Five children kept in room just 13ft square

MPs, church leaders and charities demand an end to draconian treatment of asylum-seekers and their families
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They are deprived of proper schooling, allowed little exercise, living and sleeping as many as five to a room that is only 13ft square. Children locked up in Britain's immigration detention centres are the victims of human rights abuses, say children's charities, senior MPs, church leaders and refugee support groups.

They are deprived of proper schooling, allowed little exercise, living and sleeping as many as five to a room that is only 13ft square. Children locked up in Britain's immigration detention centres are the victims of human rights abuses, say children's charities, senior MPs, church leaders and refugee support groups.

The Refugee Children's Consortium is demanding that David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, ends detention for the children of asylum seekers, who, it says, are treated like criminals

The Independent on Sunday has learnt of one family that has been in a detention centre for more than 10 months. In at least half a dozen more cases, children have been detained for more than two months.

Alison Harvey, from the Children's Society, a member of the Consortium, said families with children should not be classed as a high absconding risk, and called on Mr Blunkett to commission proper research into the detention of children. "This interferes with all children's rights – the right to liberty, their rights to play, the right to education."

As many as 56 children under the age of 18 are currently locked up by the immigration service, including children detained with their families and unaccompanied minors, at Dungavel, a former Victorian prison in Scotland, Oakington, a fast track removal centre in Cambridgeshire, and Harmondsworth near Heath-row. Children are also held in smaller numbers in Tinsley House at Gatwick airport.

Last week the system was thrown into chaos when children were removed from Harmondsworth and sent to other centres after a woman was murdered in the family unit. A man has been charged with her killing.

There is no legal limit for the amount of time that the immigration service can hold children. In October 2001, the Government tightened existing immigration laws so they could detain families with children, whom they viewed as presenting an absconding risk, under the same rules as other asylum seekers.

The Home Office said the average length of stay for children in detention centres was only five days but this newspaper has been given details of cases where children have been held for 270 days, 161 days, 111 days, 87 days and 81 days.

Of particular concern are the cases of children who come to the UK alone and are detained. Official Government policy is to hold these children overnight. However, the IoS has learned that unaccompanied children are being held for several months at a time.

In one case, a teenage boy was held in Harmondsworth for three months while immigration service officials disputed his age. The dispute was resolved when the teenager obtained a copy of his birth certificate. He has now been released.

Asylum charities found last year that 31 per cent of families at Harmondsworth were detained for two to four months, and seven per cent for longer. Only one-third of families were awaiting removal. The majority were appealing against rejected asylum claims.

In March, Bail for Immigration Detainees (Bid), a refugee support group, published a report on the detention of children which showed thatdetained children felt stigmatised and that their education suffered.

MPs held a special debate in the House of Commons last week, to highlight the plight of children held in asylum detention centres. Michael Connarty, a Labour MP who raised the issue, said that imprisoning children was "offensive" and they were being denied their human rights.

"Locking up asylum seekers' children does not contribute to solving that problem," said the MP for Falkirk East.

Incarcerating children was doubly wrong, he added, because it was dressed up as part of a removal process, whereas in fact the minors were being detained.

Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrats Home Affairs spokesman, said it was "unacceptable" for children to be detained for long periods when they had committed no offence. The needs of all children should be a priority.

"They should be entitled to breathe fresh air and go to school and have a normal life with their own age group," said the MP for Southwark North and Bermondsey.

John Joseet, immigration policy advisor to the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales, said the Government was taking a "reactionary" approach to asylum seekers.

"Children should not be detained in detention centres, but should be placed in secure houses," he said.

Additional reporting by Daniel Lyons

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