Gordon Brown on child detention

An exchange between the Prime Minister and campaigners on the question of child detention

Following Brown's speech to Citizens UK today, there was a remarkable moment during which the Prime Minister, who was attempting to leave the stage, was challenged by the assembled citizens on whether he would put an end to the government's detention of children in immigration centres likeYarl's Wood. After a failed attempt to deflect the question, he said he "wanted no child to suffer" and promised to look at the issue - an answer which left many who were there unsatisfied. Cameron too said he would review the practice, and only Clegg promised to end it. Here, OurKingdom provides some background on this debate with an exchange on child detention between Brown and Clare Sambrook, journalist and oD author who campaigns with End Child Detention Now.

27 October 2009 


The Right Honourable Gordon Brown MP

Dear Mr Brown,    

We ask you urgently to stop detaining asylum-seeking children.     

As you know, paediatricians have reported that children at Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre suffered from confusion, fear, sleep problems, headaches, abdominal pain, and severe emotional and behavioural problems.     

Your Government’s Border Agency routinely claims, ‘Treating children with care and compassion is a priority.’      

Locking up innocent children in conditions known to harm their mental health is neither caring nor compassionate.     

Nor is it necessary. You will know that families with children are the very least likely to abscond. Other countries have found more humane arrangements allowing families to stay together in the community while their cases are being considered or before their return.      

Asylum-seeking children are already among the most vulnerable members of our society. Detention wrecks young lives. Please stop it, now.  

Signatories:  Kamila Shamsie,  Jeanette Winterson,  Gillian Slovo, Ian Rankin, Nick Hornby, Ali Smith,  Hanif Kureish,i David Mitchell, Andrea Levy, Hari Kunzru, Mohsin Hamid,  Liz Jensen, Nadeem Aslam, Chris Cleave, Esther Freud, Patrick McGrath, Joanne Harris, Louise Doughty, Tash Aw, Hisham Matar,Tahmima Anam, Toby Litt, Nikita Lalwani, Charles Palliser, Pankaj Mishra, Lisa Appignanesi, Peter Hobbs, Rachel Holmes, Alice Albinia, James Runcie, Amanda Craig, Aamer Hussein, Christina Koning, Robyn Scott, Sathnam Sanghera, Marie Phillips, Leon Arden, Yasmin Hai, Richard Hamblyn, Julia Williams,  Helen Smith, John Hands, Lorna Gibb, Imran Ahmad, Sue Reid, Michael Newton, Lisa Gee, Clare Sambrook

                                                                                                   5 January 2010

Dear Ms Sambrook,

Thank you for your letter asking that the UK Border Agency stop detaining asylum-seeking children.

I understand that the detention of failed asylum seeker families is an extremely difficult issue and I can assure you that any decision to detain such children is not taken lightly. However, in a limited number of cases, detention does prove necessary.

The UK Borer Agency always seeks alternatives to detaining families with children. Where the courts uphold a requirement for them to leave this country, we ask failed asylum seekers to leave voluntarily. Where they continue to fail to do so, even after they have been offered every assistance to leave and rebuild their lives back home, we have no option but to use detention to enforce their departure.

The detention of children is kept to the minimum period necessary and is subject to frequent and rigorous review, including Ministerial authorisation in those exceptional cases where the detention of families with children lasts for 28 days or more. These reviews take into account the health and welfare of the child, the length of time that the family has already spent in detention, and the imminence of their removal. If there are real concerns about a child’s welfare and/or removal has been delayed, release from detention is considered. The majority of families with children spend just a few days in detention.

The UK Border Agency takes the welfare of all detainees, particularly children, very seriously, and we have recently introduced a new to statutory duty safeguard and promote the welfare of children.

