Leading article: The cruelty of locking up child asylum-seekers

There are alternatives to the policy of detaining migrant families

Last week the medical establishment called for the Government to overhaul its policy of detaining children in immigration removal centres. This week they are joined by a number of paragons from the world of children's literature including Michael Bond, Philip Pullman and Jacqueline Wilson. Both groups make a compelling case.

The Royal Colleges of Paediatricians, General Practitioners and Psychiatrists argue that removal centres are damaging the mental and physical health of the 1,000 or so children who are detained in them every year. They recommend a transfer of responsibility of healthcare in detention centres from the Home Office to the National Health Service and argue that detained children, some of whom are held for many months while a decision is made on their family's case, should be subject to the same safeguards and standards as young people elsewhere in the UK.

Such pleas have, thus far, fallen on unreceptive ears. The Home Office maintains that all detainees are treated with compassion and denies that the health of detainee children is being damaged. The medical establishment, it claims, is basing its claims on out-of-date information.

This response invites scepticism given the sector's recent record. A report by the Inspectorate of Prisons in August 2008 on Yarl's Wood immigration removal centre in Bedfordshire found inadequate education facilities and that staff were failing to monitor the length of children's detainment. It also discovered that some families were being transported to and from the centre in caged vans and that even disabled children were being locked up.

The Home Office argues that there have been considerable improvements since that damning report, but the heavy-handed way in which the staff of Yarl's Wood handled a local vicar, who wanted to give Christmas presents to the detained children earlier this month, hardly indicates a humanely run institution.

Yet the central issue is not the conditions inside such detention centres (important though those are) but the policy of detaining children in the first place. The Children's Commissioner for England, Sir Al Aynsley-Green, argues that the practice of holding children in such centres should end altogether. And a parliamentary motion by the Labour MP Chris Mullin, signed by nearly 100 MPs, calls for the same.

The Home Office claims that the policy of detention is a necessary last resort, designed to prevent families under threat of deportation from absconding. Yet that likelihood seems exaggerated. It is much harder for families with young children to go on the run than single adults. And the UK Border Agency has been unable to point to evidence that such families abscond in significant numbers. And even if there were a significant danger of flight, the Home Office could explore measures such as electronic tagging to deal with it, as recommended by a report last month by the Home Affairs Select Committee.

While politicians and officials continue to stonewall such constructive suggestions and maintain that all is well for children in removal centres, suspicions will grow that the families of failed asylum-seekers are locked up in such numbers because they represent soft targets for deportation; and that this is a Government determined to show how "tough" it is on illegal immigration regardless of the damage its policy imposes on some of the most vulnerable individuals in our society.