Quakers call for end to detention of child immigrants

Christians join forces to urge change to government practice of imprisoning children

Quakers in Britain have joined a call on the UK government to ‘bring an immediate end to the unnecessary and inhumane practice of imprisoning children, babies and young people in immigration removal centres’.  The demand was made in a letter published in the Daily Telegraph today and was signed by Susan Seymour, clerk of Meeting for Sufferings (a decision-making body of Quakers in Britain). The letter was written in response to the children’s commissioner report on children detained at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, which was published last week.

Last year, a report by NHS paediatricians and psychologists, ‘Lorek et al’, reported in the international peer-reviewed journal, Child Abuse & Neglect, (October 2009) that children locked up at Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre were ‘clearly vulnerable, marginalised, and at risk of mental and physical harm as a result of state sanctioned neglect.’
     
The doctors recorded children’s ‘sexualised behaviour’, older children’s tendency to wet their beds and soil their pants, the ‘increased fear due to being suddenly placed in a facility resembling a prison’, the ‘abrupt loss of home, school, friends and all that was familiar to them.’

The UK Border Agency (UKBA) arrests and detains some 2,000 asylum-seeking children every year, although there is no evidence that families with young children abscond.

Dave Wood, UKBA director of criminality and detention, told a parliamentary committee in September 2009:  ‘Whilst issues are raised about absconding, that is not our biggest issue. It does happen but it is not terribly easy for a family unit to abscond.’

Other signatories to the Telegraph letter represented various other Christian denominations and groups.

The children commissioner’s report was a follow up to a report last year. The commissioner recognised that UKBA and SERCO, which manages Yarl’s Wood, have shown a commitment to change procedures and improve conditions. Changes resulting from the Commissioner’s involvement include:
an improved environment with a less institutional feel, newly constructed classrooms and fewer prison style uniforms being worn;
better facilities for feeding babies and a new complaints system; and
an end to transporting children to Yarl’s Wood in caged vans.

According to the commissioner, children continue to report that they find the process of arrest and transportation distressing and increasingly, children are separated from parents when transported to the centre. Many are not told what will happen to their belongings and pets left behind and many have difficulty contacting friends.

The commissioner was also concerned by failure to adequately prepare children for returning to their country of origin has meant on occasion, children have been removed from the UK without being given adequate malarial prophylaxis and there have also been reports of unacceptable delays in providing treatment.

Speaking about the new investigation commissioner Al Aynsley-Green said: ‘It is the government’s role rather than mine to decide whether a child should be removed from the UK but I want to make sure the process by which they are removed is humane. Yarl’s Wood is no place for a child. Ultimately, I would like to see a far faster process and an end to the detention of children in the asylum system.  There needs to be more education about the alternatives to detention. But I recognise an end to child detention won’t happen overnight and am working to improve the arrest and detention process by looking at it from the child’s perspective.’ He added: ‘I commend UKBA and its staff for improving conditions at Yarl’s Wood over the last year but further work is still needed to improve arrest procedures and detention conditions to make the experience less distressing for and harmful to children.’

Quakers have long had an interest in the treatment of people in prison, with Elizabeth Fry, whose work is recorded on the five pound note, being most well-known. Visit http:/www.qarn.org.uk to learn more about Quaker work on asylum seekers and refugee issues today.

Visit http://www.childrenssociety.org.uk/resources/documents/media/18565_full.pdf to download the Lorek report.

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