Child Detention in Sussex and the Health and Safety of Beech Trees
Today the Mid Sussex Council voted to approve the planning of the UKBA’s latest children detention facility 14 to 1.
Around 30 protestors met outside the Council building playing music, holding banners and handing out information to those attending the meeting. Three objectors were permitted to present arguments against the detention centre during the meeting itself.
The UKBA spokesperson set the tone of the meeting by dryly introducing the plans for the detention centre and reminding Councillors that they were there to vote only on the plans for the building and not the moral implications of the detention centre.
Most Councillors admitted that this would be impossible because unlike other Council planning decisions, this one centred around a ‘highly emotive issue.’ However the ‘highly emotive issue’, detaining children despite the government’s promise to end the detention of children, was hardly touched upon- or rather it was given a nod and then set aside for the Council to talk about the more important issues surrounding the detention centre planning: fences and property value, duty to country, and of course, the detention centre’s beech tree.
The fence and property value
One of the most talked about items of the 2 hour meeting was the fence that would hold the families in. The fence has been emphasized by the UKBA as being one of the key symbols that this detention facility is different from others. It will be 2.5 metres high with few changes from the fence that currently surrounds the Pease Pottage school. It was brought to the Council’s attention that there are also plans for an internal fence running through and around the inside of the property, the height of which seemed to me to remain unclear. In between the internal fence and the outer fence will be a no-man’s land.
The purpose of the fence, locking up children, was not discussed in great detail. In fact, two Councillors shared that they were familiar with many schools with higher fences than the detention centre’s and that these fences ‘were for keeping people from getting in, not from keeping people from getting out.’ Right. Most Councillors though were concerned with how the inner and outer fences would affect the neighbourhood’s property value. Would the colour be changed? The height renovated over time? Would the neighbours be able to see the inner fence? That would of course, be unacceptable.
Duty to the country
Many Councillor’s acknowledged that detaining children could be simply horrid. Perhaps they had read one of the many newspaper articles about the extreme trauma experienced by detained children, glanced over some of the research done on the issue, or saw the Channel 4 Dispatches documentary in November, ‘The Kids Britain Doesn’t Want’. One Council woman had even been to Tinsley House and spoke about how that detention centre was no place for children.
Upon hearing Councillors recognize that detaining children was not a good thing, I have to admit that for a second I felt hope. But perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that the sentence ‘detaining children is wrong’ was always followed by a ‘but’…
….but Barnardo’s is running it and will take care of the emotional needs of families and children.
….but while I feel for these people, at the end of the day they must be removed from the country and in order to do that detention is necessary.
….but it is only for a short time, and after all, all appeals have been exhausted.
Sadly, the UKBA’s solemn statement that only families who had exhausted all their rights to stay would be detained was taken at face value by Councillors. Missing from the picture was the high rate of error of asylum decisions due to the widely acknowledged culture of ‘cynicism and disbelief’ under which the UKBA operates. The UKBA’s poor quality of decision making has been acknowledged by multiple sources including the Home Affairs Committee which reported in 2010 “…quality should not be sacrificed to speed when it comes to decision-making… [yet] much of the delay in concluding asylum and other immigration cases stems from poor quality decision-making when the application is initially considered.” Between July and September 2010, 57% of children were detained and then released- probably an underestimate of the number of children wrongly classified by UKBA as having imminent removals. Also missing from the ‘end of the line’ argument was that without legal representation, which fewer and fewer people have as a result of cuts to legal aid, those facing removal have a much lower chance of their case succeeding. In short, the Councillors were willing to take the UKBA at their word- that all means exhausted means all means exhausted. Yikes!
Councillors also seemed content to swallow another of the UKBA’s big arguments- that children and families would only be detained for a short period of time. The asylum process is extremely complex. Detained Fast Track detainees are frequently held past the predicted amount of time the asylum process is meant to take, 7-10 days. The UK is also one of the few European countries that does not have a cap on the amount of time people are permitted to be detained, an absence which causes many to be held indefinitely and for bureaucratic purposes. These painful realities don’t evoke much trust in the UKBA’s promise that families will only be held for 3-7 days. In fact, if they did keep this promise, I would be just as worried, because as is true of the Detained Fast Track programme, when the asylum process is carried out so hastily it results in preventing solicitors, service providers and campaigners from challenging removals, many of which are being made in error.
What I found deeply surprising was that Councillors welcomed the detention facility to their area because they expressed a belief that they could do detention right. Yes, whether out of good willed naivity or as a way to avoid the real issue, most Councillors excused their actions by stating that this was an opportunity to fulfil a civic duty that would help the government detain children the right way. Some even seemed excited and proud to assist the government in pioneering this new form of incarceration. Councillors reminded each other that after all, the grounds of Pease Pottage are lovely- in sunny Sussex detention wouldn’t be so bad.
The health and safety of the beech tree
And of course, who could be surprised that at least two Councillors were very concerned about a beech tree, apparently a very beautiful beech tree on the ‘grounds.’ Councillors wanted assurance that the tree wouldn’t be harmed by children or construction. The beauty of the landscape, and especially this very special tree, must be protected.
What wasn’t talked about.
As the Councillors discussed property value, fence colours and beech trees and chatted about how being detained in Pease Pottage wouldn’t be so bad because families would be in a pleasant southern part of the country, I couldn’t help but wonder what they would do if their own family was struggling to secure their safety. How would they handle their own children suffering the indignity of being locked up without having committed a crime? Would their concerns and views on detention be the same? Would they stroll around the grounds enjoying the garden? Would they encourage their youngsters to climb the trees? There was a complete lack of recognition and understanding from the Councillors that being detained, no matter where or how, means being locked up, not being let out, being unable to leave, being held against one’s will, with the prospect of imminent danger awaiting and it has nothing to do with the pleasantries of the English countryside.