Shine A Light

Roll calls, body searches and sex games

What Parliament isn’t being told about children’s lives inside a UK detention centre.

Clare Sambrook
17 January 2010

Back in October, a study by NHS paediatricians and psychologists, Lorek et al, found that babies and children were being harmed at Yarl’s Wood detention centre.

The doctors recorded children’s 'increased fear due to being suddenly placed in a facility resembling a prison', their weight loss and tummy pains, how older children were so stressed they wet their beds and soiled their pants.

The study related the photographing and the fingerprinting, the roll calls and the body searches, the ID cards that children must carry at all times, the ten locked doors between freedom and the family centre, the steep deterioration in parents' mental health and parenting abilities, the self-harm and the suicide attempts.

And the sex games. One father, ‘spontaneously complained that he had found his daughter in the center without any clothes on. His child explained that she had been encouraged to undress and play “sex games” instigated by another detained child.’

Another mother, ‘spontaneously commented on the sexualized behavior of children within the center’.

The doctors wrote, ‘the experience of detention, even for a relatively brief period of time, has a detrimental effect on the mental and physical health of children.’

Members of Parliament from the Home Affairs Select Committee were handed copies of the doctors’ study before they visited Yarl’s Wood during their inquiry into the detention of children in mid-October.

But when the MPs published their report in late November, it contained not a word about the doctors’ work.

Between the MPs reading the doctors’ study and the MPs deciding not to write about it, someone else had sat down to write.

‘I thought it would be helpful to provide some further details in response to concern you may have about the contents of the report,’ Dave Wood, the UK Border Agency’s strategic director of criminality and detention told the Committee in an undated memo.

‘The study took place over 3 years ago yet this was the first time that report had been made available to us.’

He went on: ‘The study was undertaken without any reference to the UK Border Agency or its clinicians. At no point were healthcare or centre staff, who would have known the children, asked for their views or comments.’

But that’s not true. Here on my desk I’ve got Home Office documents about the discussions that were held between the doctors who wrote the study and senior UK Border Agency staff two years before the study was handed to MPs.

Here’s a letter from Jo Heatley, a Border Agency adviser, dated 17 August 2007, confirming that ‘research conducted by Ann Lorek, Kim Enholt [sic] and other health professionals, was presented at a round table discussion.’

Heatley noted: ‘An agreed action point put forward by Jeremy Oppenheim, [then the Border Agency’s ‘Children’s Champion’] was to set up a meeting for the researchers to present their material to key officials from the Border and Immigration Agency, the detention service provider, the escort service provider and Bedfordshire Children’s Services.’

That meeting took place inside Yarl’s Wood on 27 September 2007. The Home Office Agenda confirms that two of the study’s authors gave a talk entitled 'physical and mental health difficulties of children within a UK immigration detention centre: a pilot study'.

Among the 26 attendees were the Border Agency’s ‘Children’s Champion’ and Brian Pollett, then head of Detention Services, along with Yarl’s Wood social workers and healthcare staff including the health centre manager.

In the first few days of December, the citizens’ campaign group End Child Detention Now (I’m one of the pro-bono coordinators) sent copies of these documents to Home Affairs Select Committee members and staff. The Home Office and the Border Agency were also alerted to Mr Wood’s mistakes.

But when Home Office minister Meg Hillier, stood up in the House on Monday 14 December to defend the detention of children, she repeated one of Wood’s inaccuracies –

'Let me point out that the report in question did not take into account the views of the clinicians who worked with those children and who know them.'

– and threw in one all of her own: ‘There are many pressures on children, and it is not clear that those pressures and problems arise merely from detention.’

The evidence is crystal clear. According to the peer-reviewed medical evidence, children experienced ‘a sudden deterioration in mental health due to the experience of detention rather than any pre-existing problems.’

While the Government misrepresents the evidence, children’s suffering goes on. Only today, Dr Frank Arnold, from the Medical Justice Network, told me, ‘Significant harm is frequent, and as recent as last month. We see recurring evidence of painful and hazardous failures of clinical care, of serious psychological damage including regression, soiling, depression, and PTSD among the majority of these children.’

Dr Arnold has initiated a doctors’ petition calling upon the government to stop the administrative detention of children and families. A petition on the Number 10 website calling upon Gordon Brown to stop detaining children can be found here.


‘The mental and physical health difficulties of children held within a British immigration detention center: A pilot study,’ published in Child Abuse and Neglect 2009; 33: 573

‘The Detention of Children in the Immigration System: First Report of Session 2009–10,’ House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, 29 November 2009

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