Revealed: how asylum detention centres damage children

The traumatic toll of detention on the children of asylum seekers will be exposed in a new report.

"State Sponsored Cruelty", due to be published by Medical Justice in September, found that two-thirds of children became ill or were hurt after being held in detention centres. They include a three-year-old girl who broke her shoulder falling down stairs.

Pressure was building yesterday on the Government to honour a promise made in the Queen's Speech in May to act quickly to outlaw the detention of young asylum seekers, a practice Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has described as a "moral outrage".

This year, 50 women at Yarl's Wood immigration removal centre, Bedfordshire, went on hunger strike over conditions. A scathing report by Dame Anne Owers published in March confirmed the findings of a similar investigation by the Children's Commissioner which said Yarl's Wood had been "distressing and harmful" for children. Last night, Medical Justice reiterated a call by the Scottish Refugee Council for the Government to immediately ban the detention of children of failed asylum seekers rather than wait for the outcome of a Home Office Review.

"Powers still exist to arrest and forcibly remove children from the UK by harmful means, including separating and detaining one parent, detaining a single parent and putting the child "in care", and forcibly removing one family member from the UK without the others," it said. "We need policy and legislation change that eliminates all forms of family detention and separation and related harmful practices."

Spokeswoman Emma Ginn added: "Our fear is that they will never end detention of children. To say they will only detain children for a short period is the same as what we had before."

In the first large-scale investigation in the UK, Medical Justice gathered the evidence of independent doctors who assessed 141 children detained between 2004 and April 2010.

It found that 92 had suffered physical harm, often developing fevers and vomiting, while 50 children received inadequate medical care. More than half, 74, had been psychologically harmed and went on to suffer nightmares, insomnia or became deeply fearful of being locked up again. Almost 50 had witnessed violence in detention while 13 had been injured, notably several children hurt during the break-up of a hunger strike at Yarl's Wood.

Last year 1,065 children were held with their families awaiting removal. While there are currently no children in detention, the UK Border Agency would only say "detention of families will be kept to a minimum until the review is completed". After taking office, the coalition Government pledged to end the practice of locking up failed asylum families with children. Last month the Prime Minister promised to end the practice "once and for all".

A Home Office review is looking at alternatives, including housing children in care, but yesterday Clare Tudor of the Scottish Refugee Council said it wanted "a commitment set in law that would disallow the Government at any time in the future to detain children".

A UK Border Agency spokesperson said: "The Government is clear in its commitment to end the detention of children for immigration purposes. One of the first actions was to set up a review and this has changed the UK Border Agency's approach. We are focused on finding an alternative that protects the welfare of children, without undermining immigration laws."

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