Ending the Detention of Children for Immigration Purposes


Before the last election over 1,000 innocent children from our communities were locked up in detention centres like Yarl's Wood for immigration purposes every year.  Now none are.

CITIZENS UK's Sanctuary Pledge campaign secured commitments from all of the main political parties that they would stop locking up innocent children in detention centres like Yarl's Wood, and work with our leaders on humane alternatives that meet the highest standards of child welfare.

This is the story of how we made it happen:

As a result of the Sanctuary Pledge:

  • all three main political parties and their leaders are committed to ending the detention of children for immigration purposes
  • the family unit at Yarl's Wood closed in 2010 and all the remaining families were released
  • the UK Border Agency now has a team of Specialist Family Caseowners
  • families that need pre-flight accommodation can be prepared for departure at the state-of-the-art CEDARS centre designed and co-run by Barnardo's
  •  an Independent Child Detention Monitoring Panel, established by CITIZENS UK, provides accountability and ensures that the letter and spirit of the Sanctuary Pledge is upheld.

Showing 7 reactions

  • Jonathan Cox
    commented 2013-01-11 01:58:21 +0000
    KAT MIAO YU – Chinese Migrants Network:

    “I took my young son Benjamin with me to visit CEDARS. What struck me, as a leader from an organisation of Chinese migrants, is that the Pre-departure Accommodation isn’t a detention centre. It doesn’t have high walls and security guards in every room. It provides decent privacy for families in most of the rooms. My impressions were that it was family-friendly and put children’s needs first. The children’s play areas really stood out for me – and for Benjamin of course! It has indoor and outdoor play areas that are suitable for all aged children. It’s a positive step forward in ending child detention.”
  • Jonathan Cox
    commented 2013-01-11 01:57:31 +0000

    “I write this as someone who, whilst seeking sanctuary, had the experience of living under secure conditions for several months. Secured accommodation always stands out by the way security structures are visibly displayed and search areas are so publicly exhibited so much that the idea of limited freedom is always heightened.

    At arrival at the PDA, I felt like one arriving at a hotel. The receiving staffs were so welcoming. The reception area had only one desk and not intimidating at all. I was impressed by the fact that there was no rush in registration – even a hotel will not let one in before completing booking proceedures. At the PDA if one is too tired this process can always be done later- very uncommon of a detention centre. Search areas are discreet and the seats are comfortable.

    The rooms are spacious. The furniture is new. Beds are comfortable. The facilities are well laid out providing for convenience and privacy. The décor is creative and very welcoming. Children themes are reflected in both living and play areas. The two children, who accompanied us on the tour, fully endorsed how children expectations were achieved. They spent most of the tour time totally occupied by an array of toys and play areas around the facilities. This is very important as it distracts children from some negative impacts emanating from parents who might be so engrossed with negative thoughts around return.

    The steelworks, burglar-barred windows and reinforced heavy metal doors are not part of the structure of the centre. A fence similar to that one would find around any homestead is what one sees at the far end of the nice lawn areas.

    Provision of food is very flexible with an option to prepare own food – never to be found in a detention centre.

    On departure ordinary vans and cars will be used. This is contrary to the high security vans used in detention centres. What remains to be seen is how staffing culture will complement the welcoming environment.

    In providing such a great facility as the PDA, the coalition government, through UKBA, has shown its seriousness in realising the promise for an end to detention of children. As a community leader, with families likely to be deported, I feel the PDA is a commendable move towards realising recommendations of the Independent Asylum Commission on safe returns.”
  • Jonathan Cox
    commented 2013-01-11 01:55:49 +0000
    VAUGHAN TUDOR-WILLIAMS (formerly responsible for residential child care accommodation in a local authority)

    “Ultimately, I was encouraged by what I saw, not least because as The Cedars develops, it seems to me that there is a chance that the kind of multi-agency dialogue that must go on there could permeate back down the system and start to effect change much earlier in the immigration process. The evidence is there to support an argument that says families would be more accepting of the decisions made (even if the decision went against them) if they felt they could trust the process, were treated with sensitivity and understanding and appropriately supported in making a return to their home country. It is possible that The Cedars is the place where a wider dialogue could begin that would, through changing the way the process works from the day that a family engages with the immigration authorities, eventually lead to such a facility no longer being necessary.”

