High court decision adds to pressure on government with acknowledgement that immigration detention can damage children.
[11 January 2011] - A high court judge has ruled that two mothers and their children were unlawfully detained at Yarl's Wood immigration centre after dawn raids on their homes last year.
The decision will bring a new urgency to the coalition government's pledge to end the detention of children in immigration centres by March.
In the ruling, Mr Justice Wyn Williams acknowledged for the first time that the detention could seriously damage children. "No one can seriously dispute that detention is capable of causing significant and in some cases long-lasting harm to children."
The case was brought on behalf of single mothers Reetha Suppiah and Sakinat Bello and their children, who were detained by UK Border Agency (UKBA) officers in raids on their homes last year.
The judge ruled the two families were detained unlawfully from the time they were taken into custody until their release.
He said that while government policy on detaining families with children was not unlawful, there was significant evidence showing that UKBA staff had "failed to apply that policy with the rigour it deserves".
"The cases of the two families involved in this litigation provide good examples of the failure by UKBA to apply important aspects of the policy both when the decisions were taken to detain each family and when decisions were taken to maintain detention after removal directions had been cancelled."
Lawyers acting for the families presented evidence that even short periods in detention were unlawful as they caused serious harm to children.
The case was brought by Public Interest Lawyers (PIL), with the human rights group Liberty and the campaign group Bail for Immigration Detainees also intervening.
Suppiah and her two sons, aged one and 11, were taken to Yarl's Wood in Bedfordshire in February and detained for 17 days. Bello was detained at Yarl's Wood for 12 days before being released.
Upon arrival all the children became sick with diarrhoea and vomiting. The children still suffer the effects of their detention, with one child, aged 11 at the time, now diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
"It appears that the welfare needs of the families were not properly taken into account or even assessed prior to the decision to detain, and the detention experience has had a profound effect upon them," PIL said.
Emma Norton, Liberty's legal officer who intervened in the case, said: "The UK Border Agency failed these families – prison is no place for a child. The court has acknowledged how detention damages children. Surely the government can't run away from its promise to end this shameful practice."
She said the court found there was little evidence that UKBA had considered its duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of the children when deciding whether to detain the families. The family welfare form, upon which key operational decisions are based, was incorrectly and poorly completed in both cases. For one family, there was "not a shred of evidence" that UKBA had considered the welfare of their two-year-old child when deciding to detain them.
Before today's ruling the Home Office said it was fighting the case as it remained committed to the removal of those found by the courts to have no right to remain in the UK.
"The ability to enforce removals when necessary is a key part of a sustainable immigration system," a Home Office spokesman said.
He said the detention of families would be kept to a minimum while officials drew up an alternative arrangement to protect the welfare of children without undermining immigration law.
The latest published UKBA figures show that 110 children were detained between April and June last year. Five children were being held in removal centres on 30 June. But more than 1,085 children were detained during the course of 2009. One child was held for 158 days, but the average period was two weeks.
- UNITED KINGDOM: Why it's time to incorporate the UN convention on the rights of the child into UK law [19 November 2010]
- UNITED KINGDOM: 'State Sponsored Cruelty' - Children in immigration detention [Medical Justice Network, September 2010]
- CHILDREN IN CONFLICT WITH THE LAW: Child prisoner manual to be revealed after CRAE request [5 July 2010]
- UNITED KINGDOM: Safe at Last? Children on the front line of UK Border Control [Refugee and Migrant Justice, 23 March 2010]
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Last updated 11/01/2011 07:45:37