Why are so many children being detained at our ports?
In response to a Freedom of Information request, we have learned that from May through August of this year, 697 children travelling to the UK were detained at Heathrow Airport and other ports in the south-east. Of these children, 198 – over a quarter – were travelling alone.
In order to conduct border checks on passengers arriving in the UK, the Border Agency must detain some passengers at ports, sometimes overnight. These detentions should be kept to a minimum – the UK Border Agency also has a duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children.
However, according to a recent report by the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB), holding rooms at Heathrow were characterised as ‘degrading’. Some detained children and families had nowhere to sleep and lacked access to decent washing facilities. The IMB found three children seeking asylum with their parents were kept in holding rooms with no beds for two consecutive nights – 30 hours altogether –before being taken to asylum accommodation.
There is no reason why children should have to be detained in this way for long periods of time, even overnight, without proper care and in an environment that is conducive to their welfare.
Who are these children?
Some children who arrive at our ports seek protection from persecution and violence, some may have been victims of trafficking, while others are here to visit family.
Sadly, many children arriving alone at our ports are asylum seekers fleeing torture and persecution in their country of origin. Many have experienced violence and abuse on their journey, and may have sustained serious injuries along the way. Many have gone days without eating or sleeping properly.
Yet upon arrival some are made to wait for many hours, and are interviewed by border staff without the presence of an appropriate adult.
The IMB reported that a child victim of trafficking, identified at Heathrow, was detained in holding facilities with strangers for 20 hours before being taken into local authority care the next morning.
A recent report by the Children’s Commissioner for England highlighted a case where a vulnerable child had waited a day and a half to be taken into the care of a local authority, spending the night in a police station, while another child was interviewed for four or five hours upon arrival.
There may be instances where children need to be held for their own protection – for example when they are suspected to be victims of trafficking. This can be the case for children arriving with adults posing as their parents or if they arrive alone.
However, if children are to be held for their own safety, they should be detained for only the shortest amount of time possible and they should be placed in safe and appropriate accommodation while the necessary checks are conducted.
This could mean that children are put in specialist foster care placements if they are to be detained overnight and they should have appropriate supervision by child protection experts.
A lack of monitoring?
We are particularly concerned that the Home Office – the UKBA is part of the department – does not appear to be monitoring the situation centrally.
In response to our Freedom of Information request, we were told that apart from the actual numbers of young people who were detained, further information -- such as the child’s age or for how long he was held -- is not collected centrally.
Without that information, how can the Home Office be sure that children’s welfare is effectively protected?
We need an enquiry on the precise nature of child detention at ports
In a recent report, the HM Inspector of Prisons confirmed that children should only be detained in exceptional circumstances and for the minimum time. An expected outcome of inspections is that children’s rights and needs for care and protection are respected and met in full. This doesn’t appear to be happening.
We call on the government to launch an enquiry into the precise nature of child detention at ports. We think the government should monitor how many children are being held at ports across the country, how long are they being held for, why they being held and what are the outcomes of their detention.
In preparation for the Olympics, the government should be keeping a particularly close watch over how many children arriving in the UK are suspected victims of trafficking, making sure that these very vulnerable children are guaranteed safety and protection above all other considerations.