UK: Ending the detention of children for immigration purposes? New "pre-departure accommodation centre" for families almost ready to open

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23.08.2011 Included in the agreement between the Liberal Democrat and Conservative parties that make up the UK's coalition government is a pledge to "end the detention of children for immigration purposes" [1]. In September 2010, the immigration minister Damian Green stated that the government in fact planned to "minimise" the number of child detainees. Two facilities still provide the United Kingdom Border Agency (UKBA) with the ability to detain families. One is Tinsley House, where there is space for eight families; the other is a new facility at Pease Pottage, a former private school that has recently been refurbished to provide what the government calls "secure pre-departure accommodation" for up to nine families.

Borders and Barnardo's

Development of the Pease Pottage site began in April, and on 17th August the immigration minister Damian Green was there to unveil a plaque at the unit, which within the next few weeks is likely to see its first detainees. Like Tinsley House, Pease Pottage will be run by the security firm G4S, who also hold contracts to run the Brook House, Dungavel and Oakington detention centres. The company was until recently also responsible for transporting detainees both within the UK and on deportation flights, although their contract was revoked following the arrest of three G4S employees over the death of Jimmy Mubenga. [2]

Assisting G4S will be the children's charity Barnardo's, who have attracted fierce criticism for their decision to work with the UKBA at the new facility. One commentator has suggested that the involvement of Barnardo's provides "the nosegays which disguise the stench of reality", [3] and an ongoing campaign is seeking to convince the company to end its involvement with the project [4]. The charity will play a significant role in the running of the centre, and has been heavily involved in its development, including responsibility for designing the interior.

The cost of the contract awarded to Barnardo's is confidential. However, staff from the charity will be at the unit for 24 hours a day, with an estimated 30 people employed to fill the necessary shifts, indicating that the charity's income from the project will be substantial. G4S will have 50 staff assigned to the centre. The unit contains 11 flats, two of these are "isolation flats" that will be used to separate families or individuals deemed to be potentially violent or troublesome. One flat is specifically reserved for those deemed at risk of self-harm. The isolation flats are not intended to serve as 'overflow' facilities. The intended maximum capacity of Pease Pottage is 44 people. Despite the seemingly lucrative contract secured by Barnardo's, the charity has stated that it will pull out of the deal "if children and families are not treated properly". The charity has outlined a number of "requirements" upon which its involvement is contingent. Nevertheless, its support for the project remains highly controversial. [5]

The "compassionate approach to family returns"

Families will be held at the new unit as part of the UKBA's new "compassionate approach to family returns". [6] Under this policy, families who fail to take up the option for "assisted return" will be subject to "required return", where "self check-in removal directions" will be issued. This will involve the family being ordered to leave via a flight on which seats have been booked for them. A recent evaluation of the new family returns procedures found that "none of the 41 initial attempts at required return were successful" [7]. This leaves the "ensured return" process, under which removal directions are issued and families will be detained for a minimum of 72 hours before being deported. The facility at Pease Pottage is intended to hold those who are subject to ensured return.

The UKBA's new approach to family returns has been hailed as a potentially positive step that seeks to overcome a removal policy that used "dawn raids and detention as a first resort" [8]). New guidance issued to UKBA staff states that they must:

"take full account of our duty to have regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in the UK in accordance with our statutory and international obligations". [9]

However, there have been frequent problems with the agency's staff and contractors meeting the requirements placed on them by official guidance.

Recent reports by the Independent Chief Inspector of the UKBA have noted a number of problems, including arrest teams failing to obtain written authority for their visits [10], and making insufficient use of country of origin information in the asylum decision-making process [11]. Restraining techniques used by staff undertaking deportations have been found to "increase the risk of harm or death". [12] The Home Affairs Committee noted in 2009 that:

"Time after time in our inquiries into immigration and asylum matters we are told that the UKBA's rules and processes are good but they are not carried out properly." [13]

While guidance centred on the welfare of individuals is welcome, it may not be easy to change the culture of an agency that has often been the recipient of heavy criticism for the attitudes and practices of its staff. [14]. The same is true for the agencies to which it has outsourced much of the day-to-day running of the detention estate. [15]

Legal advice

Concerns have also been raised over what the legal advice that will be accessible to those detained at Pease Pottage. From Monday to Friday, families will be permitted half an hour of free legal advice from an in-house contractor. However, the advisers present at the unit will not have access to individual case files, and an out-of-the-way location will not make regular visits easy for solicitors, lawyers, or legal advisors. The UK's two biggest immigration advice charities have both recently entered administration, [16] a fact that will have a drastic impact on the ability of all migrants to access legal remedies.

Sources have also suggested that the cost per person at fully capacity would be £440 per night, with an annual running cost for the centre estimated at £7,200,000. UKBA declined to answer questions on the costs of the facility, although the Children's Commissioner for England, Maggie Atkinson, stated that it is the hope of all the organisations involved that the unit will be used as little as possible, and that the new family returns procedure ensures it will only be used as a last resort. If this is the case, the cost per person per night is likely to be significantly higher than £440. Yet while the financial cost may be high, it is the human cost that continues to concern campaigners and advocates of the rights of migrants and asylum seekers.

The detention estate has expanded considerably since the coalition government came to office, with new detention centres opened at Morton Hall in Lancashire and Larne House in County Antrim [17]. The centre at Pease Pottage is the latest of these additions. It remains to be seen how detainees at the unit will be treated, and whether the safeguards imposed by the new family returns procedure will be fully and properly implemented. Regardless of any new procedures put in place, the promise to "end the detention of children for immigration purposes" is ultimately incompatible with an immigration system that relies on the use of deportations. This, combined with the involvement of the UK's biggest children's charity, would seem to indicate that campaigns seeking to end the detention of children will continue for some time to come.


[1] The Coalition, Our Programme for Government, p.21
[2] Trevor Hemmings, The death of Jimmy Mubenga: "Securing your world" through "privatised manslaughter"
[3] Frances Webber, Does Barnardo's legitimise child detention?
[4] Alida Alisis, 'Barnardo's! Please quit the child detention business'; No One Is Illegal, Barnardo's colluding to lock up children
[6] UKBA, New compassionate approach to family returns
[5] Neil Puffett, Barnardo's confirms commitment to failed asylum seekers' welfare
[7] UKBA, Interim assessment of family returns pilots, p.10
[8] Free Movement, New family returns process
[9] UKBA, Chapter 45 - Family cases, p.4
[10] Independent Chief Inspector of the UKBA, A short-notice inspection of a UKBA arrest team (Croydon)
[11] Independent Chief Inspector of the UKBA, The use of country of origin information in deciding asylum applications: A thematic inspection
[12] Alan Travis, Restraining technique used by officials 'increases risk of death'
[13] Home Affairs Committee, The trade in human beings: Human trafficking in the UK, p.39
[14] Diane Taylor and Huig Muir, Border staff humiliate and trick asylum seekers – whistleblower
[15] Press Association, Immigration detention firm G4S gets more than 700 complaints;
Annie Brown, Guantanamo Bay firm to run Dungavel detention centre
[16] Migrants' Rights Network, Refugee and Migrant Justice goes into administration; Immigration Advisory Service, Immigration Advisory Service ("IAS") is in Administration
[17] Press Association, Centre boosts UK detention capacity; Belfast Telegraph, New immigrant detention centre opens


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