Leading article: Cruelty, mistreatment and abuse

The Home Office published a report yesterday in which it promised to improve the welfare provision for unaccompanied children who arrive in Britain seeking asylum. This would be welcome. But, as so often with this Government, what is given with one hand is taken away with the other. The Home Office is also proposing to streamline the process by which these children can be deported.

About 3,000 unaccompanied children arrive in the UK to seek asylum each year. They are among the most vulnerable of all immigrants. Some are smuggled in by sex traffickers. Others have been forced into low-paid jobs in the black economy. Many are victims of violence. It is the ability of these children to make a life in Britain when they become adults that the Government now seeks to undermine.

Yet this is only one aspect of the mistreatment to which immigrants are subjected. There are glaring examples of official cruelty such as the deportation last month of a terminally-ill Ghanian woman. It was also confirmed this week that there will be no reprieve for a 14-year-old boy with sickle cell disease who is due to be sent with his family back to Nigeria. There are also instances of refugees being returned to countries such as Zimbabwe and Somalia – nations that are manifestly unsafe.

But the abuse of asylum-seekers is also more routine. The law forbids them from working while their claims are being processed. This condemns numerous families to poverty and a meagre existence on benefits. This is not just cruel but a terrible waste. Quite often, refugees have skills that Britain could use.

Under legislation introduced four years ago, when an asylum-seeker's claim is rejected, they are soon evicted from their accommodation and their financial support is cut off. They are also denied access to healthcare. But far from encouraging asylum-seekers to leave Britain, this merely plunges them into desperation. Many end up on the streets, relying on friends, charities and churches. The National Audit Office estimates there are between 155,000 and 283,500 refused asylum-seekers in the UK. Many are destitute. Others are held in cruel and unsafe conditions in detention centres pending deportation. Britain detains more asylum-seekers than other European countries, and for longer. The UK is also the only European state that detains children. Despite this rough treatment, public attitudes towards refugees are generally hostile. This is unsurprising, given that they have been subjected to years of unfounded and hysterical abuse from the populist press.

The Government seeks credit for promising a tiny improvement in the reception granted to child asylum-seekers. But the manner in which we treat those who come to Britain to escape persecution and torture should be a source of lasting shame.