Children being locked up in UK over asylum appeals

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Children being locked up in UK over asylum appeals
By Paul Redfern
Monday, September 7 2009

Hundreds of young African children, many of whom are under five years old, are being locked up by the British government because of legal battles over whether or not their parents should be allowed political asylum in the UK.
Some of the young children, several of whom are from Uganda, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo became so traumatised by the experience that they have needed prolonged counselling afterwards.

Britain’s Home Office has been extraordinarily cagey about how many minors it keeps in the UK’s detention centres while political asylum appeals are being dealt with but last week (August 31), it was revealed that on one day alone in June, more than 470 minors were being detained with their families.One such victim who was tracked down by the Guardian newspaper is four-year old Ibrahim Ssentongo, a Ugandan child who was held along with his father Stephen in the notorious detention centre Yarl’s Wood.He is now so traumatised by the incident that even seven months after his detention he does not like going out.“When he sees people in uniforms or white shirts and black trousers, like bus drivers or security guards in shopping centres, he stops,” his father told the UK paper. Many however are too scared to speak out about their ordeal even though Sheila Melzak, a consultant child psychotherapist working with families who have been detained, said Ibrahim’s trauma was far from unusual. “All the young people I have been talking to have lingering effects after months and even years,” she told the Guardian. Yarl’s Wood has been the subject of frequent allegations of abuse of detainees in the past as well as claims that it used excessive force to make those denied political asylum return to their place of birth. Both the Home Office and Yarl’s Wood authorities have denied the allegations but this has not stopped them continuing to be made.

Few other European countries detain minors and Damian Green, the Conservative opposition immigration minister said “it would be better and cheaper if we don’t have to lock up young children for weeks and sometimes months. Other (EU) countries seem to do better than we do at finding alternatives.” The Guardian report says that the UK has “one of the worst records in Europe for detaining children but accurate figures on how many are held or for how long have remained elusive.” What is known is that around 30,000 people apply for political asylum in the UK each year but that most of these are adults.

Sir Al Aynsley-Green, the children’s commissioner for England pointed out that of the 225 children released from detention in the second quarter of this year, only 100 were removed from the UK. He questioned the necessity for detaining young children pointing out that if the majority were allowed to stay at the end of their release “why did they have to go through the detention process in the first place.” One in three of all children held in the detention centre are reported to be being kept there for longer than 28 days, despite the fact that welfare groups say that detention centres are an extremely unsuitable place for young people. Family and children’s support groups said the statistics showed the UK Borders Agency was failing in its duty to detain children only “as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time”.

Amanda Shah, of Bail for Immigration Detainees, said: “Fifty-six per cent of detained children were released back to their communities in the UK, their detention having served no purpose other than wasting taxpayers’ money and traumatising the children involved. Children we have supported have suffered depression, weight loss, bedwetting and even self-harm as a result of their detention – that is the human reality behind the statistics.” Lisa Nandy, policy adviser at the Children’s Society, said children were being detained unnecessarily because the asylum system was “chaotic” and because the UK Border Agency and private contractors who work for them often targeted families to increase their removal rates.

The Home Office statement said : “UK Border Agency fully recognises its responsibilities towards children but these responsibilities have to be exercised alongside our duty to enforce the laws on immigration and asylum. If a family decide to appeal against the courts decision while being detained the removal process is halted. If a judge agrees that there are fresh grounds for an appeal the family are usually returned back to the community until the case has been reviewed.”

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