The days when children could be detained with their families at Yarl's Wood immigration removal centre, sometimes for more than two months, are still current in most people's memories.
But changes to the process of returning families, who have been denied asylum, back to their country of origin are already making the system more humane, claims Chris Spencer, chair of the independent family returns panel.
The role of the panel, which started in March, is to advise UK Borders Agency on the method of removal when an ensured return is necessary (ie when a family is forcibly removed after failing to return home voluntarily or ignore self check-in removal directions).
"We modify a lot of the plans that come before us, for example, the time of pick up, the number of UKBA officers who attend, the transportation, the length they are held in short-term facilities, the number of escorts, whether a medical escort should be provided," says Spencer. "We also need to satisfy ourselves that the plans are executed as we are told."
To this end a panel member will often accompany UKBA officers on the visit to the family and can even go as far as being present for the whole journey; one panel member has recently been to Uganda and Nigeria to ensure that plans were executed as expected.
Spencer, a former teacher, child psychologist and director of education and children's services at the London Borough of Hillingdon, has also been the national lead for asylum and child trafficking for the Association of Directors of Children's Services. For him the role chairing the new panel felt like a natural progression. He is joined by another former children's director and two local authority heads of asylum services, and between them they have 120 years of safeguarding expertise. The panel also includes a medical adviser, a UKBA official, and a Department for Education official.
By its very nature, the panel is dealing with families who do not want to go home and Spencer says his sympathies are always with them. "In many cases you understand why they don't want to go home. But we have sovereign borders and that means there are rules about who can and cannot stay. Our role isn't to determine that, but once the court has decided that a family has no right to remain our task is to make certain that the last few days here and the process of removal is as humane as possible, and that the welfare of children is paramount."
The recently opened Cedars facility in West Sussex is also part of the government's new approach to returning families without permission to be in the UK. It provides secure pre-departure accommodation for families going through the ensured return process. Families are only referred here on the panel's advice and stay for no longer than 72 hours. When a stay here is not appropriate, there are also short-term facilities based at airports.
"Some families are given notice [of removal] and if they have a history of absconding they would be held at Cedars for that period," says Spencer. "That time can be invaluable in helping the family, particularly the children if they are old enough, come to terms with and understand what is happening.
"A lot of families get to the point where they believe they won't be returned because it has taken so much time, some don't believe it until they are facing that prospect. So this time [at Cedars] can be used for all sorts of good practical reasons, such as putting them in touch with services and extended family members back home."
Since March, the panel has considered about 50 plans to remove families; but only just under half have resulted in the family leaving the country, mainly because the families abscond or lodge a last minute appeal.
"One of the big issues for me is the balance between notice and removal. If you tell a family you are coming to arrest them and take them home and they are hellbent on staying they will abscond and so become more open to exploitation. You don't want to suddenly swoop on people and take them away but you don't want them to go missing and become vulnerable. It's a catch 22 situation.
"It is a sad endeavour in some respects, but on the other hand I'm in it to make certain that the process is more child-focused, child-centred and humane for the family."
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