In your letter you raise concerns about children held at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre. Yarl’s Wood is the main detention centre for holding families with children, and the only one where families normally remain for longer than 72 hours. As a result, it has a comprehensive welfare framework for children in place. This includes health-led initial assessment on arrival, OFSTED-inspected crèche facilities, extensive sport and leisure services led by qualified youth workers, a children’s forum, a statutory independent children’s social work service on site, a weekly multi-disciplinary team review of all children in the centre, and arrangements for the formal welfare assessment of any child detained for longer than 21 days.

All detainees, including children, at Yarl’s Wood have access to free on-site primary healthcare provision, with services broadly equivalent to those accessible from NHS general practices in the community. Detainees have ready access to NHS secondary and tertiary health services, where needed, including paediatric services – patients are referred out in cases where their needs cannot be met at the centre. There is continuity of care for children, and GP records are requested as a priority upon arrival. Staff liaise with children’s consultants in secondary care, where appropriate, to ensure that treatment continues for children during detention. Children are also provided with routine weight monitoring and immunisation clinics.

Nevertheless, we continue to explore new alternatives to detention for children. Last year, in conjunction with Migration Helpline (a registered charity with extensive experience of dealing with asylum seekers), the UK Border Agency ran a 12-month pilot in Ashford, Kent, which was aimed at refused asylum seekers with children who had no legal right to remain in the UK. The throughput of families to the facility was lower than had been projected, and the pilot ended on October 31. However, the lessons learned are now informing a new pilot in Glasgow, which will encourage refused asylum seekers families to return voluntarily to their home country. This project is a partnership between Glasgow City Council, the UK Border Agency and the Scottish Government. Its aim is to reduce the need for the detention and enforced return of those families whom the UK Border Agency and the courts agree do not require international protection.

I hope this letter is helpful.

Yours sincerely,

Gordon Brown

5 March 2010

Dear Prime Minister,

Thank you for your detailed response to our letter. We are heartened that you are taking a personal interest in this important matter, which is of deep concern to many MPs and thousands of constituents in the country at large.

Drawing on our direct personal and professional experience with asylum seeking families who have experienced detention we have responded to all the points you raise in your letter. We would be delighted to provide you with further information. We have numbered our responses for ease of reply.

  1. [In your letter] You state that in a ‘…limited number of cases, detention does prove necessary’. We disagree that the1,300 children held in detention centres during the 15 month period between July 2008 and September 2009 amount to ‘a limited number of cases’.1

The lack of reliable data noted by the National Audit Office in 20092) has frustrated MPs, Peers and Select Committees.

Your government has not been able to provide consistent, robust data on the number of children detained by the UK immigration authorities, for what duration and on how many separate occasions.

How, then, can you say that children are held for ‘the shortest possible time’?

We made a Freedom of Information Request on 5 October 2009 to ascertain accurate information on child detention. We have been told that this request is now before your Immigration Minister. We cannot understand why Mr Woolas does not immediately release the information, as legally required under the Freedom of Information Act. 

  1. We question the basis of your claim that the detention of families with children ‘does prove necessary’. There is no evidence that families with children are likely to abscond even when they are issued with a formal removal notification. Mr David Wood of the UKBA told the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee last November that threat of absconding was not the primary reason for the detention of families. Deterrence appears to be the main concern:

    I do feel that our immigration policy would be in difficulty if we did not have the ability to detain them [families] because it would act as a significant magnet and pull to families from abroad to come to the United Kingdom because, in effect, once they got here they could just say, ‘I’m not going’. 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 abscond3

As Mr Wood recognises, it is extremely difficult for families with young children to abscond.

A case in point relates to a mother who sought our help because her daughters faced genital mutilation if they were to be returned to Kenya. The mother has a life threatening illness and would die without daily medication. There was not the remotest possibility of her absconding. Yet she and her three young daughters were taken from their homes in a dawn raid by a large number of uniformed male security officers, taken on a 200-mile journey to Yarl’s Wood and forcibly detained for 20 days. They now have refugee status – the detention was wholly unnecessary. 

