When David Cameron declared that his government would “end the incarceration of children for immigration purposes once and for all”, those familiar with the horror of it were cautiously optimistic. That cautious optimism is now tempered with anxiety that his passion for radical reform of this grotesque abuse of human rights is on the wane. The emerging picture is at best confusing, at worst ominous.
Last week the charity Medical Justice, whose doctors, lawyers and supporters assist detainees in immigration detention pro bono, published a report. The title – State Sponsored Cruelty: Children in Immigration Detention – was taken from Nick Clegg’s attack on Gordon Brown in an open letter last year: “Very young children who find themselves locked up even though they’ve done nothing wrong are suffering weight loss, post-traumatic stress disorder and long-lasting mental distress,” Clegg wrote. “How on earth can your government justify what is in effect state-sponsored cruelty?” The report catalogues the effects of immigration detention on children. Three have attempted suicide, some have regressed, others become withdrawn. Many have shown signs of deep disturbance.
So far, little has been done to implement Cameron’s pledge and follow up on Clegg’s passionate denunciation.
The Home Office, it seems, is having trouble defining detention, as borne out by conflicting information given to me last week by its press office. On Tuesday, a spokesman said there had been 24 families in immigration detention since May. On Wednesday it sent an email which said that figure was wrong because it failed to include those held under immigration legislation in mother and baby units in prisons and those refused entry at borders and held in immigration removal centres pending deportation – some of whom are not asylum seekers. It’s a complex picture. But whichever way you cut it, these are children detained under immigration law, despite Cameron’s promise to end the incarceration of children for immigration purposes.
The Home Office email said that between May and August, 45 families – including 80 children – had been detained. The next day the figure changed again – 59 children from 32 families have been in immigration detention since May, 31 of the children at Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre [run by Serco]. I was told these are not official statistics but “purely UK Border Agency management information”. I was asked to refer to them as “figures supplied by the Home Office or something along those lines”.