Refugee crisis – 2 July 2018

Zero tolerance or hostile environment. Is our approach to child refugees really any better?

Written by Alison Wallace
CEO of SOS Children's Villages


This week has seen the despicable practice of detaining child migrants and refugees exposed. Images of children held in cages at the US-Mexico border have shocked us all. As have the sheer numbers of children separated from their parents by the zero tolerance immigration policy in the US - more than 2,000 since its implementation in May.

Detaining children who have been forcibly separated from their family – some of them still babies and toddlers – in repurposed warehouses and supermarkets, dubbed ‘La Perrera’, or dog kennels, is ferociously cruel and damaging.

And President Trump’s policy U-turn, although welcome, is a hollow victory at best. The preferred solution – to detain children alongside their families – will merely result in children being locked up for longer.

As the world’s largest charity for unsupported children, SOS Children’s Villages has witnessed first-hand the irreparable harm such a policy can cause. Our experience working with refugee children has shown detention can have a terrible impact on children’s psychological, emotional and physical development – exposing them to abuse and neglect, denying them a proper education, and causing depression, anxiety and even suicidal thoughts.

A recent clinical study found four out of five detained migrant children develop post-traumatic stress disorder or have their conditions exacerbated, and two-thirds suffer from severe clinical depression.

While this scandal has shone a much-needed spotlight on the human rights violations implicit in the detention of child migrants, we must be wary of categorising this as an American problem. The truth is that child detention is a common response to the global refugee crisis around the world. All too often, countries are rushing to implement policies to discourage migration without forethought, planning or consideration for the impact they will have on vulnerable children.

Across Europe, children who have fled violence, warfare and disaster are routinely held in detention by the countries they turn to for sanctuary. Often, they are incarcerated for indeterminate periods, with no guarantee of when they will be released or what will become of them when they are.

In the UK, Government promises to end the immigration detention of children as far back as 2010 have never materialised, and we continue to detain children for myriad reasons which stretch far beyond UN guidelines that it be reserved for exceptional cases.

We imprison children to verify their identities, dispute their ages, deport them, and even argue their asylum claims should be processed elsewhere in Europe. We are also the only country in Europe with no limit on how long refugees can be detained.

In truth, America’s zero-tolerance policy towards migrants is distinctly reminiscent of the hostile environment policy here in the UK. Both were unveiled with swagger, and both received, at least initially, a wave of approval for their tough stance on immigration. And both have had devastating impacts on children’s psychological health and wellbeing.

Amid the toxic political rhetoric surrounding the refugee crisis, it can be easy to forget we are debating children’s futures – children who have already been traumatised by conflict, forced displacement and abuse.

These children have lived through the terror of bombs and bullets and the uncertainty of a long and dangerous journey to safety. To receive them with suspicion, discrimination and imprisonment is unconscionable.

Yet the hostile environment policy has created a climate of institutional distrust towards child refugees in the UK, popularising the notion that every child who seeks sanctuary is an adult in disguise and leading to scores of children being wrongfully detained in adult prisons while their ages are verified.

And just like in the US - the UK has been keeping refugee children from their families. Our immigration laws deny unaccompanied child refugees with leave to remain in the UK the right to sponsor their families to join them, and often result in children being placed in care.

SOS Children’s Villages UK is campaigning in support of two refugee family reunion bills currently making their way through Parliament which, if successful, could help reunite child refugees with their families, but the Government has so far refused to commit to changing the law.

Whichever euphemism we choose, ‘zero tolerance’ or ‘hostile environment’, the consequence is the same - the criminalisation and vilification of children for their migrant status.

As the UK marks Refugee Week, I hope the world can begin to embrace a fairer and more humane approach towards refugee children. One that disregards unhelpful labels – immigrant, refugee, asylum seeker – and recognises that children are children, whatever their migrant status.

By Alison Wallace, CEO of SOS Children’s Villages UK – part of the world’s largest charity working with unsupported children.