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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 20 November 2007

[Mr. Bill Olner in the Chair]

Children (Immigration Detention)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Liz Blackman.]

9.30 am

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): Today is universal children’s day. It is also the anniversary of the 1959 declaration of the rights of the child and of the 1989 convention on the rights of the child. It therefore seems a suitable day to try to bring the attention of Ministers to bear on one of the most tragic and socially excluded groups of children in Britain in 2007—children in immigration detention.

Such children are uniquely vulnerable, partly because of the media climate around immigration and asylum, so it is possible to treat them in a way in which the state would not treat other children in this country. Children in immigration detention are vulnerable because, as we all know, when party leaders consult the polls, they find over and over again that one of the issues that people are most concerned about is immigration, asylum and borders. The Government have chosen to meet that fear and the concern reflected in opinion polls with an increasingly draconian system of immigration control.

This group of children is also uniquely vulnerable because who speaks for them? I know, because I have spoken to Ministers about this, that Ministers get constant pressure from Labour MPs in marginal seats who are worried about public opinion on immigration, and MPs who are calling for ever stricter and more draconian regimes. The pressure is all one way.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe) (Lab): I apologise in advance that another commitment will take me away before the end of the debate, but as a Labour MP in a marginal seat, I just want to say that the pressure is not all one way. Quite a lot of my constituents are concerned in particular about children in this situation.

Ms Abbott: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I am not saying that all the pressure is one way, but the majority of pressures on Ministers are in one direction, whether they are pressures from the media, polling data or what MPs say on the Floor of the House and privately. That is why this group of children is uniquely exposed and uniquely vulnerable.

I remind colleagues that when the question of detaining children originally came up, in the 1998 White Paper entitled “Fairer, Faster and Firmer—A Modern Approach to Immigration and Asylum”, the Government were saying that families should not normally be detained for more than a few days and only if they were due for removal. The starting position was that the detention of children and their families would be the exception rather than the rule and would last a few days at most. That was the basis on which MPs put the legislation through the House. The position now is that children are being detained in detention centres for up to three months
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and beyond. I shall come to the facts of the situation later in my remarks, but if people think about it, it is extraordinary that one of the wealthiest liberal democracies in the world should find itself locking up children arbitrarily for indefinite periods. We came to that position as a result of media and political pressure.

What are the parameters of the problem? It is not easy to establish the figures for the numbers of children held in immigration detention at any one time. The best figures available to me are provided in the Home Office publication “Asylum Statistics”, which says that on 30 June 2007, 35 under-18s were being held in immigration removal centres. Of those, five had been in detention for seven days or less; 20 for between 15 and 29 days; and 10 for between one and two months. However, the previous edition of “Asylum Statistics” gave a figure of 50 children on 31 March. The most recent Home Office figures show that in the first quarter of 2007, 200 of the 3,580 people recorded as being removed from the UK on leaving detention were children.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): Does the hon. Lady agree that one of the problems relates to the statistics and figures? They are totally unreliable; we cannot obtain accurate figures from anyone. A report by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in November 2006 called “Seeking Asylum Alone” shows that, according to Home Office figures, 2,755 unaccompanied and separated children applied for asylum in the UK in 2004, but the number of Refugee Council referrals was 3,867. I know that these children are not necessarily detained, but where are they if they are not detained?

Ms Abbott: The hon. Gentleman has made a very important point, to which I will return. Whatever people’s views on our system of immigration control, whether they think that it is too strict, not strict enough or just very badly managed, which is my view, we cannot have a robust system without the figures, and both on the general question of children and on the particular question of children in immigration detention, the figures are not robust enough. I have been very disappointed, in doing the research and looking at previous responses to questions, with Ministers’ approach. Whatever the House believes the direction of travel should be on immigration control, at the very least we need robust figures. On the basis of the figures available to me, we are talking about some 200 children in the first quarter of 2007, but I will return to the question of the figures.

Let me begin to talk about the conditions in which the children are held. There are general issues that make those conditions deplorable. The first general issue that makes the detention of children for immigration purposes deplorable is the arbitrary nature of the detention process. I ask hon. Members to reflect on the fact that a child who has committed a criminal offence and is put in prison, who is serving a sentence at Her Majesty’s pleasure—that is how sentencing is termed for children under a certain age—has more rights than a child held in immigration detention and is dealt with in a more transparent way. Immigration detention is not ordered or sanctioned by a court; it is an administrative power. People are not being detained because they have committed a criminal offence. That means that there is a lack of transparency and accountability and it gives the immigration
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service the kind of control over people’s lives and rights that a court would not have. The first thing to say about the detention of children is the arbitrary nature of the process.

The second general issue, which is worth a debate on its own, is medical treatment. The medical treatment available to detainees in a detention centre has been a general concern. I want to refer to issues raised by doctors and groups such as Médecins sans Frontières. It is tragic that an organisation that is used to dealing with medical concerns in war zones and famine regions had to come to Britain to do an investigation into our detention centres. Among the issues raised by doctors in research that I have seen are depression and suicide. Many people in detention centres have post-traumatic stress disorder or are depressed. Some have been tortured and are not receiving therapy for that. Some are HIV-positive, but are not receiving the treatment that they should receive in the detention centre. Some come from areas of the world where malaria is prevalent, have lost their immunity to malaria after coming to the UK and have difficulty getting the proper course of treatment. Some suffer from tuberculosis. Those are general medical issues covering everyone being held in detention centres.

I suggest to Ministers that a detention centre is a peculiarly unsuitable atmosphere for detaining children. The arbitrary nature of the process—people do not know what will happen to them—and the problems with medical treatment are two general concerns.

