new government’s promise to ‘end the detention of children for immigration purposes’, sparked hopes that this country might at last be moving towards an asylum policy based on evidence and not led by politicians’ terror of the tabloids.

Having acknowledged that child detention was wrong, the government’s logical next step would be to release the families currently being held and call off the hit-squads whose work is arresting and detaining families in conditions known to harm their mental health.

But the government has not released the families. The dawn raids carry on regardless.

Ministers have taken the cruel and witless decision to carry on wrecking people’s lives while civil servants and ‘stakeholders’ engage in a wide-ranging review.

To lead the review, they have appointed the very man — UK Border Agency executive Dave Wood — who has been the detention policy’s most fervent defender, even to the extent of trying to rubbish the medical evidence of harm.

Last autumn, as Members of Parliament on the Home Affairs Select Committee scrutinised the detention policy, the international peer-review journal Child Abuse & Neglect published incontrovertible medical evidence of harm to children locked up at the notorious Yarl’s Wood detention centre.

The study related the photographing and the fingerprinting, the roll calls and the body searches, the ID cards that children must carry at all times, the ten locked doors between freedom and the family centre, the steep deterioration in parents' mental health and parenting abilities, the self-harm and the suicide attempts.

The authors, NHS paediatricians and psychologists Lorek et al, said: ‘The detained children’s mental health is likely to have been negatively affected by a combination of factors including a recent deterioration in their parent’s mental health and parenting ability, increased fear due to being suddenly placed in a facility resembling a prison, anxiety over the possible return to their country of origin where they may have previously experienced traumatic events, as well as the abrupt loss of home, school, friends, and all that was familiar to them.’

They said: ‘This study’s findings indicate that the experience of detention, even for a relatively brief period of time, has a detrimental effect on the mental and physical health of children.’

Mr Wood took the trouble to write to the Home Affairs Select Committee to undermine the doctors: ‘The study was undertaken without any reference to the UK Border Agency or its clinicians. At no point were healthcare or centre staff, who would have known the children, asked for their views or comments.’ That wasn’t true. It was verifiably false. I have on my desk a stack of Home Office documents recording the meetings that took place.

It was Mr Wood, who bears the Orwellian job title ‘director of criminality and detention’, who told Parliament that absconding wasn’t an issue — ‘it’s not terribly easy for a family unit to abscond’ — but families should be locked up anyway, because the lack of detention, ‘would act as a significant magnet and pull to families from abroad.’

In other words, we have been locking up innocent families who are at no risk of absconding in conditions known to harm their mental health in order to deter asylum-seekers from coming here.

That politicians and civil servants have pursued the detention policy against the medical evidence, against ethical considerations, at huge cost to the taxpayer, to the detriment of Britain’s international reputation, and in bovine disregard of the simple fact that families don’t abscond, is bad enough.

That the new government has pledged to stop this, but instead launched a review led by the policy’s chief defender is an unforgivable failure of judgement.

Detention centres are places where children as well as adults are driven to self-harm. Last year at Tinsley House a 10 year-old child in extreme distress almost succeeded in causing her own death by strangulation.

We may hope or pray that Mr Wood’s wide-ranging review reaches its conclusions before a child or another parent succeeds in a suicide attempt.

Or we could unite in demanding that the government does the right and proper thing and ends child detention now.