This week found me on a train to Crawley, followed by a short taxi ride to the government’s latest facility where people are deprived of their liberty because they do not have permission to be in the UK.
So far, so what’s new? Well this is the much talked about ‘pre departure accommodation’ – the detention element of the revised family removal process introduced following the government’s review into the detention of children and families for immigration purposes.
The promise from the new government in May 2010 was that the current practice of detaining children for immigration purposes would end. Has it? Well in short, no – apart from this new place there are still children in families who may be detained on arrival in a traditional removal centre, Tinsley House, near Gatwick airport, albeit in a refurbished family wing.
For those who have overstayed their permission to be here, whether or not they claimed asylum during that time, the new process requires more stages to be tried before resorting to locking the family up before removing them by force. This process should mean far fewer families ending up behind lock and key, which has to be a good thing. However, this new facility does keep families in a secure centre and operates under the same rules as the short term holding facilities usually associated with airports. It is to be run as an offshoot of Tinsley House, has the same Independent Monitoring Board and will be inspected by the Chief Inspector of Prisons. It is, very clearly, a detention facility and families will not be staying here of their own free will.
The unique aspect of this centre is the conditions in which families will be kept. After my visit I was in no doubt that the refurbished former residential school bears little resemblance to the other removal centres and has clearly been influenced in its design by Barnardos, who will help to run the facility. The self contained dwellings for each family and well thought out communal areas are definitely the best I’ve seen in the detention estate. Staff clearly want to make the experience here an improvement on the experiences of those held in Yarl’s Wood before that closed to families at the end of 2010. I hope for everyone’s sake that very few families end up here, not because those working here will not try their best to ease the distress and do what they can to help, but because it is still detention and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.