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Why are children held in detention?

A UNICEF reports says that 1m children were being held in detention in 2011
A UNICEF reports says that 1m children were being held in detention in 2011

How would you feel if you were forced to leave your homeland, then held in detention in the country in which you sought refuge? For any of us, this would be hard to bear, but for a child, it can be devastating. In this week's guest blog, Isabelle considers why children are held in detention, the impact this can have, and what needs to change to ensure their rights are upheld and their voices heard.

What if you were forced to leave your home because of persecution, political instability, or a natural disaster? You flee on foot or even by boat, and make the dangerous journey to the nearest safe haven. As if that isn’t traumatic enough, the very country in which you seek refuge then holds you in detention. Locked up, you might be alone, unfamiliar with the language and surroundings, and vulnerable to various forms of abuse and exploitation.

It’s a terrifying scenario, one that hundreds of thousands of people go through each year. But that isn’t the worst of it: approximately half of these refugees or asylum seekers are younger than 18 years old. In a 2011 UNICEF report on global child detention, it was estimated that around 1 million children are held in immigration detention. Today that figure is likely to be much higher.

The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) noted that in the first half of 2014, war, armed conflict, and human rights concerns caused an upsurge in the number of asylum seekers. It further stated that the Syrian Arab Republic, Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea, and Serbia are the top five source zones, and Germany, the USA, France, Sweden, and Turkey are the top five receiving countries.

From home to hostile lands

Few want to leave their home if it has been a secure and happy one. Migrants usually have no choice but to go somewhere safer and/or more prosperous. They escape to find sanctuary, but may end up incarcerated, for weeks, months, and sometimes even years. Another worrying issue is that unaccompanied minors (usually ‘older’ children) are often sent across borders to “seek a better life” and provide for their family. Others run away from abuse or to avoid similar horrors. Unfortunately, their circumstances go from bad to worse.

This Syrian boy is fleeing to Turkey with his family to escape the war
Syria is a key source country for refugees. Globally, more than half of those seeking
asylum are under the age of 18. Many of them will be detained at their destination.

According to the IRIN news agency, two countries in particular have drawn criticism from Human Rights Watch for their treatment of unaccompanied children. In the US, the number of underage detainees has been increasing over time, and the majority of them are held for more than the legally allowed 72 hours. In Australia, the national Refugee Council reported than child asylum seekers are more likely to be detained than their adult counterparts, and the average length of detention has tripled since last year.

I’ve mentioned that people are also compelled to move due to ecological factors. The term ‘environmental refugees’ describes those who are displaced due to droughts, volcano eruptions, tsunamis, and so on. According to National Geographic, environmental refugees – unlike traditional refugees – are not protected by international laws, and could be sent back to their devastated homelands or else forced into refugee camps. Although the latter is not detention, children in these areas are susceptible to infectious diseases, mental and physical torture, and sexual exploitation.

Displaced, detained, distressed

Children are at greater risk from all the possible threats of detention: development of psychiatric difficulties (including tendency to self-harm, suicidal behaviour, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder); lack of socialisation and freedom to play; inadequate or no access to sufficient accommodation, nutrition, medical care, and education; violence, human trafficking, and other physical dangers.

Many detention facilities are in a state of deterioration, in terms of both infrastructure and practices. Staff are not trained or equipped to work with children, and physically discipline them with restraints, beatings, and so forth. And as these children are separated from their parents are other family members, they have no support system to carry them through this ordeal.

The migrant detention of children is not unique to a single nation or even continent; it happens in all corners of the globe and everywhere in between. An article in a health journal, The Lancet, stated that more than 60 countries have documented cases of child detention. It says: “Contrary to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, many countries do not have a legal time limit for detention, leaving some children incarcerated for indeterminate periods. Chronic uncertainty about personal safety and scarce opportunity for resettlement contribute to deleterious effects on children's mental, developmental, and physical health.”

Alternatives to imprisonment

Irrefutably, the best solution is to stop detaining migrant children. The UNHRC issued “Detention Guidelines”, which clearly state that in principle, children should not be detained at all. However, this won’t happen overnight, and governments, policy-makers, and grassroots organisations need to strategise to provide better options for minors.

These measures could include keeping families together and in reasonable lodgings. They could also cover programmes designed to familiarise refugees with their surroundings, especially the laws and language(s). Children should also be enabled to go to school, or at least supply access to learning materials and trained educators. The granting of temporary visas would provide respite for many. In cases where detention cannot be avoided, children should be treated well and given sufficient accommodation and amenities, they should be supported by guardians and/or placed in a family-like environment, and personnel from child protective and legal agencies should be able to monitor their detention.

Above all, we should put the best interests of the children first. This means that the young migrants should be well-informed (in a child-friendly manner) about the location of their family members, be kept informed about their status in the country, and be made as comfortable and secure as possible. The type of confinement discussed above is effectively a form of child abuse; it cannot be justified and is a violation of children’s rights. This fact is candidly put forth by the NGO Committee on Migration, which says: “Children should never be subjected to the deplorable practice of immigration detention.”

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