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?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive is required t...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + competitive: SThree: £20000 - £25000 per annum + c...

Recruitment Genius: Project Coordinator

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a number ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Sales Consultant - OTE £45,000

£15000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you want to work for an exci...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Turkey conflict: Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

Robert Fisk
 

At last! An Education Secretary who thinks teachers should teach

Chris Maume
Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

Solved after 200 years

The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

Sunken sub

Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

Age of the selfie

Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

Not so square

How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

Still carrying the torch

The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

...but history suggests otherwise
The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

The bald truth

How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

Tour de France 2015

Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

A new beginning for supersonic flight?

Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash
I would never quit Labour, says Liz Kendall

I would never quit party, says Liz Kendall

Latest on the Labour leadership contest
Froome seals second Tour de France victory

Never mind Pinot, it’s bubbly for Froome

Second Tour de France victory all but sealed
Oh really? How the 'lowest form of wit' makes people brighter and more creative

The uses of sarcasm

'Lowest form of wit' actually makes people brighter and more creative
A magazine editor with no vanity, and lots of flair

No vanity, but lots of flair

A tribute to the magazine editor Ingrid Sischy
Foraging: How the British rediscovered their taste for chasing after wild food

In praise of foraging

How the British rediscovered their taste for wild food