In May 2010, the new coalition government ‘committed’ to ending child detention for immigration purposes as part of a “new, compassionate approach to family removals.” Instead of using normal immigration prisons, families were to be placed in new secure facilities, euphemistically named ‘open accommodation’ or ‘pre-departure accommodation’. The first of these new ‘family-friendly’ centres, Cedars, was opened in summer 2011 in Pease Pottage, near Crawley, West Sussex. The converted school, with a 2.5m perimeter fence, is run on behalf of the UK Border Agency by the notorious security company G4S, while welfare and social care services are provided by the children’s charity Barnardo’s.
Ending child detention, the Cedars way
A UKBA document, dated November 2010 and titled “Open Accommodation: Accommodating Families Outside of Detention”, describes the pilot scheme as “a radically different approach” to the way the UKBA used to deal with migrant families due for deportation. The scheme is said to have been designed to “secure departure without the need for immigration detention.”
Explaining the rationale behind the pilot, the document goes on to state that, “We know that there will be some families who, despite our best efforts, will not comply with offers to leave… We consider that moving such families out of their existing accommodation and away from community links and ties they have built up will signal to them that they have reached the end of the road and enable them to understand that their removal will happen.”
In other words, uprooting families from their communities will make deportations easier as families would not have access to the support networks they would have had if they’d stayed in their communities. This was, in essence, how the government intended to ‘end’ child detention. (For more on this, see this article by Corporate Watch.)
The UKBA and its partners soon pplied for planning permission to convert a residential school for children with behavioural and learning difficulties in Pease Pottage into a ‘pre-departure accommodation facility’. The Crawley Forest School was owned by Crossroads Childrens Education Services Ltd., a private company wholly owned by its director Sunita Arora, the wife of Surinder Arora, the owner and founder of Arora International Hotels.
No open procurement tendering process for the facility, as required by EU and UK legislation, took place, which suggests there may have been some dodgy deal behind closed doors between the UKBA and the Arora Group, following the latter’s failure to gain a slice of the detention market last year.
The school itself, which was told to vacate the property by 1st April 2011, was apparently unaware of the new plans until it was contacted by campaigners. The Home Office leased the building from Crossroads, whilst the contract for the day-to-day running of the centre was awarded to G4S.
In an attempt to avoid a repeat of previous embarrassing experiences, a ‘consultation letter’, dated 25th January 2011, was sent to local residents in Pease Pottage on behalf of the Home Office by private consultation firm CgMs Consulting, trying to convince them of the new project. Citing the coalition government’s policy on ending child detention, the letter argued that “the need remains to provide a suitable facility to accommodate families whose removal from the UK is being enforced.” And this “pre-departure accommodation,” the letter claimed, “provides that solution.”
This was partly justified by the site’s proximity to Gatwick and Heathrow airports, implying that this would make deportations easier. The letter then reassured residents that the facility already has a 2.5m palisade fence, with electronic entrance gates, and that “there is no requirement to alter this boundary treatment.”
Cedars is officially described as ‘pre-departure accommodation’, yet it has all the characteristics of a detention centre but the name. With a 2.5m perimeter fence and 24-hour security, it is run under the Detention Centre Rules by notorious security company G4S, which runs two other immigration detention centres (Tinsley and Brook House and Gatwick).
In the planning application, the contractors applied to the local council for permission to change the use of the converted school to Class C2A use (Secure Residential Accommodation). This is exactly the same classification of all immigration detention centres in the UK (for more on this, see here).
Families and children held at Cedars are arrested and administratively detained under the provisions of the 1971 Immigration Act. They are subject to the same Control and Restraint Techniques used across the detention estate. Detained children are only allowed out of the facility under strictly controlled circumstances. This clearly amounts to a continued use of child detention for immigration purposes.
Detention under immigration powers is defined as holding a person on UKBA-designated premises, whether they are taken there by an immigration officer or after attending there voluntarily, for any length of time (Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009). In other words, their freedom of movement is restricted and they are deprived of their liberty. Cedars is clearly not ‘open accommodation’ in this sense as families are required to stay there overnight and their movement is restricted and constantly monitored.
The UKBA initially claimed that transfer to ‘pre-departure accommodation’ will be “on a voluntary basis.” However, as we have seen in many cases, families and children are being arrested from their homes in dawn raids and taken to Cedars under the threat or actual use of violence, just like before (see, for example, the recent case of the Saleh family). That is not really voluntary, is it, Barnardo’s?
Last but not least, the maximum length of stay for families held at Cedars is supposedly 72 hours (though the Family Returns Panel may authorise an extended stay for up to 28 days). However, we now know for sure that families have been held there for longer than 3 days when their removal has failed for one reason or another. Other families have been held at Cedars more than once to get round this condition. Agaian, this flies in the face or Barnardo’s supposed ‘red lines’.
Does it even work?
This is not the first time that different types of temporary ‘accommodation’ to hold families prior to deportation have been used. A similar pilot was tried for 10 months in 2007-2008 in Millbank, Kent. Evidence suggests that this pilot actually decreased the likelihood of families complying with the immigration authorities, with many reporting they felt “coerced and frightened” (see this independent evaluation).
However, the use of the new ‘pre-departure accommodation’ differs from past attempts in that it is part of the last stage of a new deportation system to “ensure return.” In other words, families are not taken to Cedars with the aim of ‘persuading’ them to leave the UK ‘voluntarily’. They are, rather, flagged for ‘pre-departure accommodation’ by the newly formed Family Returns Panel, on the recommendation of the UKBA ‘case owners’, due to their perceived ‘non-cooperation’ in the past. In most other cases, deportation is carried out from the families’ existing accommodation (provided under sections 4 or 95 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999). But this might change soon if the Cedars model is rolled out.
The UKBA documents outlining its ‘pre-departure accommodation’ plans claim that vulnerable families with specific medical needs are “not suitable” for the pilot. However, the UK’s detention history shows that the agency simply disregards such concerns unless it is, occasionally, forced to revise its decisions by campaigners or courts. Indeed, hundreds of torture victims, people with HIV, pregnant women, children and people with serious medical problems have been swallowed by the brutal detention and deportation machine. And this now includes Cedars (for more details, see this summary by Medical Justice).
The authorities claim that ‘pre-departure accommodation’ is consistent with Section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009, which requires the Home Office to “safeguard and promote the welfare of children who are in the United Kingdom,” and with the recommendations of the Child Detention Review that ended child detention. It is difficult to see how uprooting families from their communities and forcing them into detention can be regarded as safeguarding their welfare.
The UKBA does not provide an exhaustive list of medical issues that may prevent families being moved into ‘pre-departure accommodation’. Instead, the Family Returns Panel allegedly assesses families on a case-by-case basis. Cedars is provided with an on-site health facility that is staffed by a nurse. A GP is said to visit two days a week. Yet, it is well known from experience (in previous family detention centres) that this structure of provision is not capable of dealing with serious issues, including distress and other psychological problems created by the asylum system.
In fact, whereas detention centres such as Yarl’s Wood were provided with some sort of schooling for children, Cedars has no such facility. Instead, children are offered “age-related work packs”. This is justified with the argument that families are held in ‘pre-departure accommodation’ for short periods of time, despite admissions that they may stay there for up to a month in some cases.
So given all these controversies, what is a children’s charity like Barnardo’s doing in Cedars? By agreeing to provide welfare and social care services at this family detention centre, Barnardo’s was basically used by the immigration authorities and its PR machine to legitimise the continued use of detention for children, which the government had promised to stop doing, but under a different name. For more on this, see the Why Barnardo’s page on this blog.