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