The use of force against child asylum seekers by private security guards has been condemned in a report raising concerns about the detention and treatment of refugee families.
Inspectors who visited Yarl's Wood immigration removal centre in Bedford said they found "concerning incidents" of force being used to split or keep families apart before deportation. There were also instances of force being used on pregnant women and individual children.
Anne Owers, the chief inspector of prisons, disputed ministers' claims that the detention of hundreds of children at Yarl's Wood was either "exceptional or necessary". Her findings follow another independent report published this month which called for a national review into the use of force by private security guards against asylum seekers in Britain.
Baroness O'Loan's review followed allegations published in The Independent concerning the abuse of hundreds of immigrants. In one case, identified in the Owers report, force was used in January last year to split a family of six so the father and two children could be removed. The inspectors said: "The youngest child had been removed by force from his father's grip and a 10-year-old child was taken by force into the departure area after refusing to leave his mother."
In the same month, force was used on a pregnant woman. The report said: "Her three-year-old son had been kept in the family care suite while she was taken to the legal offices to be given removal directions. On leaving the offices, she had refused to move further and called repeatedly for her son." A month earlier she had been found screaming in her room, with her son having been sick in front of her. She had then attempted to strangle herself with a telephone charger cable wrapped twice around her neck.
Dame Anne said that although these incidents were rare they raised questions about the protection of vulnerable family members from the harm associated with separation from each other for the purposes of removal, a time of great stress.
The report noted that guards and escorts did not have specialist guidance on using force on children. But Dame Anne said the whole question of the detention of children needed to be reviewed. She noted: "Our children's interviews illustrated the distress that children felt about their own and their families' detention, which increased over time, and all those we interviewed were temporarily released, as were half the children detained during the previous six months, calling into question the necessity of their detention.
"There were few opportunities in the detention environment for parents to look after their children in a setting that could mitigate the institutionalised experience ... However, we were concerned by some of the instances of family separation or use of force to effect removals, particularly where children were concerned."
Liberal Democrat Shadow Home Secretary, Chris Huhne, described the detention of child asylum seekers as "barbaric." The Children's Society and the refugee campaign group Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID) said the findings were "shameful" and called for end to this "cruel and inhumane practice".
Dame Anne said what "was particularly troubling" was the fact that the decisions taken to detain, and to maintain detention of, children and families did not appear to be fully informed by considerations of the welfare of children, nor could their detention be said to be either exceptional or necessary. In the past six months, 420 children had been detained, of whom half had been released back into the community.
Immigration minister Phil Woolas said detaining some illegal immigrants was necessary because they refused to return home. He said: "The sad fact is that some illegal immigrants refuse to comply with the decision of the independent courts and return home voluntarily.
"The alternatives to centres like Yarl's Wood include putting children into care – which would mean separating them from their parents and risking increased child trafficking and further illegal immigration. We welcome the Chief Inspector's recognition that Yarl's Wood's schooling, healthcare and child support provisions have significantly improved since her last visit.
"Detention is a vital tool in removing those deemed to have no right to remain in the country."
Stories from Yarl's Wood: 'I was dragged half naked from the showers'
* Ms T N from Uganda and her two children were taken from Yarl's Wood immigration removal centre in February 2006 to Gatwick Airport, for deportation on an Ethiopian Airlines flight. In Baroness O'Loan's report published this month, Ms T N says that immigration escorts threatened to assault her if she resisted and that she would be handed over to the Ugandan authorities to be put in prison and tortured.
She also claims that the escorts described her and her children as "black monkeys". She says she was taken to the plane by four male immigration escorts, and that two female escorts carried her two children. Ms T N said she told the escorts that she would not co-operate as she was sick.
She claims the four male escorts grabbed her, put handcuffs on her, lifted her up and forcibly seated her. At this point the pilot became aware of a problem and intervened, telling the escorts to remove themselves and Ms T N from the plane.
Ms T N says she was threatened by the immigration escorts again in front of her children, before being taken to the police station at the airport and told she would be charged with assault for having hit one of them.
She was also told she would receive a criminal record, which would mean her asylum case would be refused. Ms T N claims she was then locked up in a police van for nearly two hours before being taken back to Yarl's Wood with her children. She later complained about her treatment to the Home Office.
Baroness O'Loan found: "The investigation file on this case was confused and incomplete and did not indicate that a thorough investigation had been done."
* On 13 January 2007 Ms H M, a 15-year-old asylum-seeker from Rwanda, claims she was moved from one part of Yarl's Wood to another two days before her proposed removal, which was then cancelled due to Judicial Review proceedings.
She says that male officers from the security company Global Solutions Ltd were employed to control and restrain her. She claimed they removed her from the shower area in Yarl's Wood while she was almost naked. Her hands were then handcuffed behind her back and she was carried to another cell, wearing only her underpants and holding a blanket, and suffered bruising from the officers' actions. She stayed there for two days, with no food for 24 hours.
Baroness O'Loan's finding read: "In such cases my remit is to determine whether further investigation is required. I have seen nothing which would indicate that further investigation is required."
Number of children taken into detention during the past six months.
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