Quakers oppose detention of migrants’ children, and so should a new government

We must not punish the children

Quakers oppose detention of migrants’ children, and so should a new government by Michael Bartlet

Quakers believe in the unique value of every individual. From this follows a sense of equality that animates Quaker thinking today. The right to asylum becomes a legal counterpart to the religious insight of the common humanity of us all.

Refugees are the human face of international injustice. They are the place – in this country – where we see the real impact of inequality: armed conflict, the inability of failed states to provide a secure home for their citizens, and abusive governments. The impact of climate change adds a further dimension in increasing pressure on land and resources. That is why migration policy presents such a difficult problem. It is easier to close our eyes and ears to the victims of injustice abroad than acknowledge its wounded presence at our door.

Whatever arguments arise about immigration policy during a general election – and we have seen how the episode with Gillian Duffy ignited the debate on Wednesday – the routine administrative detention of children cannot be right. There are at any one time around 30 to 40 children in immigration detention, at Dungavel in Lanarkshire, Tinsley House near Gatwick and Yarl’s Wood in Bedfordshire. Last year around 1,000 children were detained, often for as long as six weeks.

In the Belmarsh case concerning the legality of detaining suspected terrorists, Lord Hoffmann said: “The real threat to the life of the nation, in the sense of a people living in accordance with its traditional laws and political values, comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these. That is the true measure of what terrorism may achieve.” What is true of the detention of suspected terrorists should be unarguable in terms of those who present no threat. Can it ever be right to detain those who have neither been charged with nor convicted of a criminal offence?

This is not to argue for an open-door immigration policy. If the UN refugee convention is to be respected, those who do not require human rights protection or meet its strict standards need to be returned. But in doing so the least restrictive alternative is always to be preferred.

There are alternatives to detention, such as supervised family hostels with social-work support. Even electronic tagging would be less degrading than detention. And wherever the government detains children, even for a very short time, their welfare needs to be the guiding principle from arrest to removal.

During the second world war Quakers became best known for their conscientious “objection” to participation in military conflict. Today, many Quakers are drawn to conscientious “engagement” with the root causes of injustice and violent conflict and its humanitarian consequences on the victims of displacement.

The Quaker Asylum and Refugee Network is a community of around 80 Quakers offering practical support and advice to refugees and asylum seekers. But this is not just a matter for Quakers; it is about the common decency of us all. Our shared values call for those seeking asylum to be treated as human beings, not statistics.

An election is not just a time for clarifying policies that divide the parties but for affirming values that unite us all. Children of migrants should be treated as children first and as migrants second. A new government, of whatever political complexion, should put this humanitarian issue beyond party politics, accept responsibility for the welfare of all children, change the practices that are damaging children now and commission a public inquiry into the use of immigration detention.

The Guardian, Saturday 1 May 2010