Author: Marieke Widmann, Policy & Practice Advisor, The Children’s Society
Under the current proposals of the new Illegal Migration Bill, the government will reintroduce the use of child detention for immigration purposes — reversing the changes that they previously enshrined in law.
Having supported children and families in detention centres, we saw first-hand the devastating impacts on their mental and physical health, development and behaviour. We fought for change, and won. After our campaign, the coalition government in 2010 committed to ending child detention and, in 2014, they put this commitment into law. Shockingly, today the government is proposing to reverse this and reintroduce child detention with the Illegal Migration Bill.
How will detention affect children and young people?
Our 2011 report, “What Have I done?…”, explored the views and experiences of 32 families we had supported in immigration detention, including 10 children between the ages of 3 and 17. The findings were extremely worrying.
The research found children used words such as “freaky”, “terrible” and “appalling” to describe the detention centre and “confused”, “angry”, and “sad” to describe their own feelings when there. They described detention as institutional and prison-like. They were exposed to scenes no child should see — witnessing hunger strikes, suicide attempts and the use of force during removal attempts — and these scenes had lasting impacts on their mental well-being.
Children visibly withdrew and became disinterested in activities, including the limited schooling that was available.
A large proportion of children experienced emotional distress and reported being very scared, crying constantly, having nightmares and not sleeping. Some were so traumatised they threatened or attempted suicide. The experience and the uncertainty of the future was often too difficult to bear.
The families and children in our study had largely fled their countries of origin after experiencing severe violence. They arrived traumatised, and their time in detention only further deteriorated their mental health. After being released, 70% of the children and parents had ongoing mental health difficulties, many so severe as to warrant intervention from psychiatrists, psychotherapists, counsellors and members of CAMHS.
What needs to change?
As the Government proposes reintroducing child detention with the Illegal Migration Bill, it’s crucial that policymakers consider what the proposals will mean for children who are seeking protection and safety.
Fortunately, some parliamentarians are doing so. The Government’s proposal to reintroduce child detention has been challenged in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, led by Conservative members. Currently, three Conservative peers are pushing an amendment in the House of Lords to maintain the restrictions on child detention that exist. Should this amendment pass, it will then be considered in the House of Commons for the final stages of the Bill’s passage through Parliament.