Mary Dejevsky: It is not only the young who suffer

The plight of innocent children is used as a way to infiltrate hearts – and wallets

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Children's writers have been discovering a new activist side recently. First Philip Pullman (he of His Dark Materials and much else) leads a campaign – crowned yesterday with success – against the absurdity of requiring writers who go on school visits to undergo a Criminal Record Bureau check. Which is eminently fine and reasonable. Now – and this is not quite so fine and reasonable in my view – we have Michael Bond and his delightful creation, Paddington Bear, writing to Downing Street, among a host of literary and theatre people, to protest against the detention of child asylum-seekers.

Where Paddington comes in, of course, is as a past child asylum-seeker, a stowaway from "Darkest Peru" – you could say that sort of thing then – left at the London station with a luggage tag around his neck. But before you respond "Aah, how sweet!" (as the organisers of this campaign surely intend you to), I would invite you to consider why Paddington is being cited in this pre-Christmas campaign, rather than a real-live child asylum-seeker.

Is the awkward truth, perhaps, that a real child in this situation presents rather more difficulties than a beloved old bear – a bear, moreover, who has integrated so perfectly into his host country as to have become a national institution?

Child asylum-seekers tend to come with one or two parents attached, who are also seeking asylum. Or they are alone, in which case they may well have been smuggled to the UK, with parents or relatives paying traffickers. Nor is it always clear whether they are children at all. The reluctance of the authorities to deport lone children encourages the well-informed to understate their age.

So even at the outset, the question of child asylum-seekers is not quite as simple as it might look. Which is not to say that the campaign against their detention will not tug successfully at heart-strings. Impeccably timed for the festive season, it encourages parents in more comfortable circumstances to feel guilt at the contrast between their children's imminent pleasure on Christmas morning and the plight of those held in "prison-like conditions".

But those campaigning for child asylum-seekers not to be detained, however, need to answer a few questions. The first is whether, deep down, they believe any asylum-seekers – adults or children – should be detained. If the answer is No, then they have a duty to explain how an essentially open-border policy would work. If the answer is Yes, but only adults, then do the authorities detain the parents and free the children into "the community" – which would surely be inhumane – or do they free the whole family, with the comforting explanation that families rarely abscond?

That there should be alternatives to what happens now is incontestable. Why is electronic tagging not more widely used and why, given the scale of the problem, does Britain not build "sheltered" family accommodation, such as Australia has? Where the money for this option would come from at a time when pretty much everything else is being cut is another matter, but perhaps those campaigning against the detention of children could turn their energies in that direction.

There is, though, another question begging to be asked. Why is it that specifically child asylum-seekers are the focus of this campaign? Earlier this month their cause was championed by senior doctors, who highlighted the way in which, they said, detention damages the health of child asylum-seekers. Now the literati are adding their influential voice.

Yet the fact is that conditions for all asylum-seekers in Britain fall well short of what should be expected from a rich country. From the time it takes the authorities to reach a final decision, to the standard of the accommodation, to the ban on asylum-seekers obtaining work, the whole progression is an expensive disgrace. So why is the focus of campaigning not on improving and streamlining the whole system for everyone?

Partly, this may be because the task is judged to be so enormous, and the odds on success so small, that only a section of it can be tackled at any one time. But I detect another reason that derives not from any specific shortcomings in the conduct of the authorities, but in the way childhood and childhood "innocence" have been increasingly fetishised in Britain, even as children are rushed towards adulthood in matters of personal responsibility and consumerism.

The campaign on behalf of child asylum-seekers is only the latest to use the plight of children essentially as a way of infiltrating people's hearts – and wallets. The appeal to improve the lot of children is especially useful when the cause is not likely to be popular. One consequence is that charities for adolescents and adults, say, with mental or physical disabilities, or for older people in difficulty all face a much harder job – even if their hardship is at least as acute as any child's. When was the last time you saw an appeal for people living in substandard care homes or languishing on a geriatric ward?

The "innocence" of childhood is what lies behind the Government's aim to "end" child poverty – even if a comparative standard for defining it means that poverty is unlikely ever to end, and that relatively generous child benefits may have the unintended consequence that more children are brought up in relative deprivation. No child, so the thinking goes, should be punished for the sins or inadequacies of the parents.

There are ways to tackle the very specific problem of child asylum-seekers. They include more thorough checks on children arriving in the UK unaccompanied, or accompanied by individuals claiming to be related to them, but actually not. And there should probably be less, not more resort to care in the "community". Some children may indeed be detained, with or without their families, but no fewer than 145 foreign children went missing from local council care homes last year, most of them lone asylum-seekers.

The rights and wrongs, and the responsibilities, here are less clear-cut. Child asylum is a much more complex issue than it might look – and about as far from the comforting embrace of Paddington Bear as you can get.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

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