Chris Huhne: Britain must stop locking up innocent children

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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

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