Mr Woolas claimed that closing the centre at Dungavel would ‘end up with dead bodies in lorries in Calais’ as victims of the trade in human trafficking.4 Mr Woolas’s statement clearly points to the use of arrest and detention as a deterrence. But the ‘toughness’ of an immigration regime has no or little impact on the destinations of refugees who are fleeing in desperation.5 

  1. You state: ‘The UK Border Agency always seeks alternatives to detaining families with children. Where the courts uphold a requirement to leave this country, we ask failed asylum seekers to leave voluntarily’. 

Many asylum seekers have had their claims rejected without the opportunity of a court hearing prior to being placed in detention.

Of those cases the courts have heard and rejected, a sizeable number are overturned on appeal. 

The critical lack of publicly funded legal services leaves asylum-seekers too frequently obliged to speak for themselves. For women who have experienced rape, sexual assault and female genital mutilation, this represents a particular failure of justice. Understandably, victims of sexual violence and torture find it very difficult to provide personal details of their experience in open court.

Regarding alternatives, we are aware of only a small numbers of families involved in the Kent and Glasgow pilots. 

When seeking a solicitor for one asylum seeker, who now has leave to remain, we approached 30 firms—an immense undertaking for someone with time and resources, let alone someone who does not speak English as a first language and who has limited access to an immigration removal centre phone.  

  1. You state: ‘Where they continue to fail [to leave the country]’ even after they have been offered every assistance to leave and re-build their lives back home, we have no option but to use detention to enforce their departure’.

In Sir Al Aynsley Green’s most recent report on Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre—which he continues to describe as ‘no place for a child’—the Commissioner notes that of the ten families interviewed in relation to Assisted Voluntary Return (AVR), ‘only two families remembered receiving information about voluntary departure’. He also confirmed that, ‘some families reported being arrested at the same time as being served with the notice from the court that their appeal had been dismissed. This clearly does not provide the window for reflection on AVR called for in our recommendation…’6

The 11 Million report concurs with the research literature and our own experience in confirming that many families first learn that their initial asylum application has been rejected when they are arrested and served with a removal notice.7 Families detained in this manner are generally booked onto planes within 48 hours. There is no question of being able to accept resettlement support.

One mother from Turkey was detained on a Monday. She immediately fell into a catatonic state. She was separated from her 2-year-old son for 4 days and then reunited with him on the Thursday of that week. They were booked onto a plane to Turkey for the following Monday at 6.55am. At no time was an offer of assistance with resettlement made. She and her son now have indefinite leave to remain.  

  1. You state: ‘The detention of children is kept to the minimum period necessary, and is subject to frequent and rigorous review, including Ministerial authorisation in those exceptional cases where the detention of families with children lasts for 28 days or more.’ You maintain that ‘the majority of families with children spend just a few days in detention’.

The average length of stay in Yarl’s Wood IRC has actually doubled from 8–16 days, according to Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons and Home Office Minister Meg Hillier.8 HMCIP found that at least a third of child inmates are detained for more than a month.9 In a recently published briefing note based on a response to a Parliamentary Question, the Immigration Law Practitioners Association found in each of the years 2004 to 2007 that a number of children had been detained in excess of 100 days.

At the time of the reply the information available for 2008 was incomplete, but the longest period of detention by a child was given as 190 days.10 The Children’s Commissioner for England has also stated that, ‘[w]e remain very concerned at the length of detention experienced by significant numbers of children and are not convinced that this is always “for the shortest appropriate period of time” as required by the UNCRC’.11  

  1. Far from ‘considering release from detention’ when a removal is stayed, your government’s Border Agency officials almost invariably oppose bail. Indeed, your government has recently conceded before the High Court that it was guilty of unlawfully imprisoning a family who had sought refuge from Bolivia in 2004.12 So terrible was the parents’ and the children’s ordeal that the court ordered record damages to be paid.
  2. You claim that the ‘welfare of all detainees and particularly children is taken seriously as evidenced by the recent safeguarding duty’.

