A family of asylum-seekers whose children were forcibly detained for two months in a UK immigration centre have been paid record compensation by the Government.
In a landmark settlement, the Congolese family have been awarded £150,000, believed to be the biggest payout over the unlawful detention of child refugees seeking asylum in Britain.
Lawyers and immigration campaigners said the settlement could lead to dozens more compensation claims being brought by refugee families with young children who have been detained or are still locked up in the UK asylum system. It is estimated that every year the Home Office authorises the detention of 2,000 child immigrants. One firm of lawyers said it was already preparing three separate compensation cases where families had been unlawfully detained.
Mark Scott, of Bhatt Murphy solicitors, who acted for the family, said: "This case demonstrates not only the very damaging impact that detention has on children but the wholesale failure of the Home Office to comply with their own policy and the commitments given to Parliament that detention of children is only used as a measure of last resort and even then for the shortest possible time."
But Patrick Mercer, the Tory MP for Newark and Retford, said: "It just shows everyone how chaotic the immigration and asylum system has become that we end up having to pay asylum-seekers [in a case] which could have been avoided if the Government had a properly run policy."
In the case, the court was told that a one-year-old baby and an eight-year-old child from the Democratic Republic of Congo were deeply traumatised after immigration officers twice raided their West Midlands home. After their arrests they were taken to Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre in Bedfordshire where they were held for 57 days. Two months later, the family home was raided for a second time leading to a further three-day unlawful detention at the same centre.
Both children suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and were kept in detention despite warnings from Bedfordshire Social Services and an expert psychologist who raised concerns about the impact of the detention on children.
The family, who were detained in 2006, have since been granted asylum.
In the face of court proceedings brought by the family, the Home Office has accepted that their arrests and subsequent detentions were unlawful as the mother had not exhausted her asylum rights and could not have been lawfully removed from the country.
Amanda Shah, assistant director of Bail for Immigration Detainees, said: "Yet again the courts have found children's rights have been violated by the Home Office's detention policy. This case shows both the damage done to children in detention and also the inadequacy of Home Office safeguards to keep them from harm. the Home Office knew the impact detention was having on these children but continued to detain them anyway."
She added: "Children we work with tell us they are scared of detention centre guards and don't understand what they have done to deserve being put 'in prison' – it is little wonder that many suffer serious mental and physical health problems as a result."
Emma Ginn, of the immigration campaign group Medical Justice, said: "This settlement recognises the severe harm to children of long-term immigration detention and flies in the face of the Home Office's insistence that they only detain children for the shortest possible time prior to an imminent removal."
A recent report by Anne Owers, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, found that the plight of detained children remained of great concern. She concluded: "An immigration removal centre can never be a suitable place for children and we were dismayed to find cases of disabled children being detained and some children spending large amounts of time incarcerated."
After an inspection of detention facilities, she added: "We were concerned about ineffective and inaccurate monitoring of length of detention in this extremely important area. Any period of detention can be detrimental to children and their families, but the impact of lengthy detention is particularly extreme."
A UK Border Agency spokeswoman said: "The UKBA is actively working on alternatives to detaining families with children. During detention or removal from the UK, we take the welfare of families with children extremely seriously. Officers involved in family removals receive thorough training in procedures to minimise the distress caused. All members of the family are treated as sensitively as possible."
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