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UK immigration control: children in extreme distress

Alarming numbers of parents are being separated from their children indefinitely in the UK for the purposes of immigration control. It is difficult to imagine any other situation where children could have such scant attention paid to their welfare, says Sarah Campbell. 

A new study by UK charity Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID) has revealed that alarming numbers of parents are being separated from their children for the purposes of immigration control. Children suffered extreme distress, and in the majority of cases parents were eventually released from immigration detention, their detention having served no purpose at all. This raises serious questions about why they were detained in the first place.

The report is the first UK study on this issue, and examines the cases of 111 parents who were separated from 200 children by immigration detention between 2009 and 2012. In 92 out of 111 cases, parents were eventually released. In 15 cases, parents were deported or removed from the UK without their children to countries including Sri Lanka and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Meanwhile, children were left without their detained or deported parent, sometimes in what can only be classed as appalling situations.

Around 30,000 people are held in immigration detention every year in the UK. Asylum seekers and migrants can be detained at any stage of their claim to remain in the UK- on arrival, with appeals outstanding, and prior to removal.  Detainees are held without time limit. The decision to detain them is not made by a judge, but by an immigration officer.

The parents in this research were held for an average of 270 days, and in some cases for over two years. Most, but by no means all of the parents had committed criminal offences and were being held in immigration detention after serving their sentence. Many parents had committed non-violent offences including possession of false documents. Some parents were awaiting the outcome of asylum applications during their detention and some had overstayed student visas. 

In 85 out of 200 cases, children did not have another parent to take care of them and were in private fostering arrangements or the care of Local Authorities. The Home Office has a duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children and yet repeatedly failed to safeguard children when making decisions to detain their parents, with terrible consequences for the children concerned.

photo of a child separated from parent Oliver, aged 10

For our research, we interviewed children, parents and carers who repeatedly told us about children’s extreme distress. They described children losing weight, having nightmares and crying in their sleep. 11 children were two years old or less when their parent was detained, and 31 children were between three and ten years old.

Parents and carers accounts of the impact on young children were particularly troubling. Jenny, who cared for two year old Ella during her mother’s detention said:

‘She didn’t want to eat; you had to force her to eat. She just start crying “mummy, mummy”… you know, the constant crying. Whenever she heard the door open she would go to the door, knocking on the door saying “mummy.”’

Clare, whose daughters were aged between two and six when she was detained for 327 days, said: ‘Their dad told me that the eldest used to cry, regular at night before she went to bed, asking “when is mummy coming home?” There were a lot of questions that they were asking that I couldn’t answer. They would say “Oh so you don’t love us, why you staying away from us so long?”’

Some children’s care arrangements were wholly inadequate and raised serious child protection concerns. For example, Beth and her severely disabled 7 year old brother Daniel were being cared for by their elderly grandfather during their mother’s detention. The children’s grandfather became seriously ill and was admitted to hospital three times. Beth had to stop attending school to care for her brother and grandfather and missed her GCSE exams. She also had to deal with proceedings which were started to evict the family due to rent arrears. Beth found it extremely difficult to look after her seven year old brother, who has very limited motor control and severe behavioural problems. During their mother’s detention, a Local Authority Children’s Services assessment found that:

‘[A] concerned neighbour rang to report that Daniel was playing alone in the road at 8pm, he was seen to fall and lay in the road, which is a bus route... he walks into people’s houses and has poor awareness of danger and his own safety.’

Two months after his mother entered detention Daniel was hit by a car. Despite receiving reports about the welfare of these children, the Home Office detained their mother for 160 days before she was released on bail by the Tribunal. She subsequently successfully appealed the Home Office’s decision to deport her. Like the overwhelming majority of parents in our study, this mother was detained entirely unnecessarily, and untold distress was caused to her children as a result. 

15 parents were deported or removed from the UK without their children. In one case, the Home Office deported a single father leaving his nine and twelve year old sons with his ex-girlfriend. They did not do anything to find out if the children’s care arrangement was safe.

In another case, the Home Office deported a mother who was three months pregnant without her husband and two children. The Home Office argued that her children were ‘content to remain in the UK under their father and stepfather’s care’. During her detention, this mother’s ten year old son was receiving support from a mental health service, who described him as ‘incredibly distressed’ about her absence. Children’s Services said that ‘the current situation where [his mother] is not living in the family home has resulted in him feeling unsafe.’

Dear Santa letter in heart shape Sylvie, 8 years old

The Home Office repeatedly argued that it was necessary to detain parents who took part in this research because there was a high risk that they would abscond. Many, but by no means all of the parents in the study had committed criminal offences, and in a number of cases the Home Office argued that their detention was necessary because of the perceived risk that they might re-offend.

However, our research found very serious problems with the Home Office overestimating the risk that parents would abscond or offend. We gathered detailed data on 27 families who we submitted bail applications for between November 2010 and April 2012. 15 of these 27 parents had been released for six months or more at the end of the data collection period. We tracked all 15 parents for six months after their release, and found that all of them complied with the terms of their release and maintained contact with the Home Office. This was confirmed by their legal representatives in the 14 cases where parents were represented. Parents explained that it would be extremely difficult for them to abscond because they need to access support, healthcare and schooling for their children.

In 14 of these 27 cases, we were able to access information about how the National Offender Management Service had assessed the risk that parents who had committed crimes would reoffend. In 10 cases, parents were assessed by the National Offender Management Service as posing a low risk of reoffending or harm on release, and four parents were assessed as posing a medium risk. However, the Home Office repeatedly argued that these parents needed to be detained as they posed a ‘significant’ and ‘unacceptable’ risk.

14 of the 15 parents who were removed or deported without their children had committed criminal offences. 12 of these 14 parents had committed non-violent offences, and 10 were sentenced to less than two years in prison. In four cases, parents had committed immigration offences such as possession of false documents.

From 1st April this year, Legal Aid ceased to be available to the vast majority of people making immigration claims, including parents such as these. This means that very many families who are separated by immigration control will not be able to access Legal Aid to challenge the deportation or removal of parents. Given the grave examples of failure to safeguard children revealed by our research, it is extremely troubling to envisage a situation where children are families will be even less able to access their rights. BID anticipates that in the coming months we will be dealing with very many more cases where parents are separated from their children. Astonishingly, the Ministry of Justice has now proposed to make even more cuts to Legal Aid, and the consultation on these proposals closes on 4th June.

It is difficult to imagine any other situation where children in the UK could be separated from their parents indefinitely and have such scant attention paid to their welfare. These children have been failed by the agencies who are supposed to safeguard them. Unfortunately, the cuts to Legal Aid mean that even more children will be experiencing the kind of extreme distress documented in this report.


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