The family wing of Yarl’s Wood immigration centre, in Bedfordshire, closed in December. Mr Clegg pledged that no child would be held in detention over Christmas.
An end to child detention was one of the agreements made by the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives when they formed the coalition in May (News, 19 May).
Mr Clegg said, ‘The coalition Government has always been clear that the detention of children for immigration purposes is unacceptable. We are placing the welfare of children and families at the centre of a fairer and more compassionate system. In recent years we have seen hundreds of children who have committed no crime locked up in detention centres. Today we show how we will ensure it never happens again.’
However, campaigners have asked for confirmation that the proposed alternative system, called the ‘ensured returns’ procedure, does not involve the detention of children under another name.
Under the new system, families will be offered help to return to their home country voluntarily, but those who refuse will be given up to two weeks in which they will be allowed to remain in the community before boarding a flight. Others will be allowed to remain in the community on the basis they could be removed from the UK at two weeks’ notice. However, children could still be held in ‘pre-departure accommodation’ for up to 72 hours as a last resort before they return, although they will still be able to leave the premises if they have suitable supervision.
Professor Sir Al Aynsley-Green, England’s first Children’s Commissioner, who published a series of reports on the plight of asylum-seeking children, said, ‘I welcome the statement that detention will end. The evidence of harm to children from detention is incontrovertible, so what happens between now and May and the proposed process of final return still demand the closest of public scrutiny, with ongoing rigorous monitoring of what is being done to children and families’.
He added, ‘Children seeking refuge are children first and foremost and deserve the humanity and dignity that we would expect for children in our own families.’