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Detaining child migrants is a stain on our country – it is not a solution to deter small boats


3 min read

You know that a policy is unlikely to succeed when it fails the “laugh” test. So it proved when Parliament heard Robert Jenrick’s solution to the “small boats crisis” – a barge. Take all the people on small boats – and put them into one big boat.

Yes and ho. Armando Iannucci himself could not improve on that.

Really though we should not be surprised. Everything in this government’s approach to migration is about raising the temperature and lowering the tone.

It is about electioneering, on the cynical assumption that they will get points with the public for the most extreme and ridiculous policies. These proposals, like those in the Illegal Migration Bill, have nothing to do with stopping the small boats coming across the channel, as we all want to do.

The government’s proposals may be laughable, but the human cost is all too serious

For all the ridicule, beneath the surface the potential harm from this legislation runs deep. The most vulnerable people crossing the Channel – including children, women, and victims of modern slavery – stand to pay the price for Tory posturing.

It falls to the rest of us to mitigate this harm. Former prime minister Theresa May made for an unlikely “liberal” ally in the debate last week – a sign of how far the Conservatives have fallen in such a short span of time.

Whatever else may be said of May’s tenure as home secretary – and my party was fiercely at odds with much of what came from the Home Office in that time – her work on tackling modern slavery was enormously to her credit.

When she brought the Modern Slavery Bill to cabinet during the Coalition government, I remember thinking that this was a choice to prioritise people who were, for all intents and purposes, invisible in our community. It would have been the easiest thing in the world for Theresa May and others to ignore them and simply pass on, but she did not.

It is to the enormous discredit of Robert Jenrick, Suella Braverman and Rishi Sunak, however, that they now intend to push victims of slavery back into the shadows and away from the protection that they need.

All of that would be enough of a regressive step on its own. Plans to return to the detention of children, however, take the Conservatives lower still.

It was an absolute stain on our country that we once kept children locked up in immigration removal centres, such as Dungavel in Scotland. To make the mistake once was bad enough. To return to the policy would be unconscionable.

I visited that centre in the dying days of the last Labour government. The staff at Dungavel made a phenomenal effort to mitigate the horrors of what they were dealing with. Keeping children behind razor wire in a lockdown institution, however, is a pretty hard thing to mitigate.

At the time of my visit, my own children were about six and 10 years old. Nobody will ever persuade me that we should treat vulnerable children differently from the way we would treat our own.

Back then of course it was Labour ministers who were all-too happy to defend child detention. This was just something that we had to live with, and those seeking to change the law were bleeding-heart liberals for suggesting otherwise.

It tells us quite a lot about the journey that the Conservative party has been since they worked with us in the Coalition to ban child detention.

We can and must be better than this. The government’s proposals may be laughable, but the human cost is all too serious.

For the sake of sheer political positioning, we are going to return to a situation in which children will be placed behind razor wire in places such as Dungavel – unless decent people from across Parliament fight back.


Alistair Carmichael, Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland

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