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30 november 2009

Detention of children at immigration 'prisons' attacked by MPs

Too many children being held at detention centres for too long, says home affairs select committee

Too many children are being detained for too long and at too great a cost to the taxpayer in UK immigration centres that are "essentially prisons", according to a cross-party group of MPs.

In a report released today, the home affairs select committee said statistics suggested that about 1,000 children a year were held in secure immigration centres while they and their families awaited removal from the UK, but it was "troubling" that no one was able to give an exact number held or an overview of their welfare. The committee is calling for reform of the asylum process to speed it up.

Children spend an average of more than a fortnight in detention centres, with longer stays of up to 61 days not uncommon. Some children are released and re-detained.

MPs said detention of a child was difficult to justify and should only ever be used as a last resort. It costs £130 a day to detain someone, and holding a family of four for between four and eight weeks can cost more than £20,000.

Improvements in the UK Border Agency's facilities, such as a school at the Yarl's Wood detention centre in Bedfordshire where most children under the age of 16 are held, only "paper over the cracks", said the committee.

The MPs were also concerned that appeals and applications for asylum were taking far too long, with 90% of judicial review applications never heard. The committee chairman, Keith Vaz MP, said present practice was "unacceptable".

"These children have done nothing wrong," he said. "They should not be being punished. The Yarl's Wood detention centre remains essentially a prison, and is no place for a child. It must always be absolutely the last resort to keep a child detained for any length of time. Families with children are not a high risk for absconding.

"The legal system remains far too unwieldy and allows too many appeals and legal reviews. The system must be cleaned up so that those who have been refused settlement in the UK are deported as soon as possible and only detained as a last resort."

But Amanda Shah, assistant director of policy at the charity Bail for Immigration Detainees, said that the MPs' recommendations did not go far enough.

"We disagree with the committee's acceptance of the detention of children for short periods of time, particularly as research released last month showed that even relatively brief periods of time spent in immigration detention can damage a child's mental and physical health," she said."Figures released last week showed the UKBA are detaining more children - 315 children in the last quarter, compared to 235 children in the previous quarter. This national scandal of detaining children for immigration purposes must end now."


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