The continuing scandal of child detention.
Not that the government itself has the guts to be personally responsible for their detention. Probably the most notorious detention centre in the country, Yarl's Wood in Bedfordshire, is run by SERCO. We used to have this strange notion that establishments like prisons shouldn't be run with a view to a profit being made, and that surely applies all the more to those where the "guests" have not committed any offence, but going by yesterday's pre-budget report, with the funding for prisons due to be slashed, it's one we're going to have get even more used to. In the last report on Yarl's Wood, the chief inspector of prisons Anne Owers noted (PDF) while Yarl's Wood should seek to improve the "plight of children" who were being held in the centre, they were "ultimately issues" for the UK Border Agency. That would be the same UK Border Agency where bonuses are being paid out, something defended by Phil Woolas, who claimed they were "risking their lives" in what they did.
It's doubtful though that the most recent initiative at Yarl's Wood took place on the orders of the UK Border Agency. The latest Private Eye (1251) reports on the opening of new classrooms for the detained children, which "local bigwigs" had been invited to attended. They were treated to the kind of welcome that royalty might have been, with one happy child detainee prompted to sing "Happy Birthday" to his mother, older prisoners dressed in blue gowns who sang "My Sweet Lord" and were given a complimentary mug and coaster set which was emblazoned with a logo featuring two smiling parents, two happy children and the legend "compassion, commitment and respect for all". While few dispute that the centre has improved significantly since SERCO took over the contract from Group 4, the prisons inspectorate's last report still criticised the healthcare available, the lack of activities provided and most of all the insufficient provision for children, one wonders if SERCO would do better to focus on the motif inscribed on the cups rather than just presenting it when the influential come to visit.
SERCO can't however be blamed for children being detained in the first place. Report after report and expert after expert has now condemned the continuing snatching of families at dawn and months of waiting in what are very slightly more friendly prisons. The children's commissioner Sir Al Aynsley-Green called for the "inhumane practice to end" a few months back; the home affairs select committee found that no one was able to give an exact figure on the number of children held in a year, while an overview of their welfare was also not available; and most damningly, the journal Child Abuse and Neglect, in a study which featured 24 children from Yarl's Wood itself (PDF), found, unsurprisingly, that some were so stressed they had regressed to bedwetting and soiling during the day. Anxiety and depression had developed or re-developed in others, as had post-traumatic stress disorder, while most worryingly sexualised behaviour had come to the fore in others. The Royal Colleges of General Practitioners, Paediatrics and Child Health, and Psychiatrists, and the UK Faculty of Public Health are now all calling for the practice to end.
The case of Child M is an extreme one, but illustrates the system at its very worst. An 9-year-old from Iran, he was first imprisoned along with the rest of his family in the summer of 2008, being held for 52 days before being released. During his incarceration he had recurring nightmares, suffered from ringworm and his hair started to fall out. His family was detained again on the 17th of November, spending another three weeks in Yarl's Wood under the threat of imminent deportation, with Child M again suffering from a deterioration in his mental health, before finally being released again on Tuesday. It's impossible to know whether this again is just a temporary reprieve, but for Child M to undergo such a traumatic experience at the hands of the state twice, when such detention is hardly ever truly necessary (asylum seekers generally don't abscond, especially those with families) is unforgivable. No one it seems however is prepared to stand up for children who have committed no crime; as Mike Power suggested on Chicken Yogurt's post on Child M back in March, it seems to take a place where "socialism is entrenched" like Haringey for anyone other than the usual suspects to care.