Monday, 14 March 2011

Change in the air? The latest news concerning asylum families

The highly-respected charity, Barnados, has agreed to run the welfare, counselling, and children’s play services, at a new holding centre near to Gatwick airport for those asylum-seeking families who are within one week of deportation.
I think this is a very important and creative move on the part of the Coalition Government, because Barnados has been a strong voice in the campaign to bring an end to keeping families in detention centres for immigration administrative purposes.

So is the battle over? Although this news signals one vital aspect of the promised cultural shift away from criminalising these families, the whole system has yet to be reframed. Observers of the process are concerned lest this is subtle 'window dressing' of what will be an enclosed site.

My first reaction is that this is an important step in the process of cultural-shift, but then I want to ask, why do we need a centre like this at all? All through this campaign, it has been widely held that families do not typically abscond from their temporary homes and educational opportunities, etc.

My second reaction is that we only have to think back to our own childhoods to remember that bullying usually took place well out of sight of others. Why did we lack the courage to speak up? Because we did not believe we would be heard, or because we feared the problem could only get worse!

Readers of this blog may recall, for example, the horrors of Loren Suleman’s experience of detention as a minor: of how she was only allowed into the fresh air once in ten days, and of how an immigration officer shone a light in her eyes every half an hour during the night, ostensively to check she was still able to respond. (It has been emphasised that people will be able to go out of this centre, accompanied by staff, if they are not considered at risk of absconding.)

Imagine yourself, as a parent in a foreign country. You may have fled with your children because there was extreme danger, and you may not have been able to convey the full truth of your experiences to the authorities in the time allowed. Or perhaps your personal experiences of poverty and hardship simply do not entitle you under the law to remain in this new country. In the first instance you will be absolutely terrified of the future. In the second, your dreams of a new life have been completely shattered. Would you have confidence that speaking up might help? Only if every single person who deals with your family is professionally trained in child protection, in its fullest sense. If this is not the case, the psychological damage of innocent children caught up in officialdom will continue. It all hinges on the promised shift of culture, on training and management of staff, and on the procedures and practices within the new system.

For this reason, End Child Detention Now (ECDN), who have partnered with JPIT for many months, are launching a “reminder” campaign to the Deputy-Prime Minister. “Keep Your Promise” has its official launch in London on 26th March, and many churches have already been engaged in sending ECDN postcards to Nick Clegg’s office.

These issues are so important, and the track record of how these children were previously treated is so bad, that some concerned people feel the need to speak out, until the very last child leaves detention. Amongst them, are Sir Al Aynsley Green, recently Children's Commissioner, and Professor Heaven Crawley, Director of the Centre for Migration Policy Research at Swansea University.

Meanwhile, however, the participation of Barnados in the new Gatwick holding centre must surely increase the accountability of UKBA on that site, as these families reach their most desperate point on their travels,provided there will be 24 hour Barnados cover. And I applaud the Government for this move, but more, for the vision of the cultural shift which has been promised.