Child detention proposals debated in House of Lords today could see over 8000 children detained per year

The Illegal Migration Bill will be debated tonight during Committee stage in the House of Lords. Peers will debate the controversial reintroduction of child detention after it was ended over a decade ago in a landmark commitment by the Conservative-led Coalition government.

Amendments to keep the existing limits on child detention have been tabled by the Conservative peer Baroness Mobarik, supported by the Conservative peers Lord Bourne and Baroness Helic as well as the Bishop of Durham.

The new powers in the Bill expressly disapply current statutory child detention time limits of 24 hours for unaccompanied children and 72 hours for children in families (or not more than seven days with ministerial approval). The current time limits were legislated in the Immigration Act 2014 after the Coalition government made ending the routine detention of children for immigration purposes a cornerstone of their government programme in 2010.

Latest data released by the Home Office show that in the year to March 2023, there were over 8,000 children entering the UK who under these proposed new detention powers would have been locked up indefinitely.

The proposed detention scheme for new arrivals contained in the Illegal Migration Bill will apply to both children arriving alone and those with their families, including babies. If the Bill becomes law, the scheme will apply retrospectively to all children who arrive in the UK on or after 7 March 2023 without a visa and not directly from an unsafe country – regardless of whether that child or their family require protection as a refugee, their asylum claim will not be considered.

The scheme will also apply whether or not a child might be a victim of trafficking. Nine per cent of child arrivals by small boats in the year to March 2023 resulted in the referral of the child as a potential victim, yet even these children would now be detained.

The government’s plans also preclude the possibility of bail for 28 days in a government bid to limit judicial oversight of immigration detention more generally.

Under the Bill, the Home Secretary would be able to detain babies and children anywhere, not only in so-called short-term holding facilities or specific family-designated pre-departure accommodation as is currently the case.

Ijeoma, Citizens UK leader, said:

No child should ever go through detention. Imagine putting your child in prison for a week – how would that feel? No child should have their lives damaged by the physical and mental effects of being in such an environment. We must fight to end this despicable practice and provide kids a future free of trauma.

Anita Hurrell, Head of the Migrant Children Project at the children’s charity Coram, said:

Routinely locking up thousands of babies and children will cause significant harm and reverses the progress made by a Conservative-led government over a decade ago. Despite government reassurances and a power to make regulations added to the Bill, there is still no constraint on detaining children on the face of the Illegal Migration Bill. The Prime Minister says an exemption would ‘give every incentive for people to bring children on with them’, but what fleeing family would abandon their young child en route?

Marieke Widmann, Policy & Practice Adviser at The Children’s Society, said:

It is alarming the Government has not learnt the lessons of the past and is turning back the clock on protecting children. We know the long-lasting damage immigration detention inflicts on children. It hinders their development, leaves them withdrawn, emotionally distressed and traumatised, with some becoming suicidal or bearing post-traumatic stress disorder. How can reversing a commitment of a decade ago and returning to practices which we know inflict such harm be for the best for children?

Louise King, Director of the Children’s Rights Alliance for England, part of Just for Kids Law, said:

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child previously welcomed the UK’s 2010 decision to end immigration detention of children. It is therefore extremely concerning that in its most recent report on the UK, published last week, it had to call on the Government to urgently amend the Illegal Migration Bill so that children cannot be detained for the purposes of immigration control.  Immigration detention causes immense harm to children and is a clear breach of their human rights. It’s imperative that the UK Government rethinks its plans in light of the UN Committee’s damning report and safeguards the rights of some of the most vulnerable children in society.