Child refugees harmed by 'cruel' detention system

More than half the children caught up in Britain's asylum system have suffered permanent psychological harm, one of the most extensive investigations into the treatment of refugee families has found.

The report, State Sponsored Cruelty, claims that many of the children witnessed violence in detention centres or were seriously disturbed after dawn raids carried out by officers working for the UK Border Agency (UKBA). The findings, which are published today, are based on medical evidence and come as campaigners claim that the Home Office continues to hold children in immigration detention. This is despite the promise six weeks ago from Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, to end the practice and to close the family unit at Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre in Bedfordshire.

Of the 141 families and children interviewed in the study, 74 children were reported to have been psychologically harmed as a result of being detained. Symptoms included bed-wetting and loss of bowel control, heightened anxiety, food refusal, withdrawal and disinterest, and persistent crying. Of the children affected, 34 exhibited signs of developmental regression, and six children expressed suicidal thoughts either during or after they were detained. According to the research, which was carried out by the charity Medical Justice, three girls attempted to kill themselves.

In many cases, the effects of detention continued after release and some teachers drew attention to their worsening school performance. One child was reported to be holding a daily silent vigil to mark the time he had been subjected to a dawn raid. Almost 100 of the children were reported to have physical health problems which were either exacerbated or caused by detention. The problems included fever, vomiting, abdominal pains, diarrhoea, musculoskeletal pain and coughing up blood.

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, Royal College of Psychiatrists and Royal College of General Practitioners issued a joint statement calling on the Government to ensure children were properly protected while in detention.

"We welcome the report as it highlights again the harmful effect that administrative detention has on the physical and psychological health of children and young people," the statement said. "The Coalition Government's promise to end the detention of children for administrative purposes is well received.

"However, we call on the Government to make this pledge a reality, and in particular to do so in a way that does not separate families, and that puts the welfare of children first. We encourage the UKBA to embrace their new statutory duty to safeguard children, and ensure cases are properly reviewed."

Jon Burnett, the report's author, said: "The fact that UKBA is still detaining children at Yarl's Wood despite announcements to the contrary raises serious questions about the consistency between the will of Government and the actions of UKBA. The Government must now show it is in control of UKBA. It must order and ensure the release of any detained children today and stop what the Deputy Prime Minister correctly refers to as 'state-sponsored cruelty'."

He added that the evidence uncovered in the report brings to light the extent to which detaining children causes harm, suffering, and anguish.

But the Home Office rejected claims that it did not properly care for children held in detention. And Lin Homer, the chief executive of UKBA, said: "The UKBA takes very seriously the need to respect and provide for the mental health needs of vulnerable individuals seeking asylum in the UK, and in particular the need to safeguard and protect the well-being of children. Throughout their asylum application, all individuals receive the same free access to NHS services and additional support that is available to the general public."

She added: "Significant progress has been made in working towards the commitment to end child detention for immigration purposes and we are currently piloting some proposed changes to our approach developed with partners. We have already announced that the family unit at Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre will close. We requested a copy of this report four weeks ago but Medical Justice declined. As a result we are unable to comment specifically on the accuracy of the report or the findings."

Case study: 'It is very horrible to take children from their beds'

Stephen Ssentongo and his family spent three and a half months in Yarl's Wood. He says his sons – Ibrahim, four, and Imran, one, suffered mentally and physically.

"It's very horrible, getting children from their beds, banging on the door, early in the morning. It's a really bad experience," said Mr Ssentongo, 36, who fled from persecution in Uganda in 1998. He met his wife in the UK and their two children were born here – nearly half of those children involved the Medical Justice study were born in the UK.

The Ssentongo family was taken into detention in February when the authorities discovered Mr Ssentongo was given fake residency documents by a solicitor, who has since been prosecuted. "It was very embarrassing when they came, early in the morning," he said. "All the neighbours came out and didn't know what was taking place. It was when there had been terrorist arrests in the area. The officials looked like police officers."

Ibrahim had been attending school before the family were put in detention. "They have got a school in there, but they put a four-year-old in with 13-year-olds. That's what they call a school in there," his father said.

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