More than 2,000 children of asylum-seekers are locked up every year, leaving them suffering depression, nightmares and eating problems, a coalition of campaign groups has warned.
Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, is facing calls to abandon the "inhumane and unnecessary" policy of sending youngsters to immigration detention centres.
The Home Office announced a review of the treatment of families awaiting deportation on the eve of today's campaign launch, but it stopped far short of a commitment not to detain children. Children are being locked up in three detention centres around the country. One in three is held for at least a week and some are held for months without being told how long their detention will last. There is a case of a child being detained for nine months.
The Refugee Council, Save the Children UK and Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID) accuse the Government of breaching international agreements on the treatment of young people.
They also warn that the detention of under-18s leads to depression, distress, changes in behaviour, loss of sleep and weight loss, as well as disrupting their education. The charities have received complaints of filthy conditions in family wings with 30 people sharing a single bathroom. There have also been claims of outbreaks of cholera and diarrhoea in removal centres.
The Government does not compile figures disclosing exactly how many children are detained with asylum-seeker parents. But the coalition has gathered evidence that suggests the annual total is well over 2,000, with most of them at Yarl's Wood removal centre in Bedfordshire.
Last year prison inspectors found a five-year-old autistic girl at Yarl's Wood who was so badly neglected she had not eaten properly for four days. Inspectors warned that other children there were "damaged".
Maeve Sherlock, the chief executive of the Refugee Council, said detention centres, with high levels of suicide and self harm, were no place for a child. She added: "Detention is unnecessary, it's expensive and it's inhumane. There are viable alternatives which are far less costly in both financial and human terms."
Jasmine Whitbread, the chief executive of Save the Children UK, said: "These already vulnerable children can find themselves forcibly removed from their familiar surroundings ... They are locked up having committed no crime. This is no way to treat children."
Tim Baster, the legal director of BID, said: "Detention of children is morally wrong. We must speak out to defend these children, who are the only ones in this country who can be locked up without any legal process and without having committed any crime."
Campaigners are launching a nationwide petition calling for an end to the detention of children. They will be backed in a Commons motion demanding an end to the detention of children.
During a visit to Glasgow yesterday, Tony McNulty, the Immigration minister, said the Home Office was reviewing the "family removals processes", including "dawn raids". He said: "The purpose will be to get details from the children's commissioners and others about the nature of removals - are there ways we can do it better?" But a Home Office spokeswoman said that detaining failed asylum-seekers, including youngsters, was an essential part of a "robust removal system".
n Nearly 800 people have gone back to their home countries since 1 January, when a scheme offering failed asylum-seekers up to £3,000 to return voluntarily was launched.
'My son still has nightmares': 'Catherine', from West Africa, has two young children
'Catherine' was held at Oakington immigration reception centre, Cambridgeshire.
"I will never forget the feeling of being in detention. I was always tired and ill. They put me in handcuffs. Why? I never killed anyone.
"I didn't sleep. My son was always crying, he didn't want to go to the school there. He still has nightmares. He is afraid of knocking on the door and he is even afraid when letters arrive.
"We didn't eat, the rice was not cooked well. The food was horrible and the toilets were very dirty. It is not an easy place for children to stay.
"Every day, they check you like someone who has committed murder. It is like a prison, it is not good for children. There were lots of pregnant women there like me. They give you medicine which is not for pregnant women.
"I am still scared because we've had that horrible experience. Any time they can come and arrest us.
"When there is a knock at the door I am scared to answer it."Reuse content