From British playgrounds to Immigration Removal Centres:

Authors: Candice Morgan-Glendinning and Dr Melanie Griffiths (University of Bristol)
The following post is informed by an ESRC-funded project running at the University of Bristol. The research examines the intersection of family life and immigration policy for families consisting of British or EEA nationals and men with precarious or irregular immigration status. Further project information, including a report and policy briefings can be found here:
‘They never told me when you come to England that you can’t have a girlfriend and you can’t have a baby. They never told me, no one told me. Even if they had told me, come on, it is life.’ (Undocumented father)
These are the words of a man who arrived in the UK nearly two decades ago, fleeing his country as a lone fourteen-year-old. They are the words of a father of an eight-year-old British child. The words of a man who has also spent nearly five years in immigration detention. A man who’s spent more than half his life in the UK, transformed from expectant father to a foreign national prisoner whose residence in the UK is fiercely contested.  The stress and long uncertainty of his immigration detention and threatened deportation has broken up his relationship and is stopping him from being the present and active father he wants to be. Although finally out of detention, he’s still trapped far from his family and penniless, living under the limbo of a Deportation Order.
Each year thousands of men are forcibly removed from the country, including many who arrived in the UK as children and teenagers, as the Gatwick Detainee Welfare Group report Don’t Dump me in a Foreign Landillustrates. Their family lives and social bonds in the UK are threatened by separation through deportation for immigration and/or criminal offences. As a result of a series of policy changes over the last decade, deportation in ‘the public interest’ can occur for increasingly low-level criminality, or even just on the basis of allegations (potentially with little evidence) of criminal ‘character’ or ‘lifestyle’, as discussed further below. For these young men, as well as those guilty of serious criminality, the fact of having spent formative years in the UK raises serious questions over the proportionality of deportation, and the country that should be held responsible for their offending and rehabilitation.
From protected child to Foreign National Offender
There are certain protections afforded to unaccompanied under-18-year-olds subject to immigration controls in the UK, generally including exemption from immigration detention and deportation. Before turning 18, and thereby becoming detainable and deportable, these ‘young arrivers’ may enjoy periods of relative stability; living in communities, attending school, forming networks and relationships.
They may well also have disadvantaged starts in life; growing up in care or experiencing marginalisation and discrimination, whether from racism and deprivation, or xenophobia from the increasingly ‘hostile’ nature of the immigration discourse. Such factors, coupled with exclusion from lawful employment, increases their risk of criminalisation. Despite this, many of the ‘young arrivers’ who participated in the research felt British and settled. Most were entirely unaware that their behaviour could be used to bring their foreignness to the fore and justify their deportation.
For many, the route to deportability is via the criminal justice system. Young people subject to immigration controls often occupy the same spaces as their British Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) peers. The recent David Lammy report highlights the over-representation of BAME youth within all aspects of the criminal justice system, although he does not acknowledge the additional vulnerabilities arising from a precarious immigration status. Changes made to deportation policy in recent years severely reduce the scope of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the right to respect for one’s family and private life) for foreign nationals with criminal records. There are increasingly severe immigration consequences for criminal offending, now with ‘automatic’ deportation for those sentenced to 12 months imprisonment, whether as a single sentence, or accrued over multiple short sentences.
These trends are further developed by Operation Nexus, a little-known police-Home Office interagency arrangement first piloted in 2012. Nexus reinvigorates ‘intelligence-led’ deportation, including on the basis of police contact and ‘non-convictions’ such as stop-and-searches (even if nothing is found), charges that are withdrawn or made in error, and being present at crime scenes, even as a victim or witness.