There is authoritative, irresistible and mounting evidence from the Children’s Commissioner for England, The Independent Monitoring Board for Yarl’s Wood, health professionals, welfare and rights groups, academics and inspectorates that children are being consistently and routinely harmed in detention.13

Children in immigration detention suffer from health problems—including weight loss, lack of sleep, and lack of specialist treatment for diseases like sickle cell disease.14

Children are harmed by:

  • The practice of seizing families in dawn raids. This can severely traumatise children. One child we know of, aged 3 when detained, eighteen months later is still terrified of uniformed men.
  • Being transported in security vehicles lacking any hygienic facilities. We know of a recent case where two siblings aged 18 months and 2 years were held for 16 hours in a locked van prior to deportation.
  • Being imprisoned. Removal centres have the appearance and procedures of prisons and are perceived by children as such.15 The perimeters are surrounded by electric fences and razor wire. Children are routinely and compulsorily photographed, fingerprinted and searched.16 In Yarl’s Wood, to get to their rooms, children typically pass through 8-10 locked doors.17
  • A lack of parental control over meals and mealtimes and a lack of sterilizing equipment for bottle-feeding. Some experience weight loss.18
  • A lack of provision for children with special needs19.
  • Inadequate educational facilities for children who are detained for more than a few days. Having just two classes covering all year groups from reception to Year 12 severely compromises the learning development and educational opportunities of all children.20
  • The effect of detention on parents. Adults who are detained may have been imprisoned, tortured and raped in their country of origin. Being held in a secure facility can be extremely distressing, causing steep decline in mental health and parenting ability. The impact of this change in their parents can be very upsetting to children.21
  1. You state that ‘Yarl’s Wood is the only detention centre where families normally remain for longer than 72 hours’

During 2009, at Tinsley House (where a 10-year-old Nigerian girl tried to strangle herself) 111 children were detained for more than 72 hours.22

The Immigration Minister told the House of Commons in November 2008 that in Dungavel House, the average length of detention for the previous two years for a family was three days. It follows therefore that while some children were held for less than 72 hours, others were held for longer. 

  1. You say that ‘alternatives to detention are being explored’.

An independent report into the Kent pilot study found that the evaluation, which was a core part of the project, was poorly conceived and executed.23 The current Glasgow pilot is welcomed.  But potentially thousands of children will face detention before the pilot is completed. We believe there is an urgent need to seek genuine alternatives to detention, and, in the interim, to put an immediate end to the arrest and detention of families with children.

Where children and families are treated with humanity and dignity and are allowed to remain in the community, the evidence from Australia shows that there is a higher degree of compliance and voluntary return rates. Australia previously detained more than 4,000 from 2000 to 2005. Since 2005, however, the Australian government has used community based case management for these groups. Case managers work with clients to explore all possible options and outcomes, and also in partnership with community agencies and legal representatives. Figures from the Hotham Mission Asylum Seeker Project pilot show a 99% compliance rate.24

Sweden also has a system of casework where families reside in flats located around a central office. This system has been reviewed as successful in terms of cost, providing support and ensuring compliance.25

In sum, your government’s continued policy of child immigration detention is manifestly unnecessary, it harms the children to whom our public authorities owe a duty of care, it has been condemned by three Royal Colleges of Medicine, the UK Faculty of Public Health, the Children’s Commissioner for England, the Scottish Government, the Synod of the Church of England, the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, the Archbishop of Wales, the Chair of the Urban Bishops Panel, the Moderator of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, the Chair of the Office for Migration Policy of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales and all the major children’s charities. Your government’s policy is also opposed by no fewer than 120 Members of Parliament, including 44 Labour MPs.

We believe that history will judge the administrative detention of children to be a moral stain on the reputation of this country, akin to slavery and child labour. One day we will look back in horror at the fact that innocent children, no different from our own, and capable of experiencing the same joy and wonder at the world and feeling the same anxiety, fear and pain were imprisoned in our name.

You have the power to stop it. Please, Mr Brown, end child detention now.

Yours sincerely 

Clare Sambrook

on behalf of End Child Detention Now

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.