Monday, 20 December 2010

Just in time for Christmas! 'The end of child detention', Thursday 16th December 2010.

Just as the Joint Public Issues Team was thinking of sending a Santa suit to the Immigration Minister Damian Green, or of marching on the Home Office dressed up as Santa's Elves, the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg made his historical announcement about the ending of detention of asylum seeking children! What an important moment for all the campaigners who have begged for this to happen, and more so, for those families seeking sanctuary who will be directly affected as new policy comes into force. Nick Clegg said, "Last year 1,000 children were held in detention without warning, behind bars for weeks and months. The longest period was 190 days. The practice ENDS HERE."

There must be rejoicing in heaven! The new plans outline a system in which families will no longer be criminalised, but supported with what is more like social work style of care, treating all with humanity. The universally detested family unit at Yarl's Wood Detention Centre will close forthwith, and Tinsley House will also be gone by 11th May 2011. Meanwhile, however, some children may continue to be held with their parents under the old system.

Those families who do not fulfil the criteria for residency in the UK, will continue to be given the opportunity and resources to leave voluntarily. Their cases will be overseen by a Family Returns Panel. If they refuse to go, they will not now be detained before the removal plans are in place. They will, however, be given a limited notice of removal and held in open accommodation for a brief period.

The Government has been influenced and supported in creating this policy by the Princess Diana Foundation, and significantly by our partners, Citizens for Sanctuary, who raised an army of campaigners, and provided the administrative backdrop to the final stages.

Our other partner campaigners, OUTCRY, Medical Justice and End Child Detention Now, recognise that the new system is going to take time to set up, and there are important queries about some aspects. There is concern about how an adequate legal appeal process will be maintained, in an era of grant cuts to charitable legal advisors, and strangely reconfigured contracts for those legal firms which specialise in asylum law. There is a huge difference between people who have dared to seek to improve their lifestyle by entering the UK, and those who dread returning home, because they remain terrified by what lies ahead of them. It is good, that the Government states in the formal document, that they “will test whether early access to legal advice supports better decision-making and increases trust in the system.” Anyone who works in projects supporting people seeking sanctuary knows the answer already. Legal transparency is at the heart of trust!

Nick Clegg was not the only speaker. Loren Suleman fled with her Kurdish family from persecutors in Syria. She said that her normal child hood had ended there. She recalled how, as a fourteen year-old school girl in the UK, her family had been rudely awoken, and forced into a van at 4am, and transported to Tinsley House. She spoke of how during the ten days they were incarcerated, she was only allowed out into fresh air once, and how immigration officers shone a torch in her eyes at half-hour intervals during the night, “to check for life”. Little wonder that children suffer both psychologically and physically from such treatment. Loren, now a highly articulate law student at the University of Westminster, called on the Deputy Prime Minister to guarantee the safeguarding and medical care of any child who is detained in the interim months.

The Deputy Prime Minister clearly intends this to be, as he said, "a big cultural shift in the UK system, which will make the UK asylum system the most child-friendly in the world!” We must pray that this will be so, and that asylum seeking children will be free from anxiety because they know and trust the people working on their case, and because their parents know that their authentic stories of terror and injustice are being fairly heard.

Thank you to everyone in our churches who have written Christmas cards to the immigration minister, and written letters, or visited their MPs before the General Election – this announcement is a reflection of combined, and creatively focussed people power.