Nexus-related appeals are heard in the Immigration and Asylum Tribunal and are not within the scope for legal aid. Appellants often have no legal representation and are at serious disadvantage. And yet they are made highly vulnerable by the low standard of proof of the Tribunal, which allows the use of hearsay, anonymous allegation and circumstantial evidence. Allegations of gang membership and drug offences, for example, were prevalent in the Nexus-related hearings observed during the research. These accusations were frequently unevidenced, which is particularly concerning given that ‘drugs’ and ‘gangs’ are concepts said to be commonly used to signify racialised young men. For more information on Operation Nexus and the policy implications, see this Policy Briefing 
Barriers to maintaining family life
Once labelled a ‘foreign criminal’, even people who grew up in the UK are liable to immigration enforcement measures. Experiences such as immigration detention significantly impacts people’s mental health and feelings of belonging, with research participants describing themselves rejected as ‘nothing men’, ‘ghost men’ and ‘useless’. Detention and deportability led to people feeling both of being outside British society, and yet permanently bonded to the country through citizen children and partners.
First love, first child. I feel like I’ve got nobody except her. She’s my life, my love, she’s everyone to me.” (Undocumented partner and father)
Ties to family in the UK provide people with practical and emotional support. However, immigration detention, particularly its indefinite nature, puts considerable – sometimes terminal – strain on relationships. Maintaining relationships is challenging, and there is scant policy on supporting such relationships, especially when compared to provisions for prisoners. Indeed, the immigration and detention systems erect multiple hurdles to continued family life, including through practical, financial and emotional barriers against visiting detained loved ones, as described in another policy briefing, Detention of Fathers in the Immigration System. In any case, family visits can bring mixed feelings: loss and guilt, as well as love and strength.
Some participants consider immigration detention to be a governmental tool, intended to destabilise their lives, break their spirits and encourage immigration or criminal offending. Removed from their family and support networks, relationships were irreversibly damaged and people’s resolve and mental health often deteriorated. Increasingly, separation from one’s family also has legal consequences, by weakening claims to have ‘genuine and subsisting’ relationships with partners or children, thus undermining Article 8 based applications. This is so even when such separation is involuntary, through detention or removal.
‘Your family does not need you’ 
Immigration policy now explicitly places less weight on the family lives of foreign nationals if they have irregular immigration status or criminal records (see blog post: Invisible Fathers of Immigration Detention in the UK). There are also suggestions of gender, racial and class biases affecting the value placed on non-citizen family figures. In some cases people’s relationships simply were not recognised by the authorities, in others they were acknowledged but dismissed as unimportant. Fathers, boyfriends and husbands in immigration detention found it particularly difficult to have their private lives valued, with some accused of opportunistically having children in an attempt to undermine border controls.
By emphasising present realities over potential futures, decision-makers commonly use separation through detention and a prevention from lawful employment to dispute the strength of the men’s family roles. Many participants were told by the Home Office that paternal relationships could continue after deportation, with communication technology sufficiently replacing the physical contact of fathers (the ‘Skype hug’). But as a British female wife of a deported husband explained:
Yes, we’ve got WhatsApp and Facetime, but it’s not the same as that person being there.’ (Partner of a deported man, with whom she has two children)
Decision makers also often argue that the whole family – including British citizens – can relocate to the country of deportation, including countries that the Foreign Office warns against travelling to. Such suggestions undermine self-determination and overlook considerations such as extended family and networks in the UK.
Reunite and respect
Rather than being prison or punishment, immigration detention is an administrative process, generally intended to facilitate a person’s removal from the country. Yet, such language belies the emotional violence of indefinite incarceration and the threat of deportation to distant ancestral homelands. It also obscures the active role of detention in separating individuals from families and social networks, which, in a cruel twist, may then be used to weaken people’s chances of having their relationships deemed ‘genuine and subsisting’, thereby easing their exile from the country and their families.

