The Coalition is accused of watering down its promise to end the detention of child asylum seekers by setting up new centres to detain families refusing to leave the UK.
The new “pre-departure accommodation facilities” will be run under a more lax system than the current imprisonment of failed asylum seekers and their offspring. But the families will still be kept in “secure” units behind high fences for up to a week, reigniting concern over the Coalition’s flagship policy of ending child detention, announced by Nick Clegg in a fanfare of publicity last year.
Campaigners have long warned over the physical and mental impact of detention on children, 1,000 of whom were being held in British centres at the height of the practice in 2009.
One new secure unit will be built in West Sussex, requiring the eviction of a school for youngsters with behavioural and learning difficulties, The Independent understands.
The closure of Crawley Forest School, which is run by a subsidiary of Arora Management Services. a company owned by multi-millionaire hotelier Surinder Arora, will mark the next step in the Government’s attempts to introduce what it describes as a more “compassionate” approach to child asylum seekers and end the practice by May – the anniversary of the Coalition agreement.
Leading children’s charities said the new facility near Gatwick Airport could amount to little more than “detention by another name”.
The Home Office confirmed that the new “pre-departure accommodation” would be a last resort for families that had exhausted all other options in the asylum process and were still refusing to leave. It will house eight families of up to six people immediately prior to their repatriation.
Ministers said children would be able to come and go from the facility under supervision having been referred there along with their parents by the new Independent Family Returns Panel. After being admitted they could be held there for 72 hours initially, and up to a week with ministerial approval, before being put aboard a departing flight, the Home Office said. If successful the scheme could become the model for dealing with children facing deportation from the UK.
A letter sent to residents living around the former school at Pease Pottage in West Sussex by a team of consultants working on the project said that the grounds would have a 2.5-metre perimeter fence, and that the site would be run on a “care model rather than a secure one”.
Ilona Pinter, policy director of the Children’s Society said reservations remained about the new facility. “We were delighted when the Government announced they would end immigration detention for children,” she said, “particularly with the closure of the Yarl’s Wood family unit. However, given the lack of clarity about the proposed new pre-departure accommodation, we are concerned that this would result in detention by another name.”
She said the charity had yet to be satisfied that proper safeguarding procedures were in place to ensure child safety and that the number of young people held in pre-departure accommodation would be kept to a minimum. It was also vital that children still had access to their solicitors or other advocates once inside the new centre. "The other concern is that force is used to move families to this accommodation and whether support is cut off from these families to force them to move to this accommodation potentially leaving them destitute,” she added.
Last year, Arora Management Services, which owns a string of hotels close to airports as well as the Manchester Arora which features Sir Cliff Richard-themed rooms, failed in its bid to convert the 254-room Mercure Hotel near Gatwick’s North Terminal into a secure removal unit following protests from locals.
The Home Office will lease the building from Arora whilst the day-to-day running of the centre would be in the hands of a “third sector” provider such as a charity, which has yet to be recruited. The department added that the new facility would have an “entirely different look and feel” to the old units which housed children in the same institutions as adult asylum seekers.
John Donaldson, spokesman for Arora Management Services, said it had been unable to turn the school into a profit-making business and the company had been seeking alternative uses for the facility. He said it would close in April at the end of the current term. “The core interest is to ensure the safe transition of the young people living there,” he said.
Charu Kashyap, director of the Crawley Forest School which was opened only three years ago, said staff had been upset on learning the news, having hoped that it would continue as a centre for young people. It is currently home to eight youngsters aged between 10 and 16 who have been referred there by their local authorities.
Since announcing the closure of family units at Dungavel in South Lanarkshire soon after the election last year, the Home Office has launched two pilot schemes to deal with youngsters caught up in the asylum process - one in London and the other in Liverpool. So far 97 families have been involved in the pilots, just over a third of whom were served with “required removal directions”.
Thomas Harburg of London NoBorders, which opposes all restrictions on the international movement of people, said: “It is obvious what trick the Home Office is playing here. It does not matter what they call this facility, if you are forced to be held in a building with a fence around it, waiting to be deported, it is another immigration detention facility. All that talk about the ending of the detention of children and families was just a media stunt.”
Case study: 'Before I knew it, I was behind barbed wire'
Sufyan was 15 when he and his family were taken to the Dungavel removal centre in South Lanarkshire. His family had been in Glasgow for six years after fleeing Pakistan. He told the charity Positive Action in Housing: "We were taken into a room, where my three brothers were sitting. The immigration officers said we were going to be deported to Pakistan on Saturday. They took our belongings and locked us in a van. I was in shock, it happened too quickly.
"I was like a zombie when we arrived at Dungavel. It had huge barbed wire fences and looked worse than I had heard. It was 8am for breakfast, or we wouldn't get anything. I woke the next day and instantly felt sad. I was scared for what would happen to us in Pakistan.
"Saturday was getting closer. We kept to the routine of waking and eating when we were told. On the Friday, I was sick. I felt nervous, upset and I prayed that something would happen for us to be released, but I knew lots of families were deported and thought why would we be any different? On Saturday, I felt like crying when the immigration officers told us we were to be released and would be going back to Glasgow. Within four months, we were given our leave to remain in the UK. This means we will be safe for the rest of our lives."
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