Today CITIZENS UK – the largest alliance of civil society organisations in the country –
was recognised by the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg at a special event where he announced the plans to end the detention of children for immigration purposes. Sixty-five leaders heard Nick Clegg say he was “deeply indebted” to the work of CITIZENS UK and thanked CITIZENS UK for their success in raising awareness of the issue.
In response to the Deputy Prime Minister’s announcement, Neil Jameson, Executive Director of CITIZENS UK said:
“We are delighted with this timely announcement. CITIZENS UK has put huge pressure on Mr Clegg and the coalition government to end child detention. He and Mr Cameron made the commitment at our May 3rd CITIZENS UK Assembly, they reiterated it in the coalition agreement, and now they are delivering. Our members are particularly grateful to Mr Clegg for the courageous role he has played in ensuring that the welfare of children and families is upheld. We look forward to celebrating the moment when the last child is released.”
CITIZENS UK and the Sanctuary Pledge
The relationship with Mr. Nick Clegg and Mr. David Cameron to work with CITIZENS UK to end child detention started at the CITIZENS UK General Election Assembly on May 3rd 2010 when CITIZENS UK pushed for commitments from all the party leaders to end child detention. This was the culmination of a 6 month campaign, the Sanctuary Pledge, where teams of CITIZENS up and down the country had met with their prospective parliamentary candidates and negotiated for a commitment to support policies to end the detention of children.
The Sanctuary Pledge campaign was run with a number of partner organisations: The Church of England, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, the Methodist, Baptist and United Reformed Churches. The Muslim Council of Britain, the Jewish Council on Racial Equality, the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Chief Rabbi. Church Action on Poverty, the Vincentian Millennium Partnership, the Salvation Army, the Evangelical Alliance and the Mothers’ Union.
Over 250 leaders from around the country came to the historic CITIZENS UK National Election Assembly on May 3rd of this year. There, we secured commitments from the party leaders to end the cruel practice of locking up kids for administrative convenience. The new Coalition Agreement included the commitment to end the detention of children and families for immigration reasons. Ending this practice not only needed a change in policy, but also a massive shift in culture. Something that needed time, and patience!
Finding Alternatives to Detention
In August, CITIZENS UK established a Taskforce that would look at safe, sustainable and humane alternatives to Child Detention. Although originally set up to look at the most difficult of cases, those families who refused to comply, the Taskforce put forward recommendations for the whole ensured return route. The recommendations of the Taskforce were submitted to the Deputy Prime Minister’s Office.
The Deputy Prime Minster Nick Clegg then sent a video message to the South London CITIZENS Assembly on December 2nd at Queen Elizabeth Hall. This stated that they would be making an announcement before Christmas as to how and when Child Detention would end for good.
Pastor Wayne Brown from Charlton Tabernacle, who led the CITIZENS UK team which negotiated the detail of the announcement, said today:
“I know families who came to this country in good faith but have found that they are not permitted to stay, and find themselves deemed unworthy by some. What this announcement means today is that if as a family you have exhausted all avenues and are not granted leave to remain in this country we will not deem you unworthy as human beings.
Mr Clegg, you made a pledge to us on May 3rd, and now you are delivering on it. So, Deputy Prime Minister, this is victory for you. But it is also a victory for everyone here from CITIZENS UK who met with their MPs and convinced them to sign the Sanctuary Pledge and created the pressure to make this happen.
Lorin Sulaimen, a leader with CITIZENS UK and a former child detainee, gave a powerful testimony about her experience of child detention when she came to the UK aged 14 with her family to seek sanctuary from persecution in Syria. She said:
“I am so pleased with this announcement. Mr Clegg has told us today how he will deliver on his pledge to us to end child detention.
My experience of detention was awful. Being locked up I felt like a prisoner, like I was being punished for committing a crime. At that age I should have been at school worrying about my homework – instead I was locked up. At that age I should have been sleeping like a child – instead, every half an hour, immigration officers would shine a light in my eyes to make sure I had not committed suicide. I should have been playing in the fresh air – instead I was only allowed outside once in the ten day period. I don’t want any child to go through what I had to go through and that we really do move to a system where every child is treated as a child – regardless of their parents’ immigration status.”
“Today”, Nick Clegg said, “the coalition government is making an important announcement. We are setting out for the first time how we are ending the detention of children for immigration purposes in the United Kingdom. We setting out how we are ending the shameful practice that last year alone saw over 1,000 innocent children locked up in prison.
That practice ends here”
Yarl’s Wood’s family wing will close with immediate effect, so that no child will remain in detention this Christmas. Child detention will finally end by 11th May 2011, when new purpose build family accommodation, where children and families will be free to come and go, will be built.
“If, and only if, a family absolutely refuses to leave after all of these steps, and we expect the number to be very tiny indeed, then their case will be referred to a wholly new, independent family panel.”
This Family Panel will be chaired independently and formed of safeguarding, medical and legal experts.
“This marks a big culture shift within our immigration system. One that puts our values – the protection of children – above paranoia over our borders. One that prioritises doing the right thing rather than looking and sounding tough.
“We are ending the shameful practice that last year alone saw over 1,000 children – 1,000 innocent children – imprisoned. The practice that, under Labour, saw children literally taken from their homes, without warning, and placed behind bars.
“Our reforms will deliver an approach to families that is compassionate and humane, while still maintaining the integrity of our immigration system. Because our starting point is this: there is no greater test of civilised society than how it treats its children.”
He said there was a “lot of early evidence” from pilot projects that providing families with support and information encouraged them to leave voluntarily.
“If you don’t harangue and terrify them, but give them the space and the time to consider their options … we’re very encouraged by the tendency for families to reconcile themselves in some cases with the inevitable” and return voluntarily, he said.
Providing such help also minimises the risks of absconding “and moving into the shadows of our society”, he added.
For the five months before the new accommodation is built, Nick Clegg announced that Tinsley House, near Gatwick Airport, may be used as a last resort.
CITIZENS UK is still worried about the children who will be kept in Tinsley House in the interim period before the new system should be fully in place. So today, Lorin Sulaiman, asked Mr. Clegg if she could be involved with a team of independent safeguarding experts to visit the refurbished accommodation before children are placed there “so we can be assured it is as child-friendly as possible”.
“Deputy Prime Minister, I think what you have announced today is a real step forward. I do worry about the children who will be kept in Tinsley House in the interim period, and hope you will do everything you can to ensure that they have the maximum freedom of movement, and that they have social workers available to make sure they are treated properly.
As someone who was detained in Tinsley, I know that it is not an ideal environment for children, and would like to be involved in a team of independent safeguarding experts who could visit the refurbished accommodation before children are placed there so we can be assured that it is as child-friendly as possible.”
Nick Clegg agreed to a visit to Tinsley House, promised to establish social workers on site and agreed that children will be able to come and go, subject to safeguarding and risk assessments.
For more information, please contact Jonathan Cox at Jonathan.Cox@cof.org.uk.