Stop locking up asylum children, ministers told

Children's Commissioner lambasts conditions at Yarl's Wood detention centre

Nigel Morris,Deputy Political Editor
Wednesday 17 February 2010 01:00 GMT

Ministers were last night urged to stop locking up children and teenagers in a controversial immigration detention centre after its conditions were condemned by the Children's Commissioner.

Sir Al Aynsley-Green said "high-risk" practices at Yarl's Wood centre in Bedfordshire were jeopardising the safety and health of children held there.

More than 1,000 children are detained every year for an average of a fortnight at the centre, although the Commissioner discovered a case of a family which was held for 70 days.

His report detailed "significant concerns" with health services at Yarl's Wood, where a nurse failed to diagnose a child's broken arm and the youngster endured a 20-hour wait before being sent to hospital.

In another case a 10-year-old girl claimed staff banged her head against a wall to wake her up as her family were arrested.

Sir Al also said there were weaknesses in mental health care and warned that not enough was done to prepare children for their return to their home country.

Youngsters were distressed by the experience of being arrested and taken to Yarl's Wood, he reported, especially when they were separated from their parents.

Sir Al acknowledged that some improvements had been made since his last inspection, but added: "We stand by our contention that arrest and detention are inherently damaging to children and that Yarl's Wood is no place for a child."

Yarl's Wood, which opened eight years ago, is Britain's main removal centre for women and families. Trouble broke out at the centre last week when 80 women went on hunger strike over the conditions. Four women were taken to prison.

Last night the UK Borders Agency disputed the Commissioner's findings. David Wood, strategic director of criminality and detention at UKBA, said: "Where we have detained children as part of the family unit it is as a last resort. We will and do release families where independent social work advice suggests continued detention is not in the best interests of the children."

He said families were only held for long periods under "wholly exceptional" circumstances, usually when parents were making "vexatious" legal claims to delay their deportation.

But Donna Covey, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: "Children continue to be terrified by dawn raids, sometimes being separated from their parents [and] removed from their houses without knowing what is going to happen to their things.

"Perhaps most worrying is that some incidents of harm to children's physical and mental health are still not being properly treated or recorded.

"The Government must heed the Commissioner's words and end this abhorrent practice now."

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