Detention by another name?
Heaven Crawley is a researcher, writer, university professor and director of the Centre for Migration Policy Research (CMPR). Her research interests are primarily in the area of public policy relating to forced migration, asylum and different forms of international migration. You can follow her on Twitter where she also tweets under @heavencrawley.
The announcement by the Coalition Government back in May 2010 that it would be ending the detention of children for immigration purposes was widely welcomed. Finally, it seemed, that after years of accumulated evidence on the gap between policy and practice in decisions to detain and on the negative impacts that detention has on children’s mental and physical well-being, this was being taken into account.
Cynics amongst us feared that this might be a ploy on the part of the Liberal Democrats to maintain its credibility given significant concessions made in other policy areas but we were happy to be proved wrong. Many organisations working with refugees and children threw years of experience and expertise behind the Government’s review into identifying alternatives to detention.
The conclusion of that process was finally announced on last week. It has resulted in the introduction of what is being described as ‘a radical new process’ for removing families with children who have no right to remain in the UK. This process acknowledges that the quality of decision making needs to improve but focuses primarily on increasing the effectiveness of removal policy through a strategy of ‘assisted’, ‘required’ and ‘ensured’ returns.
Those who are unwilling to return voluntarily or do not comply with returns process will be taken to a new ‘pre-departure accommodation’ facility in West Sussex whilst arrangements are made for their return. According to planning documents, the majority of families would be at the facility for a maximum of 72 hours but in ‘exceptional circumstances’ they might be held for up to one week. Today the news emerged that the children’s charity Barnados is working with the UK Border Agency to provide services at the centre.
The outcome of the review raises significant concerns about the extent to which the Government has delivered on its commitment to end the detention of children.
First and foremost, it is not clear that the evidence on alternatives to detention has been properly understood. There is a very substantial body of research from Canada, Australia, US, UK and other countries in Europe which shows very clearly that the reasons why children are detained often have more to do with failings in the asylum process than with the unwillingness of families to co-operate.
Many families are unwilling to return because they do not feel that it is safe for them to do so and are not confident that their case has been properly and fully considered. This problem is created, in significant part, by a lack of access to legal advice and representation and evidence of mistakes in decision making.
None of the factors that are known to lead to unnecessary and inappropriate detention of children have been addressed. The government claims that its new approach to family returns is based on close engagement with families, but has not set up the kind of independent case worker systems that are known to reduce the need to detain and significantly increase voluntary return rates in Canada, US and Australia.
Secondly, it is important to call a spade a spade. If the Government has decided, as it appears to have done, that it cannot end the detention of children – or is unwilling to do so – then it should acknowledge that this is the case and be prepared to be challenged.
To repackage detention as ‘pre-departure accommodation’ is disingenuous. Families with children will be taken to the facility against their will. Once there, families will not be allowed to come and go freely. The unit is intended to be secure, which in this case means a 2.5m palisade fence with electronic gates surrounding the site, and 24-hour staffing designed to provide ‘an appropriate level of security to protect the occupants of the site and deter them leaving the site’.
The fact that the Centre will, according to its planning application, have a ‘homely feel’ is irrelevant and ignores the evidence on the effects of detention on children. It is not a child’s home and cannot and will not feel ‘homely’ to them. It is detention in everything but name.
Finally, a word about the gap between what Ministers and policy officials say will happen and the reality of what often happens in practice. For more than five years the Government claimed that there was nothing wrong with its approach to the detention of children, that its facilities were ‘child friendly’ and that children were never detained unnecessarily.
This was despite a wealth of research evidence to the contrary indicating that many of the policies and procedures put in place to ensure that children were only ever detained as a measure of ‘last resort’ simply didn’t work or were ignored. Ministers are trying to reassure those concerned about the new facility that ‘pre-departure detention’ will only be used as a measure of last resort for families that refuse to comply with ‘assisted’ and ‘required’ returns and will only house families referred to it by the new Independent Family Returns Panel which will take account of the welfare of children. It is worth remembering that if the Government had followed its own policy guidance on detention then very few children would ever have been detained in the first place.
Ten months on from announcing that it would end the detention of children, the Government has still not fully grasped the fact that it is possible to return families without resorting to secure facilities of any kind if there are significant improvements in the quality of decision making and families feel confident that it is safe for them to return. And it is relying on checks and safeguards to reduce the scale of detention which previously have failed to be effective.
In the absence of significant improvements to the decision making process and the provision of independent case support teams to work with families, it seems entirely likely that the new ‘pre-departure accommodation’ will be filled very quickly with families who are considered ‘uncooperative’. And whilst the facility will house only nine families at time it will be used primarily for short periods of time. This means that the Government has effectively created spaces for up to
6,500 4.445 children [number updated 21 March 2011] to be detained every year. Not quite the end to detention we had in mind.