'Young arrivers' caught in immigration detention

Dan Godshaw (@DanGodshaw) has worked for NGOs on migrant advocacy and support for 10 years. He has visited people held at Brook House IRC as well as supporting Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group’s (@GatDetainees) research and campaigning work since 2013. Dan holds an MA in Migration Studies from The University of Sussex, and is currently an ESRC-funded doctoral researcher on immigration detention and gender at The University of Bristol.
(Artwork above © Only if you see what’s on the inside by Ridy)
There are many ways that children who do not have British citizenship can enter the UK, including as unaccompanied asylum-seeking minors, as dependents and through birth, where neither parent has citizenship or settled immigration status. Children who are not citizens, or ‘young arrivers’ often face difficulties growing up in the UK, but their rights are generally more extensive than those of adults. It is far less likely that they will be detained or deported than adults. Once children approach 18, they move from protected to unprotected status. Many are not able to secure settled immigration status, but even when they do, they risk automatic deportation orders if they go to prison.
Having spent a significant part of their formative years in the UK, some adults end up detained in Immigration Removal Centres while the government tries to deport them to places that feel foreign. This can be a frightening process which dramatically challenges identities and rights that they previously took for granted. But there has been little written on the topic and no research about this group in relation to immigration detention.
A new research project I conducted with Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group (GDWG) uncovers ways in which people who arrived when they were under 18 become detained as adults, and explores how detention affects them as a distinctive group. The report, Don’t dump me in a foreign land: Immigration detention and young arrivers, provides a platform for the voices of people whose conceptions of safety, belonging and Britishness have been shaken by the immigration controls they are now subjected to. Drawing on interviews with those held in detention and practitioners who work with them as well as analysis of Home Office documents, we established a number of key findings which showed that that young arrivers share common routes to detention and experience specific forms of harm while detained.
First, young arrivers in detention are likely to have experienced trauma as children and to have been in the care system. Inadequate support and inappropriate care placements can leave them vulnerable, and local authorities sometimes fail to regularise immigration status and citizenship. A lack of guidance as well as use of police intervention to deal with disruptive behaviour can lead to early convictions.
Social services are the main reason I’m [in detention]…If they didn’t just see me as caseload, if they saw me as a person instead, all of this could have been avoided with one thing – getting me a passport…that should have been part of their duty of care…the actual care was bad enough, but not doing that was even worse (Anthony, Brook House)
Second, detained young arrivers are likely to have been through the criminal justice system. Crimes that lead to deportation orders are often minor and are inextricably tied to growing up as marginalised young people in Britain, but their status as foreign national prisoners mean that they are treated differently to their British peers. Young arrivers are not adequately informed about the possibility of detention and deportation, and are not granted opportunities for rehabilitation and reintegration into society.
[Young arrivers in detention] grew up on council estates where people sold drugs and got into trouble. We never knew any different…The judge said that I’m a product of this environment, that I didn’t come to this country to commit a crime. He’s learnt this in the UK so he’s our problem (Ahmed, formerly detained)
Third, young arrivers feel deeply connected to the UK, and being detained triggers intense shock. Detention causes people who had previously felt British to begin to feel foreign, excluded from society and the identity they had grown up with. Detention causes fear about being deported to places where they have few connections, meaning that post-deportation futures are unimaginable and feel impossible.
They’re trying to send me somewhere I don’t know…I’ve never been to Jamaica…I’ve never even been on a plane before…It’s not right on anybody to detain or deport them, but I think it’s 10 times worse for someone…who doesn’t know nothing else…I’d be shocked. I can’t really imagine it (Christopher, The Verne)
Finally, young arrivers, who often have substantial networks of family and friends in the UK, face difficulties in maintaining relationships in detention which leaves them isolated from their support networks. Young arrivers are also likely to experience prolonged detention and are particularly vulnerable to mental illness while detained. These findings show that recent Home Office guidance to prevent vulnerable people being detained in response to Stephen Shaw’s Review into the Welfare in Detention of Vulnerable Persons are not being implemented.
I used to jump and scream if someone shouted. I’m taking Clomipramine. I’ve been diagnosed with depression and PTSD… [in detention] there is no enjoyment for me…I’m alone…sometimes I feel that my heart will blow up…you need education, hospital, nice food, nice people…You can’t find this in here. You just wait. Depression affects me a lot (Bidar, Brook House)
These findings led to a series of policy recommendations for government, local authorities and support services. GDWG urges the government to implement the following key recommendations without delay:

  • Indefinite immigration detention should be brought to an end and replaced with a 28-day limit and community-based alternatives.
  • The 2016 Home Office ‘Guidance on adults at risk in immigration detention’ should be implemented properly and administrative factors should never take precedence over safety and wellbeing.
  • Young arrivers should be classed as a potentially vulnerable group generally unsuitable for detention and Home Office guidance should consider the dynamic nature of vulnerability in detention.
  • When people arrive in the UK as children, settled immigration status should be granted swiftly. They should then automatically be on a path to citizenship.
  • There should be an advocate who takes responsibility for regularising every child’s status and, one this is achieved, registering them as a British citizen.
  • Links between criminality and growing up in Britain, including within the care system, should be recognised. Young arrivers should not be demonised as foreign national prisoners and automatic deportation orders should not be issued.

Presenting the research at The Hive, Dalston
Photo © Thangam Debbonaire

I presented the research to an audience of practitioners, academics, people formerly held in detention, students and local community members at The Hive in Dalston on the 2nd November. The presentation was followed by a panel Q&A, chaired by Thangam Debbonaire (MP for Bristol West and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees), with Ridy (an artist and expert by experience, held in detention for more than 5 years), Melanie Griffiths (researcher on immigration detention and deportation, University of Bristol) and Hindpal Singh Bhui (Detention Team Leader, HM Inspectorate of Prisons). The discussion was lively and hopeful, and it was inspiring to see a large audience so engaged and passionate about the problem of immigration detention. To conclude this blog post, I’ll explore three important points raised in the discussion.
In response to claims by the research participants that their treatment by immigration authorities was racist, an audience member asked the panel to describe examples of institutional racism. In their responses, the panel addressed differential media attitudes that present the detention and deportation of white migrants from powerful countries as abhorrent compared to relative silence over migration controls far more commonly applied to black or other racialised migrants. They also talked about the many levels on which institutional racism operates on those in detention – from administrative decisions to predominantly detain people from particular racialised groups, through to the postcolonial logic of controlling, objectifying and excluding people from former colonies.
Another audience member made the point that detention is intimately linked to deportation and asked why, by detailing the experiences of young arrivers in detention, we were not going further to challenge the practice of deportation more broadly. There was agreement amongst the panel that challenging deportation is vital work because of the potential impact on safety, family life, identity and wellbeing of young arrivers as well as the fact that there is growing evidence that deportations often fail and lead to re-migration. However, from a campaigning perspective, the panel agreed that a focus on detention was needed at present in the context of renewed media and parliamentary interest in the issue.
The final question put forward in the discussion was what we, as ordinary people, can do to support and change policy and practice towards young arrivers. Several valuable ideas were put forward by the panel members and by the chair. They included contacting your MP directly and persisting until you get a response, working carefully with journalists to shift mainstream representations of young arrivers, volunteering with a local detention visitors group or other support service and, crucially, helping to create cultural change in attitudes through grassroots campaigning work and everyday conversations with friends and family, colleagues, and other acquaintances.
This research is a tool for change, and I would encourage organisations and individuals to use it to help bring about a transformation in the way that young arrivers are treated in the UK, as well as to encourage meaningful detention reform more widely.

