The children's charity Barnardo's decision to work with the UK Border Agency (UKBA) in its planned short-term family detention facility has caused alarm among campaigners.
On 9 March, Barnardo's announced that it had agreed with the UKBA to provide staff at the proposed new immigration holding centre for up to nine families at Pease Pottage, Crawley Forest.
UKBA and its consultants putting forward the planning application describe the centre as “pre-departure accommodation”, and never use the word “detention”. According to UKBA's website, families “will have free movement around the site, security will be low-key, and the site will not have an institutional feel”.
The plans show conclusively that the centre will be a detention centre — complete with 2.5-metre perimeter fences, locked areas, internal fences dividing the site into accessible and inaccessible areas, a “buffer zone” inside the perimeter fence, and powers to use force and “control and restraint” techniques on both adults and children.
The plans even suggest capacity to segregate difficult families for “special attention” in two special units. All areas will be supervised at all times and “routine observation of all parts of the grounds will be undertaken” (although the application does not refer to CCTV, it is likely that this is what it means).
The fact that children, and families, may be allowed to leave the centre on supervised shopping or cinema trips, subject to individual risk assessments, does not mask, but in fact highlights, the institutional nature of the place.
But Crawley Borough Council planning committee, which has recommended that the plans be approved, accepted UKBA's argument that the accommodation is not in fact a detention centre or short-term holding centre (which have a specific planning category of their own), but is “sui generis” - in other words, it is a type of building not recognised in any planning category.
Barnardo's involvement in the project was clearly of vital importance to UKBA's argument. In the planning documents it is emphasised that “The facility will be run on a care model rather than a secure one”, and “Most importantly, the facility will be part-operated by a well known national children's charity, who are already working with the UKBA in relation to its design and way it will function”.
So from UKBA's point of view, the involvement of Barnardo's is a real coup, which provides a cloak of legitimacy to the continued detention of children. Barnardo's provides, as it were, the nosegays which disguise the stench of reality. The planning committee's willingness to be persuaded that Pease Pottage is not a detention or holding centre, as NoBorders points out, helps in turn to mislead the public into believing that child detention in the UK has ended. And since there are likely to be more than nine families at a time who strenuously resist forcible removal, this is a template for future holding centres, which will be given a similarly misleading label.
The consultants' planning application states that families will be held in the “pre-departure accommodation” for a maximum of 72 hours. It immediately contradicts itself by saying that “exceptionally” the period may be extended to a week, “but linked to a specific date when they will leave the UK”. So 72 hours is not the maximum; it is a week. Will the “maximum” be extended yet further in “exceptional” circumstances, as happened with the “seven-day” detention in the fast track at Oakington, Yarl's Wood and Harmondsworth which stretched to ten, then to fourteen days and then into weeks?
So what's wrong with Barnardo's working in a detention centre? The charity argues that its staff can provide much-needed welfare support to children and families at an extremely stressful time of their lives — in the 72 hours before they leave the country — and will “ensure that staff are trained to safeguard children and treat these families with the dignity and respect they deserve”.
Barnardo’s posits the question: “If not us, then who?” It is a seductive argument: certainly, children and families are in desperate need of such support, and of dignified and respectful treatment. The organisation has promised that it “will not be afraid to speak out if:
“It appears that families are being referred to this accommodation as a matter of routine rather than exception;
“The accommodation becomes a revolving door for families and they end up spending significant periods within it despite the one week maximum;
“We witness any member of staff not keeping a child’s welfare front of mind or failing to treat residents with dignity and respect.”
Barnardo’s assured Institute of Race Relations News that it will be prepared to speak out both privately and publicly in these circumstances. But Sir Al Aynsley-Green, the former Children's Commissioner, writing for OurKingdom, asks how organisations can retain the independence to be fiercely critical of government policy where necessary if a significant stream of funding comes from government, and particularly if they are directly involved in helping to implement that policy.
Already, he says, organisations purporting to speak for children are muffled in their opposition to damaging cuts. He asks: “Has the children's sector and its famous organisations forgotten the outrage of their founders?”
IRR News asked Barnardo's what the organisation will be able to do if detention is clearly harming a child — what powers will it have to stop it? Will Barnardo's staff be able to intervene to ensure families who should not be in detention are released — or that families whose removal is clearly detrimental to the children's welfare are not removed? The response was that Barnardo's “can and will voice concerns when necessary, and ensure that families have access to appropriate support (ie, legal support) to take this matter forward”. Barnardo's staff will not hold the keys to the centre, and will be effectively powerless.
It is clear that Barnardo's believes that its presence in the holding centre can and will mitigate both the brutality of the treatment which frequently accompanies detention and removal and the distress inevitably occasioned by these processes. But it is detention itself which causes psychological damage to children. Medical Justice pointed out in its report State Sponsored Cruelty: Children in immigration detention that of 141 children surveyed, seventy-four demonstrated symptoms of psychological damage and ninety-two had physical health problems caused or exacerbated by detention. Moreover, “symptoms of psychological disturbance are more likely during the relatively early stages of incarceration, with suicide rates particularly high among those recently taken into custody”. Play facilities and smiling faces cannot compensate for the lack of freedom, and for the further trauma of forced removal.
In the light of the consistent experience of the past decade, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Barnardo’s, whatever its intentions, is unwittingly collaborating in and endorsing a fundamentally cruel and harmful process. It and other organisations concerned with the welfare of children surely have no place in the policing of immigration control.
NoBorders will be holding a demonstration on Thursday 24 March 2011 as Mid Sussex Council decides on the UKBA planning application for the centre.
With thanks to the Institute of Race Relations who first ran this piece.