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Child detention in the Illegal Migration Bill is misguided and must be stopped


3 min read

We pride ourselves on being a nation where children are safe, where their best interests are protected. So as we work to address dangerous Channel crossings and to end the business model of people smugglers, we must ensure we do so without sacrificing our most fundamental principles and our commitments to children.

Nowhere is this starker than with the government’s proposed reintroduction of child detention in the Illegal Migration Bill.

I fear the proposed approach of routinely detaining child arrivals for processing and removal, without statutory limits on where and for how long, is misguided. We are failing to heed the lessons of the past.

Over a decade ago, those working with children and families campaigned for the end of the routine detention of children for immigration purposes, having witnessed its real and devastating impacts on children. The charity Medical Justice, which works in detention centres, described it as “state-sponsored cruelty”. The Children’s Society and Bail for Immigration Detainees documented lasting damage on the children they supported.

Government assurances that child detention will be regulated in the future and verbal reassurances by ministers are not enough

Children visibly withdrew, lost weight, refused to eat, experienced headaches, tummy pains and hair loss and became disinterested in activities, including the limited schooling that was available. They experienced emotional distress, with some so traumatised they threatened or committed suicide. Medical studies reported the mental and physical health impacts and concluded detention, even for short periods, was detrimental and inappropriate for children.

In response, in 2010 David Cameron pledged at a Citizens UK assembly that he would end child detention if elected, with the Coalition government subsequently making the commitment to end the immigration detention of children a key priority. The policy was changed in 2011 and in 2014 limits were put into law.

These limits mean that currently, a lone child can only be deprived of their liberty for 24 hours in short-term holding facilities, for example at a port or airport, and with safeguards. A child in a family can only be detained for 72 hours – or not more than seven days with personal ministerial authorisation – in such a facility or so-called pre-departure accommodation, when the family is being removed from the UK.

The ending of child detention was a proud, humanitarian response to what had been an unacceptable practice with undeniably grave impacts. Current limits are an appropriate check on one of the most draconian powers the state has over the individual, the power to administratively detain without charge or trial.

Yet today, in 2023, we face the regressive prospect of children arriving in the UK to seek safety experiencing routine, indefinite detention and all that it brings once again. Under the government’s proposals, all children – babies, toddlers, child victims of trafficking, children seeking safety all alone, children within families – will be detained without time restriction wherever the Home Secretary finds appropriate and without judicial oversight or possibility of bail for at least 28 days. This cannot be right.

Government assurances that child detention will be regulated in the future and verbal reassurances by ministers are not enough. The powers of the state over children must be much more firmly established. Existing restrictions on child detention work. They are a Conservative legacy that we must protect. Today amendments that I have tabled to the Illegal Migration Bill will be debated, which seek to ensure current limits remain and children’s welfare is safeguarded.

This nation has a long history of progress towards doing what is morally right by children. We all wish to see Channel crossings cease but we must not at the cost of reversing our proud legacy of ending child detention.  


Baroness Mobarik, Conservative peer

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