Back in January, I reported here on the wretched experience of a boy apprehended by the UK Border Agency at Dover who complained of a bleeding anus, asked to see a doctor, but was first subjected to Border Agency interrogation without benefit of legal representation or support from local children’s services.
Far from being an out-of-character lapse, such heartlessness and illegality was Border Agency policy, enshrined in a long-standing “Gentleman’s Agreement” between Britain and France that provided for undocumented migrants landing on our shores — including trafficked children — to be bounced right back.
The policy was exposed in January by Adrian Matthews in Landing in Dover, a Children’s Commissioner for England report.
Border Agency chief executive Rob Whiteman and Hugh Ind, the director for London and the South East, claimed they knew nothing of the Agreement until Children’s Commissioner Maggie Atkinson told them about it. It had been running for seventeen years.
Atkinson sent Whiteman a formal letter about the Agreement last October, then called on him in his Marsham Street office on 17 November. He handed her a letter that said:
“Since you have raised this subject with us, we have had a further think about whether the continued operation of this Agreement remains appropriate for children. I am pleased to inform you that we think the current practice of removing unaccompanied minors to France under the gentleman’s agreement should cease immediately.”
Questions remained. How many vulnerable children had been abused in this way — bounced back to France? How many migrants claiming to be children but deemed by the Border Agency to be adults were so treated? At which ports, besides Dover, did Border Agency staff apply the Gentleman’s Agreement? Was there a similar agreement with Belgium? (Whiteman had let slip to the Children’s Commissioner that there might be).
Had the Gentleman’s Agreement been approved by lawyers?
Once executives learned of their own policy, how did they tell staff that it had ceased?
I sent questions to the Border Agency on Friday 10 February 2012. According to the Freedom of Information Act answers should land within 20 days. Sixty days later, on Thursday 12 April, a reply came from “Border Force Policy Implementation”.
They said the Gentleman’s Agreement was applied in ports including Dover, Folkestone, Portsmouth, Poole, Plymouth and Harwich, and, on the French side, Calais, Dunkirk, Cherbourg, Le Havre, St Malo and Roscoff.
As for how many children were dispatched since the Agreement was struck in 1995:
“There is no record kept which covers the whole period.”
Nor were records kept of the numbers claiming to be children who were deemed by the immigration authorities to be adults and summarily bounced back to France.
Was legal advice ever sought?
“Our legal department, at the time of being asked, was not able to locate any documents on this.”
They went on: “I am pleased to inform you that since 17 November 2011, the practice of returning unaccompanied children under the agreement has ceased.”
“I appreciate that there may have been occasions when persons were also returned to Belgium. I am however, despite concerted efforts, unable to locate a similar written agreement between the UK and Belgium. You may nonetheless wish to know that where unaccompanied children were returned to France or Belgium, any such actions would only have been taken after proper arrangements were in place for their return.”
The story of a Vietnamese bouncing boy in the Children’s Commissioner’s report suggests otherwise. On landing in Dover he was bounced back to France, only to bounce into Dover again, indicating to the Children’s Commissioner “that he was not offered any protection as a child by French authorities after his initial return.”
In response to my request for copies of instructions to staff about the change of policy, the Border Agency provided a single email dispatched by an unnamed official (probably regional director Hugh Ind) within hours of the Children’s Commissioner’s visit to Rob Whiteman.
A shabby little note, it reads, in full:
“Sent: 17 November 2011 22:15
To: LIT Kent CIOs/HMIs
Subject: Gentleman's agreement
Please note that with immediate effect no unaccompanied minors will be return under the gentleman's agreement. Please ensure that the relevant IOs and AIOs are aware of this.
This does not affect returns of minors outside the gentleman's agreement.
I am in Kent tomorrow and will be happy to discuss.
The instruction appears to have been sent only to Kent Local Immigration Team personnel at Chief Immigration Officer and Inspector level. But the Gentleman’s Agreement applied to all UK Channel Ports. Are trafficked children still being bounced back to France and maybe Belgium and who knows where else from Poole, Portsmouth, Plymouth and Harwich?
The Parliamentary committee responsible for scrutinising the Border Agency’s performance is the Home Affairs Select Committee. Briefed by the Children’s Commissioner in January, the Committee advised the Agency to comply with her request for further information about the Gentleman’s Agreement and any similar bilateral agreements.
In their latest Quarterly Report in April the Committee noted executives’ claimed ignorance of the Agreement’s existence, and said: “If this is the case then it would indicate a lack of communication, a theme which was prevalent in our last report.”
They hoped Rob Whiteman would “resolve the issue of senior managers being unaware of potentially damaging practices”, and reiterated their call for the Chief Inspector of the UK Border Agency, John Vine, to conduct a review of communication within the Agency.
That is all very well. But the problem goes deeper than “communication”.
Border Agency staff interrogated the boy with the bleeding anus even though he was in pain, exhausted, had not slept for 24 hours, and had taken Pethidine, a drug known to be associated with euphoria, confusion, impaired cognitive performance. After answering dozens of questions, without legal representation, without the presence of an “appropriate adult”, through an interpreter by telephone, only then was the bleeding boy taken to hospital.
His was a routine case. The exceptional thing is that it has been exposed to public view. Plainly there is something rotten at the heart of the UK Border Agency.