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Asylum Seekers: Detention of Children

Volume 712: debated on Tuesday 30 June 2009

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to cease the detention of children of asylum seekers and their carers in detention centres for periods exceeding one week.

My Lords, we all believe that it is much better that those families who have been found by the courts not to need our protection should go home under their own steam, and we provide help for them to do so. We detain families only as a last resort and for as short a time as possible when they refuse to return voluntarily. The alternative would be to separate the families. Speeding up the asylum process also seeks to address this problem.

My Lords, I trust the Minister will be tempted when I say that many families are affected by the inability to return home to areas of great danger to themselves, of which Zimbabwe is just one example.

The Children’s Commissioner, Sir Al Aynsley-Green, has made it clear that the detention of children is “harmful to their health and wellbeing”. Furthermore, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, on her recent visit to Yarl’s Wood and other detention centres, found that in the past four months alone no fewer than 83 children had been detained for either 28 days or longer, with no clear indication when they would come out of detention. Therefore, will Minister consider looking at community-based schemes for families who are awaiting return to their homes or who may not be able to be returned to their homes, as has happened in other countries? Will he also consider that those families who have been in Britain for many years, in some cases with children born and entirely educated here, might be eligible for a humanitarian system of amnesty, because it is difficult to return people who from birth onwards have had no links with any country except our own?

My Lords, I and the Government have much sympathy with those points of view, which is why the UK Border Agency seeks to deal with these things sensitively and systematically, to take on board criticism when it is offered and to make the situation fair. The facts are that in the first quarter of 2009, 95 children were removed on leaving detention. Of those, 30 children were in detention at 31 March, with 20 detained for seven days or fewer; five for 15 to 28 days; five for 29 days and fewer than two months; and five for two months. However, I agree entirely that we should look for community-based solutions. There is a further experimental project in Glasgow, which is moving in that direction.

My Lords, have the Minister and his noble friend Lord West of Spithead plans to visit the immigration detention centre at Yarl’s Wood where these families are held? Will he consider consulting the Tavistock and Portman NHS trust, which is expert in this area, on what support it might be prepared to offer to families and staff who manage these distressing experiences at Yarl’s Wood?

My Lords, my noble friend Lord West intended to visit Yarl’s Wood and was prevented by an outbreak of chicken pox which placed the centre in quarantine. I believe that he intends to complete that visit at an early opportunity. I myself intend to visit, having had to deal with several questions on Yarl’s Wood. It is always much better to deal with things that you have seen for yourself. As for the Tavistock trust and other organisations, we are always happy to discuss how we can improve the situation. However, at the end of the day we are dealing with people who can leave this country voluntarily but are refusing to do so, having been through a legal process that has found clearly that they should return to the homeland from which they came.

My Lords, while I recognise that there is difficulty surrounding immigration, I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, makes a powerful point about children who have lived with Christian asylum-seeker families in this country for a number of years. They have been educated here and would, in chaotic situations such as those in Peshawar or the Swat valley, instantly be identifiable victims for religious extremists. Are the Government prepared to ignore that reality?

My Lords, much of the reality is set by the appeals that asylum seekers have and the legal process that they go through. On the circumstances that the noble Baroness and the noble Lord have mentioned, when people have been born in this country, individual case officers look at the situation. We do not have a cold, hard heart towards the children of asylum seekers, failed or genuine, and we try to treat them with the sensitivity that they deserve. However, we come back to the point that if we are satisfied that there is not to be persecution in the country to which they would return and there is a country to which they can be returned, it is the right thing to do.

My Lords, I am grateful for that particular answer and to hear that the Government do not have a “cold, hard heart” towards children. I have an interest in this matter, particularly as someone who was told that he would have been arrested, if he had not been a bishop, for my involvement in causing a dawn arrest to be bungled. These dawn arrests happen at six in the morning, with teams of people who are almost exclusively male coming in like storm troopers wearing protective jackets. I shall come to the question in a moment, but I know of a case in which there was only one female officer for a mother with three children, who had to be supervised by males. I think of other cases in which children were left in their nappies for six hours and in their bedclothes with no ability to be changed. What guidelines are there for allowing such treatment and are there are any plans for ending those dawn raids?

My Lords, the pejorative term “dawn raid” is not one that we recognise in the UK Border Agency’s activities. No visit is made before 6.30 in the morning and it is normally preceded by seeking entry in the normal, peaceful manner of ringing the bell or knocking on the door. I am distressed to hear of the right reverend Prelate’s experience. If he cares to write to me with chapter and verse—I am sorry about the pun—I would be more than happy to look at the matter. But it is not the policy of the agency and certainly not the Government’s policy that we put people in that situation. When a team goes to visit, it is made up as determined by risk assessment. If there is no criminal element involved, it is not thought necessary to do it team-handed. I am surprised by what the right reverend Prelate says, because I understand that, normally, female officers and others who are trained to deal with children and who are part of the team go on those occasions. I should be interested to hear from him on that and I shall certainly seek to investigate.