n an open letter to the Prime Minister, the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg urged him to bring an immediate end to the policy of locking up the children of families who are facing possible deportation.
Mr Clegg said the policy ‘shamed Britain’ and did nothing to tackle the problem of illegal asylum seekers.
Ministers refuse to say how many children are locked up at the Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre in Bedfordshire, but it is believed to affect between one and two thousand children a year.
Campaigners say they have no access to the centre’s living accommodation to monitor conditions, which are said to be ‘prison-like’. Mr Clegg added: ‘This is a dark secret that needs to be brought into the light.
‘It is morally repugnant that as a country we are locking up hundreds, possibly thousands, of children, most of them below the age of five, and causing them absolute fear and confusion.
‘There is no justification for it. Families are unlikely to abscond, and if there is a real fear of that happening then parents could be tagged. There is no case for locking up children in this way.
‘It is profoundly un-British. The Government’s failure to end this shameful policy smacks of moral cowardice.’
Open letter: Nick Clegg says the policy is very ‘un-British’
Mr Clegg said he is in no doubt that asylum seekers who have no right to be in the country should be deported.
But he added: ‘What I have a big problem with is unnecessarily locking up and traumatising very young children while decisions are made about the status of their parents.’
Mr Clegg’s intervention comes amid mounting concern about the psychological and medical impact of locking up children, many of whom were born in this country.
Lisa Nandy, of The Children’s Society, said that although the UK Borders Agency had worked to improve conditions, it was still ‘unacceptable’ for innocent children to be seized in dawn raids and held in detention. She added: ‘The key thing for us is the damage it does to children.
‘There is now a great deal of medical evidence that the process is intrinsically harmful to children’s health. Yarl’s Wood is the UK’s main immigration removal centre for women and families, with space for more than 400 detainees.
Of the UK Border Agency’s 10 other detention centres only one, Tinsley House, at Gatwick Airport, has any dedicated accommodation for families.
Children detained at Yarl’s Wood are offered education, counselling and health services. They are locked up with their families.
At the weekend an Anglican vicar dressed as Father Christmas was barred from entering the centre to deliver presents to the children.
Freed: Stephen Ssentongo and his family are still awaiting asylum after fleeing Uganda following violence in the country
The Rev Canon James Rosenthal, said: ‘If this is how visitors are treated I shudder to imagine what else transpires within Yarl’s Wood.’
A report issued by a coalition of Royal Colleges last week said the practice caused ‘significant harm’ to children.
In October, NHS paediatricians and psychologists reported that children at Yarl’s Wood were ‘clearly vulnerable, marginalised and at risk of mental and physical harm’.
David Wood, head of Criminality and Detention for the UK Border Agency, insisted that conditions at Yarl’s Wood were not inhumane.
He said the report from the Royal Colleges was based on evidence that was three years old, since when there had been ‘significant changes’.
Mr Wood said families were only detained as a ‘last resort’. He added: ‘Treating children with care and compassion is a priority for the UK Border Agency.’
Yesterday a group of children’s authors and actors wrote to the Prime Minister adding their voices to the campaign for an end to the practice of detaining children.
The poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, illustrator Quentin Blake, author Philip Pullman and actors Colin Firth and Emma Thompson are among the signatories.
Open letter to Gordon Brown
Nick Clegg 15/12/09
I am writing to urge you to stop the scandal of hundreds of very young children, including toddlers, spending this Christmas locked up behind bars in Immigration Centres in Britain.
One of the best ways to judge the moral compass of a nation is how we treat children – all children.
There is now concrete evidence that the very young children who find themselves locked up even though they’ve done nothing wrong are suffering weight loss, post traumatic stress disorder and long lasting mental distress.
How on earth can your Government justify what is in effect state sponsored cruelty?
Of course we must keep track of adults who are seeking asylum in this country, and deport them where justified. But this can be done through other means.
It is simply indefensible to do so at the cost of the mental and physical wellbeing of very young children.
I would also ask you to lift the paranoid Government secrecy which surrounds the work of the Immigration Centres. Your Government has consistently refused to provide total figures of the number of children detained.
This attempt to cover up such a morally reprehensible practice only makes matters worse.
The British people want us to take a world lead in the way we treat toddlers and children, not to inflict systematic cruelty on them behind a veil of Government secrecy.
I look forward to your urgent reply.