    “Any inspection regime should focus on the children and their experience but the short term nature of the accommodation will present problems of continuity between inspections. It might be that regular independent visiting by civil society organisations could be used to feed in to any more formal inspection and regulatory framework. It might also be useful to establish some longer term follow up with families who have been through The Cedars and returned to their home countries, to not only provide some qualitative information about their stay at The Cedars but also to reflect on the immigration process generally.”
  • Jonathan Cox
    commented 2013-01-11 01:54:37 +0000

    “As someone who had been to detention upon arrival and spent more than 2 weeks in small cells with different people, I think I am in a stronger position to testify the difference between detentions and the new Pre-Departure Accommodation. As the saying goes, “It is only the wearer who knows where a shoe pinches”.

    I went to the detention centre in Harmondsworth for immigration purposes and had to pass lots of doors and fences before I was even given the room I was meant to share with other and stay in. The reception was horrible with little or no interest to talk or see me. That was the lowest of the lowest in my life and will remain in the eyes of my mind for ever. Very unfriendly staff, poor hospitality, confined to a small place as if you were a criminal; that was so disturbing. You sometimes question whether you are in a country like Britain where the basics of human rights are upheld.

    I recently visited CEDARS which is going to accommodate families whose asylum case may have come to an end. I was so sceptical while on my way to the centre with lots of bad experiences. When the group arrived, it was beyond my expectation from the start. First of all, I didn’t see all the fences and doors I was expecting to see. Rather a very comfortable reception centre where both parents and children could feel at ease until the formal registration is completed. We were told, those who come to the centre could even go to their accommodation directly and finalise the registration after wards. This is a big step forward by itself. We thus visited the accommodation and all the facilities available both for children and adults. I found the PDA being very much organised and equipped with all needed by those who would stay there for a short period of time. Families can cook their own food or eat at the canteen; they can go to a prayer centre; they can spend time in the library with access to the internet, which is basic to communicate with lawyers, friends and families; it has a communal lounge; open space for parents and above all it has everything children might need. I was moved to see the two children who were part of the delegation enjoying every minute of the visit.

    Families could be in frustration in those days and that is understandable as an involuntary return to the point of departure is, without doubt, the most disturbing of all journeys; but I trust they will also understand that they are being treated humanely. The centre puts some sense of dignity and those days need respect and attention to details. Now that the facilities are good, my expectations are high in term of service delivery and I believe if the facilities available are coupled with professional delivery of service, then it would put a lasting legacy in the minds of those who leave to their home countries afterwards. This is a big and commendable achievement and by no way comparable to detention centres.
  • Jonathan Cox
    commented 2013-01-11 01:52:31 +0000
    Thanks Sarah,

    Indeed – I remember when you first got involved in this work.

    I have huge respect for the work that BID does (Bail for Immigration Detainees for anyone reading this: www.biduk.org) in its area of expertise of helping to get people in detention centres to access bail.

    But I just can’t agree with your political analysis on this one. We are not experts in immigration detention, but social change is our core expertise. There are lots of issues where the sorts of thing you describe (newspaper articles, lawsuits etc.) are evident but there is no political change. It is simply not the case that people kicked up a fuss and then the politicians (suddenly, after years of resisting) took a stand. Well, we did achieve national political change on a major policy issue and how do we know that the Pledge was the deciding factor? Firstly, because we saw the political shift as we exerted pressure in the marginal seats. Secondly, because the decision was taken by Clegg and Cameron, and we were the people who secured the political commitments from them (Lib Dems in September 2009 and repeated by Clegg on May 3rd 2010; and David Cameron made the commitment for the first time on May 3rd 2010 – watch the film!). Thirdly, because politicians from all parties, civil servants (including those who were not fans of ours) and others involved in the process told us so. And fourthly because I trained the team of our leaders who negotiated the terms of the deal direct with the Deputy Prime Minister. We fought our way from the outside to the inside of the issue. Now the campaign was certainly not hindered by the awareness raised by previous and parallel attempts (some of which I helped run when I worked in the refugee sector) to secure change on this issue. So I am not seeking to say that all the other campaigns were worthless – indeed watching their mistakes (including my own when I developed the strategy for the earlier RC/StC/BID campaign) helped us to design a strategy that won. But we do ourselves no favours if we delude ourselves that these other activities were in any way vital to securing the commitment.

    What annoys us is the fact that after we had won the commitment and created the space in which to develop alternatives (a commitment Cameron gave us direct) we were given no recognition of the hard work and sacrifice and risk that many hundreds of people – all volunteers – in CITIZENS groups across the country had taken to make it happen. Not only that, but there were strong efforts to marginalise us.

