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Promises, promises: Tinsley House children detained by the immigration authorities

Mark Easton | 10:27 UK time, Friday, 18 December 2009

Breaking a promise to a child is a pretty mean thing to do. But it appears that the British government is struggling to keep the promises it has repeatedly made to children detained by the immigration authorities.

When inspectors paid a surprise visit to a removal centre near Gatwick in October, they found conditions had actually got worse since they last inspected the facility. Today, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons, Dame Ann Owers, described the arrangements for children at Tinsley House as "wholly unacceptable" [246Kb PDF].

Both staff and detainees talked of a "more prison-like culture" with increasingly restrictive rules. Far from honouring their pledge to treat children in a way that "promotes their welfare", the inspectors found that childcare and education had actually deteriorated. "Children", they write, "had limited access to fresh air".

Another government promise is enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to which the UK is now a full signatory. Article 37 of the convention states that the detention of a child "shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time".

However, the inspectors "were especially concerned about the detention and welfare of children held for over 72 hours":

"In the previous six months, five families a month, on average, had been detained for over 72 hours, and some had been held for many weeks."

Only last week, the Royal College of General Practitioners, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the UK Faculty of Public Health published a joint policy statement [171Kb PDF] asserting that "immigration detention of children is harmful and unacceptable" and demanding that the government "stop detaining children without delay".

President of the Royal College of General Practitioners, Dr Iona Heath, said:

"Any detention of children for administrative rather than criminal purposes causes unnecessary harm and further blights already disturbed young lives. Such practices reflect badly on all of us."

While inspecting Tinsley House, HMIP "were concerned to discover an incident where force had been used on children to effect the removal of a family":

"There was no suggestion that the children were at risk of harm to themselves or others, and no prior UK Border Agency (UKBA) authorisation was sought or given."

Clearly, the process of removal of families who have no right to stay in the UK will be an emotional and fraught experience on occasion. Government ministers stress the importance of sensitivity and compassion given their promise to ensure that children "are seen first, foremost and fully as children rather than simply migrants subject to immigration control".

In a statement, the UK Border Agency's Strategic Director of Criminality and Detention Group, David Wood responded to today's HMIP report:

"Removal centres are a necessary part of enforcing immigration control. It is vital that they are well-run, safe and secure. Detainees are cared for with respect, with access to a range of medical, educational and welfare facilities."

"We accept the conditions at Tinsley House at the time of the inspection were not ideal but we do not agree that they are wholly unacceptable for women and children. However, we are nonetheless reviewing our services."

Yet another review. You may recall a piece I wrote following the inspection of a larger removal centre, Yarl's Wood near Bedford , by the Children's Commissioner for England.

Sir Al Aynsley Green's shocking findings prompted a "review". But the promises made do not appear to have travelled from Bedfordshire to West Sussex.

Take the issue of "stinking", "stained", "caged vans", highlighted by Sir Al and apparently used to move children whose families face deportation. When the HMIP had a look at the vehicles used to transport people to Tinsley House they found that "one had a caged seating area" and another, used to transport families with children was "dirty".

Apparently driven to collect a woman and her six-year-old, it was littered with soiled tissues and food debris. "We were told by escorting staff that the vehicles based at Gatwick were only cleaned once a fortnight."

"Overall", Dame Ann concludes, "this is a deeply depressing report". She suggests that the focus of staff has been on a new and neighbouring facility called Brook House. "Tinsley House has become almost an afterthought", the inspectors suggest, "housing some poorly cared for children and a small number of scared and isolated single women".

Their conclusion? "This is more than a missed opportunity - it is a wholly unacceptable state of affairs."

Update 1104: A Home Office spokesman has responded to the HMIP concerns about the vehicles used to transport families and children to and from Tinsley House:

"Family friendly vehicles are used for the majority of journeys that involve families. However, there are some exceptional circumstances - in which for example a risk assessment has indicated that a parent or older child may be disruptive - where we have to use more secure vehicles. This is extremely rare."

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