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Effect of detention on children


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Immigration detention dehumanises not only the detainee but also every person who deals with it. It is a poison that infects us all. The professionals who deal with detainees and their families develop coping mechanisms. We convince ourselves that detention is necessary, that there is no alternative, that it is an inevitable part of the process, that the individuals affected deserve it, that they will get over it, that they are not like us and don’t feel family separation and deprivation of liberty in the same way that we would, that the kids are adaptable little things and won’t really notice. Most of all, we learn to dissociate. The effect of unknowably long immigration detention at the whim of unknown bureaucrats is simply too awful to contemplate for more than a short time.

Children are often the unrecognised victims of immigration detention. The detention of a parent has an absolutely devastating effect on the children concerned. Perhaps to protect themselves from thinking about the effect of their actions, Home Office decision makers and immigration judges hearing bail applications will routinely turn a blind eye to the impact of separation on the detainee and also the detainee’s children, even in the cases where such evidence is available.

A new report by Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID) explodes the myth. BID reveal systematic disregard of child safeguarding duties by the now defunct UK Border Agency. The most powerful words in the report are those of the individuals affected by detention. This power is impossible to convey in a press release or even the executive summary. The best way to understand the impact of detention is to draw on some of the case studies, quotes and images in the report.

Case study: Beth and Daniel

Beth’s grandfather, who was caring for her and her disabled brother Daniel during their mother’s detention, became seriously ill and was admitted to hospital three times. Beth had to stop attending school to care for her brother and grandfather and missed her GCSE exams. She also had to deal with proceedings which were started to evict the family due to rent arrears.

Beth found it extremely difficult to look after her seven year old brother, was has very limited motor control and severe behavioural problems. During their mother, Christine’s, detention, he was made subject to a child protection plan, deemed to be at risk of emotional and physical harm and referred to Child and Adult Mental Health Services. A Children’s Services assessment found that:

‘Daniel has found it very difficult being separated from his mother, he is keen for her to return home and often states that she is “coming home today” when she is not and becomes upset when he realises this is not the case.

[A] concerned neighbour rang to report that Daniel was playing alone in the road at 8pm, he was seen to fall and lay in the road, which is a bus route… he walks into people’s houses and has poor awareness of danger and his own safety.’

Two months after his mother entered detention Children’s Services received a report that Daniel had been hit by a car.

Despite receiving reports about the welfare of these children, the Border Agency detained their mother for 160 days before she was released on bail by the Tribunal. She subsequently successfully appealed the Border Agency’s decision to deport her.

All that, and the mother was then released from detention on bail and won her appeal. This is all too common. Even where it is clear from the outset that the detention will be prolonged or that removal will ultimately be impossible, immigration detention is effectively used as a punishment that the Home Office thinks will magically deter future illegal immigration.

Some quotes from carers about the effect on the children:

‘Their dad told me that the eldest used to cry, regular at night before she go to bed, asking “when is mummy coming home?” There were a lot of questions that they were asking that I couldn’t answer. They would say “Oh so you don’t love us, why you staying away from us so long?”’

‘My daughter wakes up crying that she’s dreamt her daddy’s at home, and daddy takes her to school. And then she wakes up and daddy’s not there. I want to cry now just talking about it.’

‘She didn’t want to eat; you had to force her to eat. She just start crying “mummy, mummy”… you know, the constant crying. Whenever she hear the door open she would go to the door, knocking on the door saying “mummy.”’

‘At times she would sit by herself and break down and cry. When you asked her what is the matter, she say “when is my mum coming I want to go home with her.”’

And finally a quote from one of the parents themselves:

‘I never knew people could take your kids away out your life, just like that. They don’t know the pain that you feel in your stomach, you feel it in your guts. Being with my kids now is like I’m alive again.’

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Colin Yeo

Immigration and asylum barrister, blogger, writer and consultant at Garden Court Chambers in London and founder of the Free Movement immigration law website.