Children seeking asylum in the U.K. are among the most vulnerable in our community, according to a statement from four medical groups.
A campaign to end child detentions in British immigration centers has been gathering momentum.
Diverse voices ranging from the medical profession to the creator of Paddington Bear recently have called on the British government to end the practice of holding an estimated 1,000 children each year in United Kingdom Border Agency centers.
The calls came as the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church stepped up their own joint campaign on the issue.
Three U.K. professional membership organizations – the Royal Colleges of General Practitioners, of Paediatrics and Child Health and of Psychiatrists – as well as the U.K. Faculty of Public Health said the practice should end "without delay."
Each year, the U.K. holds an estimated 1,000 children in the immigration centers for an average of 15 days, although almost a third are held up to a month. The children are mainly from asylum-seeking families awaiting deportation.
Children seeking asylum in the U.K. are among the most vulnerable in our community, the three Royal Colleges and the U.K. Faculty of Public Health said in their new policy statement. The children have high rates of significant physical and psychological harm reflecting their experience before coming to the U.K., and the challenges of poverty and integration on arrival.
These are "compounded by the harmful effects" of arrest and detention, the statement said. Other countries have developed "viable alternatives" to children being held in immigration detention, and the U.K. should follow suit, the statement said.
In a separate development, a letter was submitted to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown by more than 60 children's authors and illustrators on the subject. The petition condemned the detention policy and supported the calls made by the doctors.
It featured the signature of Michael Bond, creator of Paddington Bear, the fictional bear who was given sanctuary at 32 Windsor Gardens after arriving in London more than 50 years ago from "darkest Peru."
The letter included a special message from Paddington, which was subsequently endorsed by the leaders of the Baptist Union, Methodist Church and United Reformed Church.
The church leaders launched the One More Card initiative and urged people to send an extra Christmas card to immigration minister Phil Woolas, calling on him to end the detention of all children in the asylum system.
In a joint letter to The Independent, the church leaders wrote, "We agree with Paddington Bear that children seeking sanctuary in the U.K. should be treated as he was rather than locked up in detention centres."
"This is damaging to children who have done nothing wrong as well as to the reputation of the U.K. as a decent and compassionate country."
Elsewhere, nearly 100 members of Parliament have signed a parliamentary motion put forward by the Labour Member of Parliament Chris Mullin urging the government to stop detaining children.
Rev. Graham Sparkes, head of the Baptist Union's Faith and Unity department, welcomed the input.
He told The Baptist Times, "I am delighted that both the medical establishment and a number of leading authors share with us a deep concern for the well-being of children held in detention.
"The current Home Office policy is shameful. As a matter of principle, children seeking sanctuary should not be locked up," he said. "Hopefully, the growing momentum behind this campaign will bring change."
In response, David Wood, head of Criminality and Detention for the U.K. Border Agency, said the Royal Colleges have relied on research that is up to three years old and that there have been significant changes since.
"Treating children with care and compassion is a priority for the U.K. Border Agency," he said.
"When the independent courts find a family has no need of protection, we expect them to return home under their own steam. Detaining families who refuse to leave is a last resort.
"When we do have to detain people, their well-being is a priority. Yarl's Wood (immigration detention center) is registered with the Care Quality Commission who regulate healthcare in the U.K. We welcome independent inspectors in our immigration removal centers."
This article appeared originally in The Baptist Times of Great Britain.