Frisk the 5-year-old: the UK Government’s new compassionate approach to child detention

Children are being routinely detained by inadequately-trained staff for long periods in immigration lock-ups at Heathrow Airport. This is despite the British government's claims to have ended child detention for immigration purposes

“You’re a big boy now so I have to search you,” said the G4S custody officer to the five-year-old, donning latex gloves and patting him down at a Heathrow Airport detention facility run by outsourcing giant G4S.
 
The child had been booked into Terminal 4’s “short term holding facility” as a “visitor” which meant that his detention would have gone unrecorded but for a surprise visit by two of Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Prisons on 3rd March this year.
 
The boy, an EU national, had been returning home to Britain with his father, a non-EU national, after a family visit to the father’s country of origin. The Inspectors noted that the child was detained “without the necessary authority”.
 
Their “Report on an unannounced inspection of the short-term holding facility at Heathrow Airport Terminal 4”, published today, found that in three months to February 2011 the lock-up had held 78 children, including eight unaccompanied minors. Their average stay was 9.9 hours, twelve children were held for more than 18 hours — the longest detention being 23.9 hours. Not all staff were CRB checked.
This, more than a year after the Coalition Government pledged to end the detention of children for immigration purposes, and six months after deputy prime minister Nick Clegg claimed it had been accomplished

The five-year-old subjected to the latex “rub-down search” then witnessed his father’s humiliation. The father’s phone was confiscated, but, say the Inspectors, he was not offered the free telephone call to which he was entitled. 
 
Instead of being taken to the family room, which had children’s toys, books and posters (but no natural light nor access to fresh air), the father and child were held in the adult room.
 
“The father had not been formally interviewed by an immigration officer and was very distressed at the prospect of being refused entry and separated from his son,” said the Inspectors. “When we spoke with him he did not understand what was going to happen to him next. He broke down in tears in front of his child and the other detainees, which was humiliating for him and distressing for the child. After we advised the detainee that he was entitled to make a telephone call, he spoke to G4S who granted his request. The detainee’s distress could have been alleviated had he been able to make the telephone call earlier.”
 
That these things happened directly under the gaze of HM Prison Inspectors suggests this might be UKBA and G4S on their very best behaviour.

Staff admitted to the Inspectors, “that they had not received refresher training in suicide and self-harm prevention” and “did not carry anti-ligature knives but a knife was attached to the first aid box in their office.” The Inspectors noted: “This could cause unnecessary delay in an emergency.”
 
The Inspectorate also reported today on Heathrow Terminal 3’s lockup where, over three months to February 2011, 98 children had been held including eight unaccompanied minors. A child’s average stay was 8.3 hours, with twelve children held for more than 18 hours – and one held for 30 hours.

Despite the long periods of incarceration, neither facility had beds. Adults or children could lie across chairs if they wanted to. “And even this did not give room for all to sleep,” said the Inspectors.
 
Although one third of the detainees at Terminal 3 and a quarter at Terminal 4 were women, there was not always a woman on the staff. “Rub-down searches” took place in an open office, “which was especially inappropriate in the case of female detainees”.
 
When detainees requested to shower, and if staffing levels permitted, they were put in an escort van and driven to another facility.
 
One member of staff at Terminal 3 told the Inspectors “of an incident many months previously when a detainee had been banging his head on the table and said: ‘Luckily we were able to put him on the floor and stop him doing it.’”
 
The Inspectors noted: “The use of three staff to pin the detainee to the floor to prevent possible self-harm seemed an over-reaction.”

Despite the large numbers of children being held, the Inspectors noted that staff had “inadequate knowledge” of the referral system “for identifying victims of human trafficking”.
 
Although there were some valid legal advice telephone numbers in the holding rooms, the Inspectors found “access to legal advice for non-English speakers was poor. Immigration officers did not always use professional interpreters when necessary, and did not always complete legally required documents correctly. Detainees could not fax a legal adviser freely.” Nor were they routinely offered the free phone call to which they were entitled.
 
So much for the “big culture shift within our immigration system” and the “new compassionate approach to family returns” prematurely celebrated in December by Nick Clegg.
 
Today’s reports provoke discomfiting questions, such as: 
How many trafficked children miss their one chance of rescue because staff lack proper training? 

How many children are detained “without the necessary authority”, misleadingly listed as “visitors”, patted down and patronised by people who may or may not be CRB-checked?

And, if this is how immigration detention works when HM Inspectorate of Prisons is in the house, how do things go when nobody important is watching?

About the author

Clare Sambrook, novelist and journalist. Co-editor of OurKingdom and co-founder of End Child Detention Now. Winner of Paul Foot Award and Bevins Prize for outstanding investigative journalism in 2010. Orwell Prize nominee in 2013.