Inside Yarl's Wood: Britain's shame over child detainees

Emily Dugan on the shocking treatment of families in immigration centres

Children held in the infamous Yarl's Wood immigration detention centre are being denied urgent medical treatment, handled violently and left at risk of serious harm, a damning report by the Children's Commissioner for England will say tomorrow.

Sir Al Aynsley-Green's investigation paints a shocking picture of neglect and even cruelty towards children trapped within the centre's razor-wired walls, and finds "substantial evidence that detention is harmful and damaging to children and young people".

Since opening in 2001, the Bedfordshire detention centre has been plagued by hunger strikes, self-harm incidents, a suicide and riots. It was severely damaged by fire during disturbances in 2002. Despite repeated scandals – and the damning findings of this report – planning permission was given last month to double the centre's capacity from 405 places to nearly 900.

Around 2,000 children a year are held in immigration centres – half in Yarl's Wood, which has been run by a private company, Serco, since 2007. The experience they described is prison in all but name. Politicians, immigration experts and doctors last night called for an end to the detention of children and for urgent measures to ensure other detainees are treated humanely.

The report, based on the most recent inspection by Sir Al, reveals that basic safeguards for children in Yarl's Wood are failing. Welfare issues raising "serious concern" were ignored, with children forced to remain in custody even when they were seriously ill or in danger from parents with mental health problems, the report says. It also criticises the "scant regard to basic welfare needs" during arrest and transportation to the centre.

Key meetings between social services, the UK Border Agency (UKBA) and Yarl's Wood staff designed to discuss the welfare implications of keeping a child locked up for more than 28 days dwelt instead on PR and legal concerns. The commissioner calls for an urgent review to "ensure the best interests of the child are central to decisions on detention".

The UKBA claims that steps have now been taken to protect children since the inspection last May, but Lisa Nandy, policy adviser at The Children's Society, disputes this. "The agency has not made the improvements necessary to safeguard these children," she said. "The Secretary of State for Children must intervene immediately as this report exposes serious child protection risks which have not been adequately addressed."

The commissioner found that seriously ill children were denied hospital treatment, while bureaucracy substantially delayed others with critical conditions from getting to hospital. A baby with pneumonia and a teenager with severe mental health problems were among those affected. Despite being the main detention centre for children, no one on the Yarl's Wood health team has child health qualifications, the report says.

Sir Al found major healthcare shortcomings at the centre, describing safeguards, records and professionalism as inadequate and below NHS standards. He reports that two children with sickle cell disease were not allowed to bring their penicillin with them when they were seized from their homes. As a result they became seriously ill and required urgent treatment. Instead of being referred to hospital for intravenous fluids and antibiotics they were simply given paracetamol. Under the NHS this would be categorised as a life-threatening "Serious Untoward Incident".

Children suffering from serious medical conditions and the mentally ill were routinely kept in detention despite guidelines stating clearly they should not be. One diabetic child had three emergency treatments in the 24 days she was detained – including two occasions where her blood sugar left her "un-rousable" – but was still not released. An eight-month-old baby with asthma was neither released nor given an inhaler.

Immunisations were denied to children documented as needing them, creating a health risk. One child was even given the wrong vaccine, while the centre's policy for preventing malaria was described as containing "serious errors" and being "unacceptably poor".

Doctors working for Medical Justice, an organisation that provides voluntary medical assistance for Yarl's Wood families, insist there is wider evidence of medical abuse beyond the commissioner's report. They say they have documented evidence of a child under 12 being given his mother's anti-depressant drugs on removal; of a young person in severe pain with sickle cell disease being denied painkillers because he was unable to walk to the clinic to receive them in person; and of children contracting severe malaria on being returned to their home country because they were refused suitable preventative medicine.

Paediatrician Dr Fred Martineau said: "The detention of children, whether newborn babies or adolescents, almost invariably causes them physical or emotional suffering. Doctors from Medical Justice regularly see the effects of this, ranging from a failure to give immunisations against potentially fatal diseases, through to clinical depression ...The only way of preventing this harm is to end their detention."

Healthcare at Yarl's Wood has long been a problem, with outbreaks of vomiting bugs and chickenpox common. The centre was last night understood to be in the middle of yet another chickenpox quarantine.

The report describes the ordeal of "dawn raids" – where up to 20 officers arrive to seize families in the early hours of the morning. Children repeatedly reported being treated with violence, including being dragged on the floor and thrown to the ground.

Young people told how traumatised they were by the experience, noting that officers seemed to be laughing at them and "taking pleasure in the family's distress". The study said: "In a large majority of cases, children reported that officers' behaviour had been aggressive, rude and, on a few occasions, violent."

Children were even watched by officers of the opposite sex while they dressed, which the report called "an unacceptable safeguarding risk which must be addressed immediately". They also had to watch parents being handcuffed and heavily restrained – a direct flouting of UKBA guidelines. One mother, so distressed at being handcuffed in front of her family and thrown into a caged van, tried to hang herself with her son's shoelaces.

Caged prison vans are routinely used to transport children to the centre near Bedford, despite promises that people carriers would be used for families. Children were denied toilet breaks or food and drink. The vans, the report says, are "stained with urine and vomit".

The commissioner also expressed concern at the increase in the length of time for which children are being held, which threatens their mental well-being. Last week, the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, told MPs: "Detention is a final option and is only used for the shortest period necessary." But the Children's Commissioner says: "The average length of time children and young people are being detained is increasing, and, crucially, the decision to detain them is neither being used as a last resort nor for the shortest period of time as required by Article 37 of the UN Convention on the Rights of a Child."

In conclusion, Sir Al calls for an end to the detention of children. "Each year in the UK, we detain around 2,000 children for administrative purposes. This has to end," he said.

His call was echoed by the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, who said: "The incarceration of thousands of children accused of no crime, often for months on end, is inhumane. The treatment of these vulnerable children in Yarl's Wood is a shameful indictment of the Government's failed immigration policy."

The Border and Immigration minister Phil Woolas said: "If people refuse to go home then detention becomes a necessity. We don't want to split up families, so we hold children with their parents, and while they are in our care we treat them with sensitivity and compassion."

Taken away: 'They came for us at night'

Dominic Mwafulirwa trembles at the words "Yarl's Wood". The eight-year-old was asleep when six guards wrenched him and his mother, Cecilia, 35, from their Swansea home in the early hours three months ago.

They had arrived in the UK from Malawi when Dominic was a year old. Cecilia, who had run away from an abusive husband, started a new life in Wales, where Dominic excelled at school. That life ended abruptly when the men arrived.

"Dominic didn't say a word from the time they came until we were locked up," Cecilia says. "It was hard to keep his spirits up. When I asked him why he wasn't going to the school at Yarl's Wood, he said: 'What's the point? We're not learning anything.' He refused to wash and started smashing things. He's still really angry and confused.

"We spent 50 days in that place. I lost 20kg. I'm a sickle cell patient and by the end of the 50 days my haemoglobin was too low. I'm really anaemic and they knew I had depression. They changed my medication and they threatened to take my son away."

Cecilia and Dominic have been out of Yarl's Wood since the end of March. They have yet to find out whether they will be allowed to stay in the UK.

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