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Immigration camps 'harmful for children'

Royal Colleges call on the Government to recognise rights of 'children in need'

The detention of hundreds of children in Britain's immigration camps is harmful and ministers should change the policy, medical experts will warn today. The call for a new approach to the treatment of young refugees and their families follows a report which found that their detention in the asylum system was linked to serious physical and psychological harm.

Today, the Royal Colleges of paediatricians, GPs and psychiatrists described children seeking asylum in the UK as among the most vulnerable in our community who required special and humane treatment.

In a joint statement, the three Royal Colleges and the UK Faculty of Public Health said that children and young people in immigration detention should be recognised as "children in need" and given the same safeguards.

They also called on the Government to transfer the responsibility of healthcare in detention from the Home Office to the NHS. "Primary and secondary medical care for children and their families should be provided on the same in-reach basis as in the prison service," they said. "Mental health services for children and young people in immigration detention should be provided based on their current mental health need and not on their immigration status."

Every year the UK detains 1,000 children in immigration removal centres (IRCs). They are from families identified for enforced removal from Britain, who are detained under administrative orders without time limit and without judicial oversight, said the report. The average length of stay of children in the UK's main IRC at Yarl's Wood in Bedfordshire, is 15 days but almost a third of children are detained for longer than a month.

Dr Rosalyn Proops, officer for child protection at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said: "These children are among the most vulnerable in our communities and detention causes unnecessary harm to their physical and mental health. The current situation is unacceptable and we urge the Government to develop alternatives to detention without delay."

Professor Steve Field, chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners, said: "Detaining children for any length of time – often without proper explanation – is a terrifying experience that can have lifelong consequences. As well as the potential psychological impact, these children invariably experience poor physical health as they cannot access immunisation and preventative services.

"As a civilised society, we cannot sit back and allow these practices to continue – they are unethical and unacceptable. GPs work at the heart of their local communities and are well placed to work with families, agencies and the Government to come up with alternatives that will improve the health and life chances of these children and young people."

But the Home Office said that children held in the asylum system were treated humanely and with compassion, and detention was a last resort.

David Wood, head of criminality and detention for the UK Border Agency, said: "When we do have to detain people, their wellbeing is a priority – Yarl's Wood is registered with the Care Quality Commission who regulate healthcare in the UK. We welcome independent inspectors in our immigration removal centres.

"We agree with the Royal Colleges that families at Yarl's Wood should get the same level of care available on the NHS, and they do. Medical care includes 16 full-time nurses, including a paediatric and mental health nurse, full-time independent social workers, daily attendance by a GP, child-focused counselling and attending midwives and dentist."

Case study: 'My son can't eat properly and is sick all the time'

Last month, a nine-year-old Iranian boy was removed from his home in Manchester without warning by security officers acting on behalf of the UK Border Agency, along with his mother and older brother. For legal reasons, he can only be referred to as "Child M".

The family have lived in the UK for more than two years, after fleeing Iran when Child M's father was killed. They were transferred to Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre in Bedfordshire, apart from Child M's sister, who was not at home when the officers called and is currently in hiding.

In the first week of the family's detention, Child M started to vomit blood. His mother said: "When I showed the blood to the guards, they said, you'll have to wait until tomorrow to see a doctor. He was vomiting blood – it's not a minor thing. Since then he can't eat properly, he is sick all the time. He doesn't want to go to school any more. He misses the community and friends he had.

"He is blaming me for the physical problems he has – losing his hair, wetting himself or screaming in the middle of the night. He keeps shouting at me, saying: 'It's all your fault, it's all your fault'."

The family were released on Tuesday after intervention by their lawyers, who feared for Child M's health. It is the second time the family has been detained – last summer they spent 52 days in Yarl's Wood – and the threat of deportation still hangs over them.

Child M's mother insists that if they are returned to Iran they will be arrested and imprisoned.

Rosa Chapman