Won’t somebody please think of the children

The impact of immigration detention is not confined behind the gates of the detention centres: it involves people’s children, families, friends etc. Nick Watts is a child & family practitioner and co-founder of the charity Migrant Family Action, that provides specialist social work, advocacy and youth work to families who are oppressed as a result of their immigration status. Nick explains here what types of impact immigration detention has on children whose family member is detained.  The flexible support Migrant Family Action provides is individual to meet the needs of each child and family. Migrant Family Action can also provide advice and guidance to professionals and other people supporting children, young people and families.
Immigration detention is regularly in the spotlight. In recent months alone we have read about deaths in detention, centres that are dangerous – full of drugs & violence and of course, the notorious Panorama documentary. The coverage, quite rightly, focuses on the direct impact of detention from those who experience being within it. But I have been asked to raise a different issue for this blog this year, that of the families ripped apart by detention.
When a parent is detained, the effects are far wider than just the person being detained. There is the fall out on a remaining parent (where there is one), the children and the family unit. This effect ripples out into the community, considering for instance, the effect of behavioural and emotional problems as a result of losing a parent to detention in school and in friendship groups. In 2006, a report in The Guardian highlighted refused asylum seeking mothers being separated from their babies and detained. Open democracy in 2011 wrote a poignant article on the separation of fathers from their children by immigration enforcement. Since then, fairly regular reports come out of parents who face separation from their children for enforcement purposes. In light of this, what do we know about the effects of this on children?
The impact of detention
In one study from the US(1), they draw on the case study of Julia whose son witnessed her removal by immigration enforcement officers, described this causing a deterioration in her son’s behaviour, difficulty sleeping, anxiety and nightmares. Despite only being separated for nine days, the research reports the child suffered severe and enduring separation anxiety as a result. This study, while from the US raises a very important point. Children who are living in families with precarious status’ often have ongoing fears and concerns about enforcement action, regardless of whether this results in detention. This often leaves families that we work unable to move on, feel permanence and prevents people being able to access legitimate opportunities to provide for their children, affecting significantly their agency as parents.
In another US study(2), looking at the psychological effects of parental detention on US citizen children. High correlation was found between Adverse Childhood Experiences and immigration matters. The paper highlighted the propensity for long term psychological harm being done to children as a result of separation. It highlighted the unique issues that arise including feelings of shame, isolation and stigma. It also highlights that children in this situation are more likely to develop psychological problems and more likely to suffer structural harm, such as be living in poverty or have adverse school experiences.
There is very limited research into the effects of immigration detention of a parent on their children. However, it is possible to look at the effect of children of prisoners and those separated from their parents more generally to be able to explain some of the effects. It is important to remember, however, that various other factors impact children or have parents with precarious status, including issues around access to funds, ‘status effect’ on children and young people, community exclusion and isolation.
In UK based research by Barnardos, they found that children of prisoners more generally are twice as likely to experience mental health issues, problems around behaviour and emotional health. In another research report(3), they list the main experiences of children who suffer separation as a result of imprisonment as trauma, instability in family life, social isolation and exclusion, stigma, emotional health problems, school attainment problems, multiple deprivation. This is very consistent with the findings of those few immigration studies from the US looked at earlier, perhaps suggesting a consistent effect on children who have parents separated from them as the result of some form of legal enforcement.
Another interesting theme in the report is the impact on parenting capacity. In many of the cases that we see, one of the parents, more often the father, is removed from the family and detained. The Barnardos research and our experiences suggests that the parent left behind in a two parent family will be subject to (understandably!) significant stress and lack the ‘backup’ of the other parent. This is likely alongside dealing with their own feelings of separation and loss.
It is also briefly worth considering attachment theory in order to look at the experiences of children who lose a parent to detention. Put very simplistically, attachment theory suggests that children form special and enduring bonds with their caregivers and that a disruption to that special bond can cause problems for the child. Ironically, most of those issues that have been documented are already explored in the research talked about above.
So what can we do about it?
We can quite safely say that the impact of immigration detention on children is huge. So if you know someone who is affected by this or are affected by this yourself, what can you do?
Get advice
