Chris Huhne: Britain must stop locking up innocent children

Share
Related Topics

Britain's long tradition of providing sanctuary to the world's persecuted stretches back hundreds of years to the Huguenots and beyond, but the Government's existing system of asylum risks undermining what has always been one of the hallmarks of a civilised society. It is one thing to stamp out abuse among asylum-seekers, but quite another to devise a system that combines staggering bureaucratic incompetence with institutionalised cruelty, for every year we are locking up hundreds and probably thousands of children, who have committed no crime, in prison-like conditions.

We do not know exactly how many, because the Government will not provide regular figures, but in June there were 470 such children, most of them under five. Details on living conditions are vague, because campaigners are denied access to accommodation. Even a Father Christmas was prevented from visiting the children held at Yarl's Wood last week. There is a growing body of evidence that imprisoning these children is causing them significant psychological and physical harm, as a coalition of Royal Colleges showed this month.

Listening to ministers, you would think that there was no alternative to the practice of locking up families awaiting deportation. They claim it is a "last resort". This is not true. For a start, these families are among those with the lowest risk of disappearing off the UK Border Agency's radar. Anyone with experience of under-fives will know that it is not easy making a quick getaway with toddlers in tow.

Even if you are worried about families absconding, there are more civilised options than the imprisonment of children. In extreme circumstances, the adults in the family can be electronically tagged. Other options include stringent reporting requirements and residence restrictions. Good pilots are already running in this country. In Glasgow, for example, five families awaiting deportation are housed in former council flats, under a partnership between the council, the Scottish government and the UK Border Agency. Sadly, these initiatives are too few and far between.

In Sweden, families with children are accommodated in a reception centre, where their health and support needs are assessed, before being dispersed to regional "refugee centres" with flats organised round a central office. They are assigned caseworkers who offer legal advice, counselling and healthcare. Children cannot legally be detained for longer than three days. This system has been successful both in providing support and in securing compliance with immigration decisions, including return. It has also reduced costs. Similar success stories can be found in Canada and Australia.

Ministers will also say that children are held for only a very short time and in exceptional circumstances. This is also untrue. Nearly 1,000 children have been held for longer than a month in the past five years. Every case has been personally approved by a minister at the Home Office. It is difficult to assess the detrimental effect of this on young bodies and minds. Medical experts, children's groups and refugee groups are united in their condemnation. This is why Nick Clegg and I have pressed ministers to act.

Locking up children is profoundly at odds with the British tradition of open-heartedness and generosity to those most in need. At Christmas above all other times of year, we should remember our common humanity and end this practice. It hurts the weak and vulnerable, and it shames us.

Chris Huhne MP is the Liberal Democrats' Home Affairs spokesman

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: the paraphernalia of a practised burglar – screwdrivers, gloves, children

Guy Keleny
The PM proposed 'commonsense restrictions' on migrant benefits  

So who, really, is David Cameron, our re-elected ‘one nation’ Prime Minister?

Andrew Grice
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?