Text size

All popular browsers allow zooming in and out by pressing the Ctrl (Cmd in OS X) and + or - keys. Or alternatively hold down the Ctrl key and scroll up or down with the mouse.

Line height


Asylum-seeking children in UK detention centres

Copied below is a briefing paper from the Royal College of General Practitioners, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, Royal College of Psychiatrists and the UK Faculty of Public Health.

I have highlighted some of the main points to the statement in bold.  Please read through and pass on to anyone who may be interested.  It is really important that children are not swallowed up by the asylum system, treated like criminals, or detained for long periods of time - at great detriment to their mental and physical health.

Thanks for reading! 



Significant Harm – the effects of administrative detention on the health of children, young people and their families  

 'Any detention of children for administrative rather than criminal purposes causes unnecessary harm and further blights already disturbed young lives. Such practices reflect badly on all of us.' Dr Iona Heath, President of the Royal College of General Practitioners


This briefing from the Royal College of General Practitioners, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, Royal College of Psychiatrists and the UK Faculty of Public Health describes the significant harms to the physical and mental health of children and young people in the UK who are subjected to administrative immigration detention. It argues that such detention is unacceptable and should cease without delay. Other countries have developed viable alternatives and the UK should now follow suit. Meanwhile a set of specific recommendations is outlined to minimise the damage caused by the detention of children.

 1. Introduction 

The majority of children in administrative detention are from families seeking asylum. These children are among the most vulnerable in our communities with high rates of physical and psychological morbidity reflecting both their experiences before coming to the UK including dislocation of their families, and the challenges of poverty and integration on arrival. These problems are compounded by the harmful effects of arrest and detention. Health professionals, including general practitioners, paediatricians and psychiatrists may be called upon to assess individual children and young people in detention or to advise on the provision of health care to detention centres. Patients under their care may later be detained or be seen by them following release from detention.

 2. Evidence 

Each year the UK detains around 1,000 children in Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs). These children are members of families identified for enforced removal from Britain, who are detained indefinitely under administrative order. They have committed no crime but can be detained without time limit and without judicial oversight. The children range in age from very young babies to older teenagers, as well as so-called ‘age disputed minors’ who are alone. The average length of detention of children is 15 days. On 30 June 2009, 10 of the 35 children in detention had been held for over a month. Less than half of the children leaving detention are removed from the country. There are no data on how many children undergo more than one episode of detention, though repeated arrest and detention is likely to be particularly traumatising.

The main immigration removal centre in the UK with family accommodation is Yarl’s Wood IRC in Bedfordshire. Management of the centre was contracted by the United Kingdom Border Agency (UKBA) to the private contractor, Serco Group plc, in April 2007, with management of the Health Centre also being contracted to Serco.

The Children’s Commissioner, Professor Sir Al Aynsley-Green, visited Yarl’s Wood in May 2008 and found outcomes to be below the standard expected of the National Health Service. Children’s physical and mental health rarely appeared to inform the decision to maintain detention. For example, children with serious illnesses, such as Sickle Cell Disease, and children whose condition had deteriorated in detention, still remained detained. Provision of mental health services for children and their parents were inadequate, as was provision of preventive healthcare.

Almost all detained children suffer injury to their mental and physical health as a result of their detention, sometimes seriously. Many children experience the actual process of being detained as a new traumatising experience. Psychiatrists, paediatricians and GPs, as well as social workers and psychologists, frequently find evidence of harm, especially to psychological wellbeing as a result of the processes and conditions of detention. Reported child mental health difficulties include emotional and psychological regression, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), clinical depression and suicidal behaviour. Specific physical consequences include weight loss and inadequate pain relief for children with sickle cell disease. Children in detention are also placed at risk of harm due to poor access to specialist care, poor recording and availability of patient information, a failure to deliver routine childhood immunisations, and a failure to provide prophylaxis against malaria for children being returned to areas where malaria is endemic.

