A dispute about detention - Refugee Council
July 16, 2010

A dispute about detention

By Philippa, Communications team

Cast your mind back to May, when the new government formed, and as part of the coalition agreement, they pledged to end child detention. Thrilled with this news, our Director of Policy and Development, Jonathan Ellis, wrote a letter to Total Politics magazine:

“We were encouraged that on the first day of a new government the Prime Minister and his deputy declared they would end child detention for immigration purposes. We have been campaigning with our partners to end this abhorrent policy for years, and are delighted that this is one area of immigration policy the coalition immediately agreed on.

This decisive action is just the approach we need from this government on asylum policy. At the Refugee Council, we work on a daily basis with people who have fled unimaginable acts of war, torture and persecution. Instead of focusing on cutting numbers, the government must ensure those fleeing such horrors are properly looked after. The emphasis must be on creating a fair, humane, and effective system which has refugee protection at its heart.

We urge the coalition to continue on this positive note, and that they ensure the right to asylum is defended at all costs.”

It even won letter of the month! So we were dismayed to see a reply from Lord Tebbit in the July edition of the same publication:

“I was disappointed, but not surprised that in his ‘Letter of the Month’ (TP June), Mr Ellis, the director of policy and development at the Refugee Council, got away once again with recycling the myth that anyone, adult or child, is held against their will (or that of their guardian) in immigration detention centres.

As former Home Office minister, Admiral Lord West, confirmed to me in the House of Lords, all those currently receiving free board and lodging in those centres are free to leave at will. They are not, however, free to enter the United Kingdom until their claims to be entitled so to do have been investigated and found to be valid. It is their choice, not a decision by the United Kingdom authorities that they continue to stay in those centres.”

We were pleased our letter sparked a mini-debate in the magazine, but unlike the 219 MPs that signed the asylum election pledge (including David Cameron and Nick Clegg), it appears that Lord Tebbit does not understand the fundamentals of refugee protection. People seeking asylum here are fleeing persecution and conflict. Being ‘free to leave at will’ from detention means volunteering to return to the country from which they are fleeing. This is not much of a choice!

What Admiral Lord West failed to tell him is that an unacceptably high proportion of these people have been let down by the asylum system and have been wrongfully detained—the government needs to focus on getting decisions right from the start, to ensure those that need protection are given it, and not detained and sent back to countries where their lives will be at risk.

And judging from the luxurious picture he paints, Lord Tebbit is also clearly unaware of the prison-like conditions many are forced to endure, as conveyed in the Chief Inspector of Prisons’ shocking reports into Yarl’s Wood detention centre, and the one on Brook House published just earlier this week.

But moreover, that he can defend the use of detention for children is shocking: there is a mountain of evidence proving detention is harmful to their welfare.

Over the past month the Refugee Council has been working with the government to assist with their review into child detention, and we submitted our recommendations to their consultation last week. Ideally, we want the government to improve the way they treat families all the way through the asylum process. We know this will take time, but that doesn’t mean they should delay ending the detention of children.

The government is expected to announce and implement changes to the policy from next month, so here’s hoping this will reflect the optimism with which they started, and that they end child detention immediately.

No doubt this will give us fodder for more heated debates on the letters pages…