    This was followed by some very unpleasant personal attacks on some of our leaders (not from you, I am sure) by some of the participants in the working group. So forgive us if we didn’t feel we could be as open with the details of Reference Group as we had hoped. It was absolutely open to organisations and people who were prepared to help co-design alternatives to child detention and included a former chief inspector of prisons (Lord Ramsbotham), some of the foremost academic, social work and child safeguarding experts – as well as migrant families themselves. And we are very proud of what it produced. But we couldn’t risk a repeat of the farce that the working group became – with no viable alternatives being developed.

    We absolutely reject the suggestion that CEDARS somehow invalidates the commitment to end child detention Interestingly, having read the article you quoted it suggests that actually the issue is with the enforced removals process and not CEDARS itself, which as the article which Syd quoted below stated, was receiving very positive endorsements from the families interviewed there. Of course it is not perfect, and we welcome your continued vigilance. I will quote some of the responses of leaders from diaspora communities who visited CEDARS – some of whom were previously detained. I think their perspective is probably worth more than yours or mine, as people who never face the prospect of detention.

    Finally, I think this does come down to the question of where one stands on border control. If you are against all border controls and removals I can see why you would object to CEDARS, which is designed to provide a safe and humane place for a very small number of families to stay as part of the enforced removal process, with the oversight of an independent panel. We accept the process of enforced removals – but we want people from our communities to be treated decently during it. This is why we have teamed up with Lord Ramsbotham and a team of other eminent commissioners to look at how that system can be reformed too.

    I am going to shut up now and let some of the leaders who were directly involved in the campaign have their say. I should also say that CITIZENS is a democratic organisation that is controlled by its member organisations – and should BID ever wish to join and influence our activities from within we would more than welcome that.

    Best wishes,

  • Jonathan Cox
    commented 2013-01-08 00:58:26 +0000
    Hi Syd,

    You are absolutely right that there is no place for menacing behaviour in CEDARS, and we were appalled to hear about the case of the pregnant woman being poorly treated. We have made strong representations to the Deputy Prime Minister’s Office to make sure that the case is investigated and not repeated. It is exactly those sorts of experiences that sparked the campaign in the first place – which is why we need to remain vigilant.

    Thanks for drawing my attention to that article. However, it is misleading to suggest that that sort of event is commonplace. The rest of the article says CEDARS is a model for reform of the immigration system more generally:

    “…unlike the consistent finding at Yarl’s Wood in particular, the conditions and length of detention at Cedars did not in themselves appear to cause trauma to children and parents. In fact, parents said that if they had to be removed, they would rather be held in Cedars for a short time, both to provide time for applications for judicial
    review, and to help them settle and prepare their children.”

    What the report does seem to show – and I think that this is the nub of our disagreement – is that it is the process of enforced removal itself which can be traumatic, not CEDARS.

    And this is where I think the fault line runs: are we in favour of an immigration system, or are we not? I think that actually most of the people involved in the largely ineffective report-led and ‘advocacy’ campaigns that were abundant before 2010 were not campaigning against the locking up of kids in places like Yarl’s Wood – they were using that as a proxy for an attack on immigration control itself for broader ideological reasons. I can understand the argument against borders, and I even respect some people who hold it (particularly those who manage to avoid denouncing and attempting to undermine people who disagree with them!) but I don’t agree with it and neither do CITIZENS members who – in the main – are not Trotskyist ideologues, but ordinary people who want to make the world a better place for their families and their communities. We want an immigration system that treats people with dignity and respect. But we have learned that you can’t just campaign against something – you have to have a viable alternative to present, or you end up with something worse than was originally in place. And to have the people affected by a policy co-designing it is a good in itself.

    That is why we are extremely proud that we did what we did to stop kids being locked up in Yarl’s Wood and that young people and families themselves are saying that the system is better. And it is why, instead of engaging in complex but ultimately futile legal and semantic arguments, we are working to address the much more significant issue of enforced removals through the new Commission chaired by Lord Ramsbotham. If our people experience a problem, they want to change it and we will support them to act to do so and to make sure they have a place around the table to negotiate for an alternative. We did this on child detention, and we will do so on enforced removals, backed by the democratic mandate of thousands of our members who voted for action on this issue.

