Migration Pulse

Detention by another name?

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. In the absence of significant improvements to the decision making, it seems entirely likely that the new ‘pre-departure accommodation’ will turn out to be just immigration detention by another name.
March 10, 2011
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Heaven Crawley

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.

Yarl's Wood Fence 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.


Listen to Prof Heaven Crawley make the case that the planned facility is a 'repackaging' of immigration detention for children on this morning's Radio 4 Today Programme here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_9420000/9420679.stm

This link should be active for the next few days.

How can we legally challenge this policy

anyone have any views on Barnardos being contracted to run child detention centres?

I would say that this is a dangerous move. I remember reading in the Oxfam destitution report that asylum seekers are mistrustful of bigger charities and see them as a paid for extension of the government.
If this is the case people who need help will go even deeper underground.

I am concerned that such a large and well respected childrens charity could be seen to be uncritically perpetuating the problem. I remain hopefully that they will be creative and bold eneough to challenge the status quo within their management of the centre, we live in hope

Daniel - yes, I agree this will further undermine the confidence that refugees and asylum seekers have in the asylum process and in the support that is potentially available for them to ensure the right outcome. Evidence from Sweden, Belgium, Canada and the US suggests that non-governmental organisations can play a vital role in helping asylum seekers to understand the asylum system and in these countries independent case support provided by NGOs has been proven to increase the willingness of families to return when it is clear that they have no right to stay. They are then able to do so in a humane and dignifed way

The Pre-departure Accommodation will not be the only place where children will be detained. The family unit at Tinsley House immigration removal centre is currently undergoing a £1 million refurbishment in order to accommodate 38 beds and up to eight families. The immigration minister, Damian Green, in a written answer to a parliamentary question on 8 March 2011 confirmed: "There may also be the occasional need to use Tinsley for criminal or other high-risk families who could not be accommodated safely in the pre-departure accommodation but this would be rare."

Hi Heaven,

great article and hope the COMPAS breakfast briefing went well. I would be interested to know if the materials from the meeting will be made available?

Also in terms of the powers the UKBA has to detain children. Has there been any change in legislation and rules on that? I would argue that if they still retain the prerogative to detain, there has been no change at all, at least on a policy level.

Of course it is much better for the kids if the facilities are better equipped and staffed. But like you say, let's call a spade a spade! No change, no end to detention.

Here is an interesting article by Sir Al Aynsley-Green, former Children's Commissioner on the OpenDemocract website.

"Who is speaking for Britain's children and young people?: a challenge to the children’s sector"


I imagine the UKBA will not like the fact that this new policy is essentially the same as the old one but have dragged Barnado's on board as a fig leaf. Yes it is time to call a "spade a spade". Theriesenstadt (sic) was allegedly homely and family friendly it was still a concentration camp and peoples lives were taken and rights abused...

Here is some info in response to one of the comments/questions about powers to detain? (anonymous, 11 March 2011).

Specifically, what rules will apply and under what legal power will you prevent families leaving?

This quote is from the fact sheet on ‘Pre-Departure Accommodation’. Note the last sentence!

Powers to require the family to remain at the accommodation are derived from Schedule 2 to the Immigration Act 1971. It will ultimately be operated in accordance with new Short Term Holding Facilities Rules. We have previously consulted on these Rules and are now establishing which Rules should apply to the new pre-departure accommodation. The accommodation may have to open without the Rules being in place.

Here’s the link:

A note on the amended figure for the number of children who can potentially be detained in the new 'pre-departure accomodation' at Pease Pottage. I have had to recalculate the figures based on the information we now have about the new process. I only had access to basic facts and figures when I wrote this blog.

The calculation is reached as follows:

There are 9 accomomodation units, 6 for a max of 6 people (potetially max 5 children), 1 for 4 people (potentially 3 children) and 2 for 2 people (potentially 1 child). This means that 35 children can be held in 'pre-departure accomodation at any one time'. If we calculate places based on max of 72 hours it gives the potential for 4,445 children to be held every year. Of course if the length of stay is shorter then the number will be higher. Conversely if there are less children in each family the number will be lower. It is worth remembering that there will also be up to 8 families in the soon-to-be refurbished family wing at Tinsley House nr. Gatwick which will considerably increase the potential for children to be detained.

I'm not suggesting that the number of children detained in the future will reach this maximum potential but I do think its important to be clear about what the potential is.

For those of you who are interested, the COMPAS Breakfast Briefing is available at http://www.compas.ox.ac.uk/fileadmin/files/pdfs/Events_2011/COMPAS%20Bre...

My paper 'Ending the detention of children: towards an alternative approach to family removals', on which the COMPAS breakfasy briefing was based, is available at http://www.swan.ac.uk/media/Alternatives_to_child_detention.pdf