The UK’s policy of administrative detention of children is receiving growing condemnation from health professionals, the media and official bodies such as the Children’s Commissioner and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons. According to Professor Sir Al Aynsley-Green ‘the UK has one of the worst records in Europe for detaining children’  and Dame Anne Owers, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons reported that ‘the plight of detained children remained of great concern’. A recent editorial in The Lancet reported that there are ‘appalling failures in the health care of children in detention centres’. Late last year the New Statesman magazine organised a petition against the detention of children which attracted 3,300 signatures from the public. The issue is also attracting increasing attention in Parliament as demonstrated by the 2009 Early Day Motion entitled ED139 Detention of Children. It ‘urgently calls on the Government to end the practice of holding children in immigration detention centres’ and as at 7th December 2009 had 69 signatories of support.

 3. Policy Context 

 Until 2008 the UK government maintained a reservation to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), excluding immigrant children from its protection. In effect this meant immigrant children were not afforded the same rights and protection as other children in the UK. The reservation was withdrawn last year. Whilst the Home Office determined that they should be exempt from the responsibilities of safeguarding children as described in the Children Act (1989 and 2004)13,14, under the Borders, Citizenship & Immigration Act (2009)15 there is now a statutory duty on the Home Office to safeguard and promote the welfare of children.

The policy of subjecting children and families to arrest and indefinite administrative detention for immigration purposes is incompatible with both the UNCRC12 and the new statutory responsibility to safeguard and promote the welfare of children.

There is an urgent and widely recognised need to develop alternatives to detention. Models in Australia and Sweden have already enabled the practice of detaining children to have virtually ceased. Closer to home, a pilot project is underway in Scotland which allows failed asylum seeking children and families to stay in designated flats while they await their return home.

 Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning Fiona Hyslop welcomed the pilot by declaring that 'the Scottish Government remains fundamentally opposed to the detention of children and consider that one child detained is one child too many. Children seeking asylum deserve the same welfare and children’s rights as every other child in Scotland'. 4. Recommendations 

The Royal College of General Practitioners, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, Royal College of Psychiatrists and the UK Faculty of Public Health believe that the administrative immigration detention of children, young people and their families is harmful and unacceptable, and call on Government to address this issue as a matter of priority and stop detaining children without delay.

Meanwhile we make the following recommendations for minimising the number of children and young people detained and reducing as far as possible the significant physical and psychological harm caused by such detention. These recommendations are not to be taken as a substitute for the cessation of administrative detention of children, young people and their families.


  • Children and young people in immigration detention should be recognised as Children in Need and immediately referred to Local Authority children's social care as children at risk of significant harm, expecting Initial Assessment to be completed within 7 days as described in Working Together to Safeguard Children.
  • Children and young people with identified mental health problems, or those deemed to be at high risk of developing mental health problems in immigration detention should not be subject to immigration detention in the UK.


  • The commissioning of health care in the detention estate should be transferred from the Home Office to the National Health Service (NHS). Primary and secondary medical care for children, young people and their families should be provided on the same inreach basis as in the prison service. The services need to be properly commissioned and resourced.

 Delivery of care

  • Delivery of care should be provided by healthcare professionals who are competent to respond to the physical and mental health needs of this client group.
  • Any medical care offered to children and young people in immigration detention should be consistent with what would normally be considered as good practice in other primary care settings including NHS general practice. This includes appropriate history-taking, examination, investigation, treatment, referral and record-keeping, as well as implementing preventive programmes according to recognised guidelines, audit, and clinical governance of an acceptable standard, as described in Good Medical Practice for  General Practitioners.
  • Standards of child mental health care and child protection for detained children and young people in immigration detention should be consistent with standards within the NHS and social care, including observance of guidance in Every Child Matters. Practitioners should particularly be aware of their responsibility to declare under Rule 35 if a child is unfit for detention and deportation, and should in all cases exercise a low threshold in making such declarations if detention appears to be detrimental to the mental health or wellbeing of a child.

 Support for this statement

The Royal College of General Practitioners, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the UK Faculty of Public Health have developed this policy statement. It has been supported by:

  • Association of Child Psychotherapists
  • British Association of Social Workers
  • British Psychological Society
  • United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy


About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
View latest posts