Priti Patel may intervene in the Commons over the issue. Photograph: Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images
Senior Tories condemn ‘sickening’ plans which would allow unaccompanied minors to be held, in U-turn on past legislation
Michael Savage and Toby HelmSat 11 Mar 2023 19.07 GMT
Rishi Sunak’s plan to reduce small boat crossings will effectively reverse a ban on child detention implemented under David Cameron and open the door to an expansion of the practice, the Observer understands.
With a potential Tory rebellion already brewing over the proposals, it has emerged that the Illegal Migration bill will allow the detention of families with children and even allows the deportation of unaccompanied children if it is deemed to be safe in their country of origin.
The former home secretary Priti Patel is considering a potentially explosive intervention in the Commons on Monday over the bill. Patel, herself regarded as on the right and a hardliner on immigration while in charge at the Home Office, is one of several Tory MPs who are known to have serious concerns and are seeking reassurances or changes to the bill this weekend.
Several senior Tories are particularly worried about changes to the way children will be treated when arriving in the UK, and the way in which the new bill comes close to breaching international law. One former minister told the Observer the changes to rules on children “make me sick just to mention” and would have to be modified.
“God knows what happens around safeguarding, and access to medical treatment,” the former minister said. “Could [children] be removed from the country without parental or family consent? The mind boggles. I think these concerns will start to come out in the coming days and weeks.”
The return of large-scale detention of children and families represents a U-turn on a policy to end child detention pursued by the coalition government and passed into law in 2014 by Theresa May, during her time as home secretary. In 2009, 1,119 children entered detention. By 2021, the policy change meant that only 100 did so.
Last night the plans were described as “shocking” by some parliamentarians, while attempts to alter the bill to protect children from detention were already being drawn up. The change in the treatment of children is likely to become a focus of opposition.
Lord Dubs, the Labour peer who has led parliamentary campaigns to help unaccompanied children head to the UK, said that he and others would try to alter the bill. “It’s a reversal of undertakings the government gave some time ago that they would exempt children,” he said. “It’s shocking that children are going to be subjected to pretty well the same stringent proposals. They will not be able to claim asylum and then be removed. I think it is a shocking departure from a little safeguard that’s built into the system earlier.”
Ed Davey, the Lib Dem leader who was part of the government that banned the detention of children, said he would also campaign against the measures. “I’m very proud that the Liberal Democrats put an end to the detention of innocent children for immigration purposes,” he said. “I’m afraid it doesn’t surprise me that this Conservative government plans to effectively bring it back. Liberal Democrats believe the government should be focused on stopping the traffickers from exploiting vulnerable people, not punishing innocent children.”
A policy to end child detention was passed into law in 2014 when Theresa May was home secretary. Photograph: Tayfun Salcı/Rex/Shutterstock
A government source confirmed that families could be detained, but argued that the bill excluded unaccompanied children from detention. However, other experts who have studied the bill said that it allowed the removal of unaccompanied children in certain circumstances, such as when they come from countries deemed ”safe”, such as Albania.
Tamsin Baxter, executive director of external affairs at the Refugee Council, said the bill did indicate that children could be detained and claimed that it also opened the door to unaccompanied children being detained – something government sources denied. “The Conservative-led coalition government under David Cameron actively sought to end detention for children and families yet now the government is planning to do the exact opposite and expand it in a draconian move that shows no compassion or fairness,” she said. “It’s vital that refugee children are supported and protected just like any other children in the UK are. The asylum system must provide children with the support they need, and ensure they are looked after in dedicated child welfare settings by skilled staff who care for them and keep them safe.”skip past newsletter promotion
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Kamena Dorling, chair of the Refugee and Migrant Children’s Consortium, said: “In 2010, the government committed to ending the ‘state-sponsored cruelty’ of locking children in families up for immigration purposes, in light of clear evidence showing the long-lasting psychological and physical damage it causes them. If this draconian legislation passes, thousands of children could be held in mass detention centres for months on end, causing unimaginable trauma and harm.”
Beth Gardiner-Smith, chief executive at Safe Passage International, said: “Under this bill refugee children, including those who have been torn apart from their family during the chaos of fleeing war or persecution, will also be denied protection here – trashing our reputation not only on refugee rights but on children’s rights as well.”
There are also concerns that there are serious public health hazards to the plans. Sunak has stated he believes the bill is legal under international law, but human rights campaigners have condemned it as inhumane, illegal and unworkable. The UN refugee agency accused the UK of “extinguishing the right to seek refugee protection”.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The Illegal Migration bill will change the law so that people who come to the UK illegally can be detained and then swiftly returned to a safe third country or their home country. Unaccompanied children will only be removed in very limited circumstances ahead of them reaching adulthood and then only to a safe country, such as for the purposes of family reunion or to their country of origin. All decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis.”
Categories: Europe, Europe and Australia, European Union, France, UK
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