Then, one February morning, their homes were raided by teams of UK Border Agency officials. Danahar, Reetha’s eleven year-old son, assumed that he had done something wrong and that he was being taken away by “policemen” in the dawn raid. Sakinat’s two year-old daughter, Ewa, was lifted from her bed whilst still asleep and awoke in the arms of a uniformed stranger.
The families were loaded into vans with meshed windows for onward transportation to Yarl’s Wood, a notorious detention centre the Children’s Commissioner has described as “no place for a child”. Its family wing was finally closed last month, but children are still detained at a centre near Gatwick Airport.
Reetha and her boys spent 17 days in detention. Sakinat and Ewa were released after 12 days, despite the fact that nine days earlier Ewa had been declared “unfit to fly” by a doctor. All the children became sick almost immediately upon arrival.
The High Court was presented with little evidence of child and family welfare having been taken into account at any stage prior to detaining the families. The detentions were thus unlawful “for their entire duration.” At no time did anyone ask the most basic question: “Is detention necessary?”. On the facts of this case, the answer could only have been “no”.
The lamentable failures ranged from the depressing (such as a failure to complete the crucial Family Welfare Form) to the ludicrous (the assessment that a 2 year-old child ought to be accorded 90 points out of 100 on a “Harm Matrix” upon being checked in to Yarl’s Wood).
The above failures had to be viewed alongside the compelling evidence presented by Liberty, the human rights group, which detailed the many similar cases in which children are detained unnecessarily. Detentions lasted an average of 16 days, but periods of 61 days were not uncommon. Given the expert consensus on the inherently harmful effects that detention has upon children, the reckless, tick-box manner in which the Suppiah and Bello families were consigned to these prison-like conditions is indeed, in the words of Nick Clegg, “a moral outrage”.
The Judge made clear that the proper interpretation of the Home Secretary’s power to detain children was that it could only be used in “exceptional circumstances” – circumstances that did not prevail here. These families’ basic human rights – to liberty, to security of the person, to private, home and family life – were summarily violated.
The Government also breached its statutory duties under the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009 and its own policy which, on paper, should mean that detention is used only as a last resort.
Mr Justice Wyn Williams adjudged that it would be “premature” to hold that the relatively new policy was incapable of being applied lawfully in practice, or that it gave rise to an unacceptable risk of unlawfulness. This was due to the existence of certain key elements. But the application of that policy to Reetha, Emmanuel, Danahar, Sakinat and Ewa was unlawful from start to finish.
The courage shown by these families in the face of the spectre of removal from the UK is remarkable. The dignified way in which they fought for redress should send a clear signal that asylum seekers may be vulnerable but are not helpless. They must be treated with the same level of respect accorded to everyone else.
As the Coalition prevaricates in its attempts to end child detention, it must ensure that the interests of the child lie at bedrock of its alternatives.
For more on this case, please visit the Public Interest Lawyers website.