Ending child detention – the most achievable human rights goal?

By Tom Sanderson

Human rights issues are notoriously controversial. Debates rage around numerous issues, not least the validity and universality of human rights themselves. However, the detention of children for immigration purposes stands out as one human rights issue for which there is a remarkable extent of consensus, in both the damage it causes and the need for action to bring it to an end.

Several studies have shown beyond doubt the severe psychological damage and physical danger that child detention leads to, even where that detention is for very short periods of time. Such studies have been reported in the British Journal Child Abuse and Neglect, and Australian psychiatric journals. Numerous accounts have been reported of children self-harming and attempting suicide in detention centres in the UK alone, while other reports identify the mental health problems that can occur in later life as a result of periods of detention.

These are children, we must remember, who have committed no offence and broken no law. The only reason for their detention is that their parents have applied for asylum in our country. Furthermore, it is widely accepted that among undocumented migrants, children and families with children are some of the least likely candidates for absconding. Even David Wood of the UKBA admitted this to the Home Affairs Select Committee back in 2009.

The campaign group ‘End Child Detention Now’ is one of a huge number of groups working on this issue just in the UK. Many more provide similar opposition across Europe and indeed the world. Here, we have had assurances from the UK coalition government that the practice that Deputy PM Nick Clegg has called ‘state-sponsored cruelty’ would end.

So, given this widespread opposition to the practice and general agreement from those in power, it is surprising that entirely innocent children can still be detained in the UK, due only to the arbitrary lottery of nationality. While the government has taken some action to reduce the practice, there is no real end in sight.

Government promises count for little, as we have seen first-hand. This is why a concerted effort must be made to apply as much pressure as possible during the Ministerial Level meeting of all UN member states at the UNHCR in Geneva next month. This meeting is taking place to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the 1961 Refugee Convention, on the 7th and 8th December, and it is a perfect opportunity to convince our governments to make international commitments to ending child detention.

Further action:

The International Detention Coalition is running a letter-writing campaign in coordination with the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, and Amnesty International, and you can find out more about this here. They have a template letter, adaptable to your organisation and national situation, which can be downloaded here.

About the Author: 

Tom Sanderson is a freelance researcher, and volunteer campaigner with End Child Detention Now. He currently works for City University London.

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