Children in immigration centres face deportation within weeks

Pilot scheme gives families with children facing removal a two-week ultimatum to leave the country voluntarily

Last week, Nick Clegg described the detention of children in centres such as Yarl’s Wood as a ‘moral outrage’. Immigration officials charged with carrying out the government’s pledge to end the detention of children in immigration centres have launched a scheme designed to deport them and their families from the country within weeks.

The move dashes expectations of a more liberal alternative to child detention. Families with children facing removal are to be given a two-week ultimatum to leave the country voluntarily, according to a document seen by the Guardian.

If they fail to go they will be told they will be deported “at some point” within the next two weeks, sometimes without being given a specific date or time to get ready.

The pilot scheme, launched by the UK Border Agency, has been running in north-west England since early July as part of the review of alternatives to child detention. Failed asylum seekers and illegal immigrants whose appeal rights have been exhausted are told they are taking part in the pilot when they report to the UKBA’s Reliance House in Liverpool.

The government’s pledge to end the detention of children for immigration purposes was a flagship promise made within days of the coalition coming to power. Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, told the Commons last week that it was a “moral outrage” that more than 1,000 children had been detained during the last year of the Labour government. He announced the closure of the Yarl’s Wood detention centre’s family unit and pledged to “restore a sense of decency and liberty to the way we conduct ourselves”.

But a leaked briefing paper drawn up by Nicola Rea, the head of service, asylum, refugee and migration services at Manchester City Council, dated 27 June, reveals that two pilot schemes – one in London as well as the one in the north-west – were due to run as part of the review of child detention, which was completed two weeks ago.

[Update, 10 August 2010: After this Guardian story was originally published, the Home Office noted that the briefing document’s author did not work for the UK Border Agency, as the piece initially said. Manchester City Council subsequently confirmed that Nicola Rea had written the document to brief fellow members of the so-called north-west consortium of local authorities in the area – the group running the UKBA trial in the north-west. Similarly, the Home Office confirmed that “the UK Border Agency is working in partnership with Manchester City Council and other organisations in the north-west to test new ways of delivering family returns without significant enforcement activity, including the use of detention.” Also see footnote.]

Clegg told MPs that an announcement would be made shortly of the alternatives to be used. Refugee welfare groups had been hoping that measures including bail, electronic tagging and reporting requirements would be adopted. The Refugee Council said last night it would be extremely concerned if families were given only two weeks to leave the country when they may have been in Britain for many months or even years.

“Families must be fully informed of their options throughout the asylum process,” said Donna Covey of the Refugee Council. “At the end of the process, it is imperative that families have enough time to access legal advice to ensure that they will be safe on return, and they can settle their affairs, and, importantly, prepare their children to leave the country. Many of these families will have a well-founded fear about returning to a country where there is conflict or human rights abuses, and we must ensure that they can return safely and in dignity. The welfare of children involved in any return must be paramount.”

But the north-west consortium briefing document, leaked to Socialist Worker, suggests that boosting the removal rate, rather than humanitarian considerations, is the priority for ministers.

The briefing paper also shows that the border agency is worried that ending the use of detention could give families facing deportation more chance to launch community protest campaigns backed by the media and MPs. It says more police may need to be involved in deportations because “significant public order problems” could follow removals.

“The alternative is not to inform the family of the exact time and date of removal, so that they are not prepared. However, this has its own difficulties, which would need analysing and addressing.”

The document says it is undecided whether a specific time and date should be given, or a longer period of a couple of days.

The paper was written before the recent high court ruling that it is unlawful for UKBA to carry out “no-notice” removals. However, it says that any last-minute legal challenges will have to be expedited.

The briefing paper examines possible public health and child protection problems if the new policy leads to more families absconding. It warns that there could be problems if those who disappear have long-term illnesses or significant health issues that then go untreated. It also raises the prospect of more children having to be taken into care if their parents abscond.

Rea also raises concerns that children will continue to attend school once a family has been warned of removal, which could cause problems with other children and teachers campaigning to stop the deportation.

The disclosure follows the severely critical report last week by John Vine, the independent chief inspector of UKBA, disclosing that unnecessary “dawn raids” have become the norm in deportations.

• This article was amended on 6 and 10 August 2010. A post-publication comment from the Home Office was inserted on 6 August, noting that the briefing paper was not written by UKBA but by a Manchester City Council employee. On 10 August, further details were inserted from Manchester council and the Home Office regarding the purpose of the briefing document and the role of local authorities in the north-west. A print correction was also due to appear in the Guardian of 11 August.

Alan Travis, home affairs editor, Thursday 5 August 2010