The government has been accused of ‘state-sanctioned neglect’ over its policy of detaining children in immigration removal centres after a report found it harmed children’s mental and physical well-being.
The report, published today in Child Abuse & Neglect, the International Journal, is the first study of its kind in the UK. Doctors examined 24 children detained at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre in Bedfordshire and found the majority had developed depression, anxiety and other physical problems as a result of being detained.
Lisa Nandy, policy adviser at The Children’s Society, said the the report showed that holding children in immigration detention “can be viewed as state-sactioned neglect, if not abuse”.
Of the 20 children assessed by paediatricians in the study, 11 had been seen by clinical psychologists, two had been taken to hospital while in detention, while others had lost weight, begun bed-wetting and were suffering sleep problems, headaches and abdominal pains.
The families involved in the study were referred by the charity Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID). Nine of the parents were also assessed by clinical psychologists; five were survivors of rape and six had contemplated suicide.
Commenting on the report, Sir Al Aynsley-Green, the Children’s Commissioner for England, said: “Detaining children in this way can never be in their best interests because of the harm it can cause to their health and wellbeing, which I have seen for myself during visits to Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre.”
He said although recent changes in government policy had resulted in more humane treatment of these children, he ultimately wanted to see an end to detaining families for immigration purposes.
“If there ever is a need to detain families it should only be used as a last resort and for the shortest time possible. Today’s study makes the need to establish community-based alternatives to detention even more pressing and I am working with the Government and charities to achieve this.”
David Wood, strategic director of the criminality and detention group of the UK Border Agency, said progress has been made over the last few years.
“Treating children with care and compassion is a priority for the UK Border Agency. That’s why our children’s policy has enshrined in law a commitment to keep youngsters safe from harm,” said Wood.
“This limited research is over three years old. Yarl’s Wood Removal Centre has been praised on numerous occasions for its children’s facilities — Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons recently said we had made ‘significant progress’, and we now have full-time independent social workers, and a range of trained experts to monitor welfare 24 hours a day.
“We would much rather keep children out of detention. However when the courts say families have no right to be here, yet they refuse to go home voluntarily, detention will often be necessary to enforce removal from the UK.”
BID is calling on the government to learn lessons from countries like Sweden, with its low rate of detention and high rates of voluntary return, and Australia where asylum-seeking families are placed in secure housing within the community.
“Evidence has shown that properly implemented alternative models benefit families and are more cost effective,” said Amanda Shah, assistant director of policy at BID.