    I am not a lawyer, Syd. I worked in and around Westminster and saw 5 badly-drafted immigration bills ‘tighten up’ the law while making life progressively more difficult for diaspora communities – that’s when I lost a lot of respect for the law. So I don’t work for the law, I work for the tens of thousands of people (including the largest grouping of diaspora communities in Europe) in the 250 civil society organisations in membership of CITIZENS UK who pay their dues every year. If the families and volunteers who used to be locked up in Yarl’s Wood or who dealt with the impact of the kids when they came back traumatised, and the hundreds who participated actively in the Sanctuary Pledge campaign at considerable cost and risk to themselves, and those who helped to design the alternatives (including CEDARS); well, if those people say that Cedars isn’t a detention centre, then all the lawyers in Strasbourg couldn’t convince me otherwise. Surely the actual experience of people trumps legalistic definitions? If you would like to meet some of these leaders and ask for their view, just ask and I will arrange it.

    Finally, if only it was true that the principal critics of the new arrangements campaigned alongside us; the tragedy is that despite 17 organisations partnering with us on the Sanctuary Pledge campaign, none of the major refugee NGOs or organisations in the detention field outside our membership supported our strategy or the Sanctuary Pledge until after the hard work was over and the commitment won. In some cases this was because of resources or because they disagreed with any kind of border control and so weren’t prepared to work alongside us – and I respect the decision of those who are ideologically incompatible with us to not engage. What you can’t then do is leap in and try to define what it is we were campaigning for.

    But in truth, there were many campaigns to end child detention (many of which were actually campaigns against border control) running in parallel. Some of them provided useful background research and one or two useful policy ideas – and most were run by people with their hearts in the right place. Sadly some spent time sniping from the sidelines, pumping press releases into the ether from their armchairs, or even, ludicrously, setting up rival pledges without any meaningful organising strategy to back them up. Only one campaign made any meaningful political impact and that was CITIZENS UK’s Sanctuary Pledge – our leaders fought for pledges in the marginal seats, organised themselves to hold MPs and PPCs to account, secured the commitment from Cameron, Clegg and Brown, set up the Reference Group on Ensured Returns which provided most of the key elements of the new arrangements, and established the accountability mechanisms.

    We invited all interested organisations to participate, and even presented our strategy at a cross-sector meeting well in advance of the election. The vast majority decided not to. These are the ones we would honour as having played a meaningful role in winning the campaign: CITIZENS for Sanctuary teams in 12 regions, MRCF, the Jesuit Refugee Service, Praxis, the Vincentian Millennium Partnership, Church of England, Roman Catholic church, Baptists, Methodists and URC, Jewish Council on Racial Equality, the Chief Rabbi, the Muslim Council of Britain, Children and Families Across Borders, Royal Commonwealth Society, Salvation Army, the Mothers’ Union – plus hundreds of local CITIZENS organisations across the country. They are the ones who know that they played a direct role in stopping thousands of kids being locked up in places like Yarl’s Wood. No doubt other organisations willed child detention to end – but for them to claim that they had a hand in winning the campaign would be like Belgium claiming credit on VE Day.

    This is not an argument for complacency. By all means fight a new campaign against border cases or age disputing – they are real issues and worthy of campaigns in their own right, but they were not the motivation or aim of the Sanctuary Pledge when the campaign was fought.

    And by all means remain vigilant with regard to CEDARS – but let’s follow Voltaire’s advice and not make the perfect the enemy of the good. Celebrate success and give credit where it’s due (even and especially if that is to politicians who keep their promises) and then perhaps follow Hindpal’s advice – use the success of the Sanctuary Pledge and the lessons learned from CEDARS to reform the wider detention estate. 3,000 people locked up indefinitely at any one time – sounds like a campaign is called for… ;-)

    Best wishes,

  • Jonathan Cox
    commented 2013-01-07 13:02:17 +0000
    Great to see people retweeting this – and thanks for the comments.

    Aonaichte – thanks for the stats. That Mark Twain quote is relevant here. As you are probably aware, there is a flaw in the way that the ONS demands the government presents the stats. Although CEDARS is clearly not a detention centre, it is packaged up in the same set of Home Office statistics that includes detention centres.

    That is not to say we should not be vigilant – and if anyone has any evidence of children being detained in immigration removal centres then please forward them on to us – we will then have them looked into via the Independent Child Detention Monitoring Panel which is able to take these up with the government.

    Hi Syd – we think it is a pretty good thing to have a powerful independent figure (who knows the difference between a detention centre, a prison and CEDARS) to inspect CEDARS regularly and ensure it becomes neither a detention centre nor a prison.

    The court in Strasbourg wasn’t much help to the families from our member communities who were regularly locked up before 2010. Having helped to design CEDARS and visiting it regularly, the families who actually experienced family detention in places like Yarl’s Wood and who fought hardest to secure its end (not the lawyers who get paid to argue over semantics) are the best judge of whether it is a detention centre or not.

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