Mr. Steen: Does the hon. Lady share my concern about such children, who come from outside the EU, which is that there is no system for appointing a guardian ad litem, a lawyer or anybody to have an interest in them while they are in Britain? They go into the system with no close friend and no support and just disappear. I am worried about children who disappear—not just those who disappear in care, but those who disappear in detention—and go back home on a plane without anybody knowing anything about them. Is she thinking of saying something about that?

Ms Abbott: I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern. The way we are discharging our duty of care to such children simply is not satisfactory or appropriate for a country such as this in the 21st century.

Having spoken generally about the problems in detention centres, I move to some specifics relating to children. I could quote from many pressure groups and lobbyists, but I cannot do better than to quote the Government’s own chief inspector of prisons, Anne Owers, on her most recent inspection of Yarl’s Wood immigration centre in February 2006:

She had raised that concern in her previous visit to Yarl’s Wood. One of the disturbing things about the 2006 report is how little had been done since her previous visit.

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I have known Anne Owers for years, ever since she was campaigning on immigration issues and I was a lobbyist on race and immigration issues. If the chief inspector of prisons puts such a paragraph into the introduction of her inspection report on a detention centre, it should not take a debate such as this to make Ministers realise that our treatment of children in detention is not satisfactory.

I should like to allow colleagues to hear the voices of children in detention, because in the debate on this issue—which is driven by concerns about polling, pressures from MPs and the latest front page of the Daily Express, among other things—not enough attention is paid to the voices of children. The Children’s Commissioner for England visited Yarl’s Wood in 2005. His report said many things about what he saw, including one thing that I thought disturbing:

as that was the main purpose of the visit.

It is one thing to say that a robust immigration control system requires the detention of children, but what immigration control system requires the detention of young children who do not know why they are there or what will happen to them?

A Save the Children report quoted the mother of a detained child:

During a House of Lords debate on immigration in December last year, the Lord Bishop of Ripon and Leeds spoke about a case familiar to him from his diocese:

A Children’s Society representative says:

The issue of medical treatment will come up again, and I shall return to it.

A specific case was passed to me this morning that I should like Ministers to look into—the case of Meltem Avcil, whose 14th birthday is tomorrow. She will spend it behind bars in Yarl’s Wood detention centre, where she has been detained with her mother for almost three months. In August this year, 12 immigration officials carried out a dawn raid on her home in Doncaster. The two were taken to Yarl’s Wood in a caged van and have
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been held there ever since. Since being incarcerated at Yarl’s Wood, Meltem has had no appropriate schooling. She and her mother have had poor medical and social support. Her psychological state has deteriorated and she has had to be taken to hospital after self-harming. We all know that we need a robust immigration system, but what immigration system creates as casualties traumatised children—children spending three months behind bars, celebrating their birthdays behind bars and not knowing what will become of them?

I return to the chief inspector of prisons, because what she said is important in this context, and Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons cannot be accused of being partisan or hearing only one side of the story. She raised a number of concerns in her report last year. She said that, despite the fact that there was a social worker in the centre, her role was unclear, that children were being detained for as long as 112 days, and that in most cases children were being detained for too long. She found that Yarl’s Wood was still not performing sufficiently well in terms of purposeful activity. Immigration officials were still found to be leaving centre staff and detainees in the dark about their status and removal dates—again we return to the issue of children not knowing why they are there or what will happen to them.

The chief inspector of prisons’ 2005 recommendation that the detention of children should be exceptional and for no more than a few days has not been achieved. In 2005 the inspector also recommended:

That had not been achieved at the time of the last report. The inspectorate could not even obtain data. Even for Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons, the staff at Yarl’s Wood could not produce data showing whether there had been any changes to the pattern for detaining children.

it took place only after 14 days’ detention.

At the time of inspection, the reports that social workers were trying to produce were not being used by officers. Children who were interviewed reported feeling frightened at being taken into detention—one child was scared when the police broke down the door. The quality of education provision was still not up to scratch. Sufficient activities were not being provided for children. Staff were not receiving appropriate training. Detainees were still being told what beds they had to occupy, and families were being split up. Children were having to sleep with strangers. Those issues were all raised in 2005. When the inspectorate returned in 2006, it found that relatively little progress had been made.

I have spoken about the inspectorate because I believe that one cannot query the views expressed in its reports, but I want to mention also the views of other stakeholders and interested parties on what is happening to children in immigration detention. I begin by citing the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. I shall return later to the fact that the United Kingdom has entered a reservation to UN protocols in that regard.

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Mr. Steen: Before the hon. Lady continues, will she confirm that Britain is the only country to have made a reservation?

Ms Abbott: We are the only country in the world. I shall return to the point because it is a grave and shameful matter.

The UNHCR regrets that the UK has made a reservation to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in order to be able to pass immigration legislation without reference to its obligations under the CRC. It stated:

The Minister will doubtless be relieved to know that the Government are free to allow humanitarian and moral imperatives to inform their policies on the detention of children.

I turn to what other stakeholders and people who have visited those children have said. The Children’s Society states:

The Refugee Children’s Consortium has called on the Government to use the UK Borders Act 2007 to stop the detention of children. The four UK children’s commissioners have expressed “profound” concern about the detention of children.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees states that it views the detention of minors as

Save the Children, in its report “No Place Like Home”, suggested that children in detention were vulnerable on account of being children, being detained and being immigrants. The all-party group on refugees published a report in July 2006, to which the Government have not responded, saying that the detention of children

Finally, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, in its report on the treatment of asylum seekers in March 2007, found that the UK was in breach of its human rights obligations by detaining children. One of the report’s authors, Lord Avebury, said that

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