Working with children who have lost a parent to detention is an incredibly delicate process that needs care and thought. Organisations like ours, made of up children’s professionals can provide advice, guidance and sometimes direct support to support families experiencing separation.
Children first
Listening to children is the most important thing. Their experience and perception of it is the truest version of events for them. Allow them space to talk about their experience. There is rarely a solution to offer a child in this circumstance. But allowing them time and respecting their voice will go a long way in helping a child to explore their feelings about the subject. There is no need to tell children how they should feel – Listening is your most powerful tool. It should also be at a child’s pace, allow them to bring it up. There is no need to play therapist, which could in fact do more harm than good. Be a listening ear.
Be Practical
As we discussed, sometimes, parental resources are extremely limited. Again, organisations like ours are able to offer advice and guidance and sometimes direct work to parents who are struggling as a result of separation. Doing practical things such as supporting the remaining parent with shopping, or popping round to help with the children or just for a chat can make a huge difference. Families need friends.
It can be worth researching migrant networks, such as our wonderful friends at Akwaaba who provide a really inclusive space for migrant families in North London and other spaces families can find solidarity, friends and support – With the ultimate goal of reducing social isolation and stigma often associated with detention.
The issue of contact
The research is in split minds about this sometimes, but I like to think about this in quite a simple way – being led by the child’s wishes. Maintaining a parental relationship through detention can be a huge challenge, but it is important to work with the wishes of the child all the way through. Again, professional support can help children to explore how this may work and advocate for them with authorities to ensure that the relationship is maintained to the highest standard possible. Seeking advice on how this can be achieved could be a good idea.
Visiting, in my view, is not always in the child’s best interests and can be a daunting and traumatising experience for a child. Of course this is very dependent on the individual child, hence the need to listen and let the child lead. It can be a good idea to get advice from professionals if they do want to visit who can support parents and children to prepare for visiting and the sometimes difficult emotional fall-out of visiting detention centres.
It’s worth thinking about how phone contact might work (and the limitations of, for instance, the cost of calls in immigration detention centres). Creative written contact is also worth exploring. For some children I have worked with who have lost a parent to detention, scrapbooking the time away can be a valuable experience to help them to reconcile their experiences and provide a bonding object when the child is reunited. Encouraging children to share both positive and negative experiences and providing a way to support them to share those are sometimes really helpful.
The reason I stress the need for advice is that these situations are rarely ever just about detention, but about the wider issue of immigration matters, wider fallout in terms of community resources and schools and a children’s professional should be able to provide a guiding hand through these issues. The best thing families need from people in these situations is to be surrounded by friends, love and practical support. If you would like to support the professional work that happens with children and families oppressed as a result of their immigration status, you can donate for instance to our project here. If you want to talk to a children’s professional if you are concerned about a family going through separation because of detention, or would like some advice about it, you can find out more about our family support project here.
1) Brabeck, Lykes & Hunter, 2014, ‘The Psychological impact of detention and deportation on US Migrant Families’, American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 84, 5,  pp. 496-505.
2) Rojas-Flores, L, Clements, M, Hwang Koo, J, & London, J 2017, ‘Trauma and psychological distress in Latino citizen children following parental detention and deportation’, Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, And Policy, 9, 3, pp. 352-361.
3) Gill, O & Jacobson-Deegan, M, 2016, ‘Children of Prisoners, A guide for community healthcare professionals.’, Barnardos i-Hop project.

Colnbrook, by post

This year, the theme of Unlocking Detention is ‘friends and families’ – we’re specifically focusing on the often unreported, or buried, ‘ripple effect’ of indefinite detention and the way this experience can have tragic consequences beyond the individual detained. In this special photo-essay for #Unlocked16, Jon* from the Freed Voices group shares letters he received whilst he was detained at Colnbrook detention centre for 99 days last year. These letters – from his younger brother, mother, younger sister and father – provide a harrowing inside into the wider affects of indefinite detention on families and communities.
Huge thanks to both Jon and his family for sharing such a personal correspondence.
My Younger Brother
My Mother
My Younger Sister
My Father
*The name of this Freed Voices member has been changed to protect his anonymity. 

Not a minor offence: the unlawful detention of unaccompanied children

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.

Dover Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) sits on the site of a 19th century fortress, isolated on top of a hill overlooking the sleepy seaside town.
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.