Immigration centre's toll on children's mental health

Paediatricians' report condemns the effect of incarceration at Yarl's Wood

Children forcibly held in a British immigration detention centre have experienced serious psychological and physical health problems, a medical report claims today.

Doctors who examined 24 families said their findings raised concerns about the health and wellbeing of children who have sought asylum in Britain and called for an urgent review of the detention of young people.

The paediatricians' report showed that two children had been admitted to hospital and six had missed follow-up appointments for previous health concerns, including for HIV testing and disabilities. Eleven children aged between three and 11 years had developed symptoms of depression and anxiety since being detained.

The report, published in Child Abuse & Neglect: The International Journal, said: "All of these children presented as being confused and frightened by the detention setting, and eight had developed severe emotional and behavioural problems. The majority were suffering from sleep problems, headaches and abdominal pain. None had previously required support from a mental health professional."

The doctors, who examined children at Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre in Bedfordshire, said at least 12 had been separated at some point from their main carer, including a 20-month-old breast-fed baby who was separated from her mother for three weeks.

Dr Ann Lorek, the author and a consultant paediatrician at the Mary Sheridan Centre for Child Health in Lambeth, said: "Our study contains evidence that children in detention have worsening physical and mental health, and express worrying levels of trauma and sickness, despite well intentioned staff.

"They are locked up with family members for indefinite periods of time, often on several occasions ... As doctors, we ask for safeguards to protect these vulnerable children from further harm in detention."

The families examined were referred to the authors by Bail for Immigration Detainees and the Children's Society, which are campaigning for an end to detention of children and families in immigration cases.

David Wood, the strategic director of the criminality and detention group at the UK Border Agency, said: "Treating children with care and compassion is a priority for the UK Border Agency. That's why our children's policy has enshrined in law a commitment to keep youngsters safe from harm." He said the research was "limited" and more than three years old.

"Yarl's Wood Removal Centre has been praised on numerous occasions for its children's facilities – Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons recently said we had made 'significant progress', and we now have full-time independent social workers, and a range of trained experts to monitor welfare 24 hours a day.

"We would much rather keep children out of detention. However when the courts say families have no right to be here, yet they refuse to go home voluntarily, detention will often be necessary to enforce removal from the UK."

Dr Rosalyn Proops, a child protection officer at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said her organisation was "very concerned" about the health and welfare of detained children and was reviewing the evidence with the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Royal College of General Practitioners.