A grim alternative to detaining children

Haslar Visitors Group coordinator Laura Del Nevo explains how the Home Office is piloting its 'Alternatives to Detention' project with asylum- seeking families from the Portsmouth area

July 5, 2008
4 min read

Around 2,000 children are detained under immigration powers in Britain every year. These children and their families are locked up behind the wire of immigration removal centres (IRCs), with meals, play and schooling overshadowed by uniformed officers. This has been going on for seven years, against a background of growing unease and increasingly large- scale protests by trade unions, churches and community groups outside the IRCs at Dungavel in Scotland and Yarl’s Wood near Bedford.

Last year the parliamentary joint committee on human rights saw a mass of evidence from Save the Children, Bail for Immigration Detainees and the Refugee Council documenting the destructive effects of detention on children’s lives, and calling for alternatives to be found. Now the Borders and Immigration Agency (BIA), under the hardest-line immigration minister to date, former merchant banker and venture capitalist Liam Byrne, the Home Office has a new strategy in mind.

Families selected for the BIA’s ‘Alternatives to Detention’ project working with families from the Portsmouth area are informed they must move to a hostel in Millbank, near Ashford in Kent (100 miles from Portsmouth), or lose all accommodation and support. Once in Millbank they spend eight weeks during which they are interviewed by caseworkers from the charity Migrant Helpline, who encourage them to commit to the ‘voluntary assisted return and reintegration programme’ and advise them that failure to do so will lead to forced removal proceedings being initiated.

Migrant Helpline is funded entirely by the Home Office to carry out this casework and the charity’s performance during the 12-month pilot scheme will be judged, in part, on the number of families who take up the voluntary return package. At the end of the eight weeks, families who have not agreed to do so are either detained and removed compulsorily or dispersed back into the community – usually in Wales, the midlands or the north.

The ‘voluntary’ nature of return in this pilot project is crucial to its success. It is extremely difficult to obtain travel documents from the embassies of Iran, Eritrea and Algeria, among others, for example, and just about impossible without full cooperation from the individuals being returned. Other barriers to forced removals include there being no reliable route of Somalia, Iraq and Palestine) or the high likelihood of a UK court blocking the removal (currently affecting Sri Lankan Tamils, Zimbabwe and Congo).

There are far fewer barriers to voluntary return, though one wonders who will explain this distinction to the families at Millbank. Of course integrated families, supported in their communities by school teachers, religious leaders, neighbours, friends, doctors and social workers are unlikely even to consider returning voluntarily to a third-world country where they and their children have no one to turn to. Families who have all this taken away from them, and are subjected to eight weeks of intensive ‘caseworking’, on the other hand, just might.

Unlike the children of Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre, the children in this project will not have their bedroom doors locked behind them and they will not be prevented from going out to play in their local park by a barbed-wire fence. But their education will still be disrupted, their family’s informal support networks will still be broken and their families, deliberately isolated, will be subjected to enormous anxiety about their future.

Is this really how we want to treat vulnerable families and their children? Do we really need an alternative to leaving children in the local communities in which they have settled?

The Haslar Visitors Group has a destitution fund for asylum seekers trying to survive ‘in the community’ when they have been refused all support, accommodation or work. ‘We give them food, advice and sometimes money,’ says coordinator Michael Woolley. ‘The advice is about ways they can get help from the government. We give money to tide them over till that arrives – sometimes weeks later. How much? £15 a week, just enough to buy food. Even this small payment makes them less of a burden on a friend offering a sofa to sleep on. In a typical month we give away about £1,500.’ The group receives Lottery money for an office and salaries, but is barred from spending any of this on the destitute, so the fund relies entirely on donations.

Haslar Visitors Group, All Saints, Commercial Road, Portsmouth PO1 4BT

Tel/fax: 023 9283 9222

Email: coordinator@haslarvisitors.org.uk


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform

Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out

Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’

Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue

A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank

News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions

Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release

Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts

‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette

The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.

How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op

Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU

Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity

Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson

Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release

University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.

Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.

Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History