This piece by Judith Dennis was first published by openDemocracy on 3 November 2014. Judith is Policy Manager at the Refugee Council.
Despite pledging to end child detention for immigration purposes in 2010, the UK Government is still quietly locking up children. It’s getting away with it by calling them adults.
For day trippers, the view across the Channel may be quite appealing with the famous white cliffs plunging dramatically into the sea. For those incarcerated behind the barbed wire fences, the view must feel entirely different; a chilling reminder that you are on the edge of Britain, being held at arm’s length by a government intent on removing you at the first opportunity.
Dover IRC used to be a prison. For all intents and purposes, it still is, except these days it’s used solely to house immigration detainees – up to 401 adult males in total. Although it’s officially no longer a prison, Dover IRC is run by the prison service and the Independent Chief Inspector of Prisons has recently described it as ‘prison like’.
It’s not hard to see why.
The building is covered in razor wire and staff patrol carrying batons. It’s surrounding by a disused moat, the legacy of the former fortress. It’s not difficult to imagine what it’s like to be housed there during the winter with the wind whipping in from the sea; cold, damp, dirty and unforgiving.
Inside, the Independent Chief Inspector of Prisons found living spaces to be cramped with little privacy. The showers are faulty, and it’s not unheard of to find mice scuttling about. Inspectors also had concerns about the high level of strip searches and detainees being moved in the dead of night.
Dover IRC is not a pleasant place. But it’s even worse if you’re a child.
In December 2010, the coalition government pledged to end the detention of children for immigration purposes. It was about time.
But if you scratch beneath the surface of the promise, you will soon discover that the Government isn’t keeping its word. Children are still locked up, quietly, in places like Dover IRC. And the Government’s getting away with it by calling them adults.
The invisible children of the detention system
One of the biggest issues unaccompanied young people seeking asylum face on arrival in the UK is that they are usually unable to verify their date of birth with official documents.
Most countries from which refugees come do not register births in the same way as in this country, although some will have documents that can help provide information about age.
Refugees may have to travel on documents that do not belong to them or have been obtained fraudulently; this is accepted in international law in recognition that people may not be able to obtain passports or travel documents from a government from which they are escaping. Such documents are likely to have an adult’s date of birth because children shouldn’t travel alone.
Children may also be advised or decide themselves to state that they are an adult if encountered on their journey, to avoid being separated from a group or to protect themselves from adults who may want to exploit them.
Home Office policies say that unaccompanied should not be detained unless one or more of the following criteria apply: i) there is credible and clear documentary evidence that they are 18 years of age or over; ii) a full and detailed local authority age assessment setting out the reasons for the conclusion that the applicant is 18 years of age or over has been seen, and the local authority has stated that the assessment was conducted in compliance with guidelines; iii) their physical appearance and/or general demeanour very strongly indicates that they are significantly over 18 years and no other credible evidence exists to the contrary. In this latter case, no age assessment needs to be pursued.
But these policies aren’t working: immigration officials and social workers are getting it wrong and the consequences can be devastating. Children are being unlawfully detained as adults, alongside adults, despite the Government knowing it can cause them lasting psychological and physical harm.
In 2013 alone, the Refugee Council secured the release of 36 young people from Dover and places like it. Following age assessments, 12 of these vulnerable children were judged to be under the age of 16. Two were under 15.
These figures are likely to be the tip of the iceberg. No one knows what happens to the children whose plight is never discovered, or who are removed before anyone has the chance to help them.
Child or adult, who decides?
There are two main ways that children can end up being wrongfully detained. The first is if a child has had a poor age assessment by social services who have judged them to be an adult. If a child is detained on the basis of a poor age assessment, going to court is often the only way to secure their release. Until the case reaches court, the child is left languishing in detention. This is despite the fact that it has been shown that the damage inflicted on children deprived of their liberty is usually compounded by the length of time the child is detained.
Otherwise, children can be detained on the say so of an immigration officer. Although Home Office policy states that immigration officers can detain someone if they appear to be significantly over 18, the Home Office has said that in practice, this means that the immigration officer judges them to be over the age of 25.
This is extremely concerning. Appearance is a particularly unreliable indicator of age, especially when children are going through puberty. We all know someone under 18 who’s managed to buy alcohol just because the shop assistant thought they looked older.
Yet if an immigration officer decides a person appears to be over the age of 25, no superior needs be consulted, no age assessment is required and the person enters the asylum system as an adult.
The solution is obvious, but rarely implemented: if an asylum seeker claims to be a child at any stage in the process, they should be given a full, lawful age assessment by social services.
The consequences of getting it wrong
Alone, scared and confused, there are few ways for a child to cry for help. There are few people listening.
Finding children inside detention centres can be heart breaking. Sometimes they’re excited to have a visitor. Sometimes they’re aggressive, understandably angry and scared. One boy the Refugee Council discovered said nothing to us but instead started to take his clothes off. He was covered in blood. He’d been self harming.
There are other dangers too. We know of children who have been molested inside detention centres. One boy, who has now had his refugee status for years, is still on medication as a direct result of his time being unlawfully detained. He tells us he still has nightmares.
Children who are unlawfully detained often receive compensation as an acknowledgement of their ordeal; small but significant sums doled out to try and teach the Home Office about the human cost of its actions.
The children arriving alone in the UK via Dover will have undoubtedly endured a long and perilous journey, completely at the mercy of people smugglers. Many will have suffered abuse and witnessed death along the way, not to mention the trauma they will have suffered which forced them to leave their home country and loved ones behind.
Dover’s white cliffs should symbolise safety; a chance to overcome past experiences and rebuild young lives. Instead, the imposing prison on the top of the hill, and places like it, beckon.
No asylum seeker should be detained for administrative convenience. It ruins lives and wastes money. But detaining vulnerable children in a system build for adults is a particularly distasteful form of state sponsored cruelty.