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Yarl's Wood itself is the moral outrage | Phil Shiner and Daniel Carey

23rd July 2010

Closing the family wing is a step forward, but the government must admit its detention policy breaches human rights

The deputy prime minister's announcement to parliament that the family wing at Yarl's Wood immigration removal centre is to close is an important, but partial, step towards restoring the rights of some of the most vulnerable members of our society. The "moral outrage" expressed by Nick Clegg reflects only that expressed by immigrant families, doctors, campaigning organisations and even the children's commissioner for some time. For too long the centre has come to embody the deep malaise in Britain's treatment of those seeking refuge.

Before Tuesday's announcement, families bundled into vans during dawn raids and locked up in what many view as a prison had only one way of opposing their detention: through the courts. Two families who endured prolonged detention at Yarl's Wood have already brought such a legal challenge. Many others have tried to do the same, often without proper legal representation and, ultimately, without success.

Despite the announcement in parliament, the government steadfastly refuses to concede in court that this policy was and is unlawful. Home Office lawyers continue to claim that the policy does not breach childrens' and families' rights to liberty, to a private and family life, and to be free of inhuman and degrading treatment. Our recent invitation to the home secretary to concede the legal challenge in the light of her government's apparently unequivocal repudiation of its predecessor's policy was met with a point-blank refusal. We have written to her again in light of the deputy prime minister's statement, but the response to date has been one of silence. For now, the outrage expressed by the coalition in public remains empty rhetoric.

The evidence that detaining children seriously affects their mental and physical well-being is overwhelming. But the current review of immigration detention must address all the unacceptable aspects of this practice. The same vulnerability that exposes children to such risks is present, too, in the abused and trafficked women, the torture victims and the mentally and physically disabled who are also held against their will as so-called "residents" in immigration detention centres.

And children on the outside suffer dreadfully, too, when they are separated from their parents who continue to be held, often for well over a year at a time. The harm caused by immigration detention owes as much to its indeterminate nature and to the conditions in which it is implemented as it does to the youth of its victims. From start to finish, it subjugates welfare concerns to administrative convenience and shatters the fragile lives of those in its path. In our view Clegg got it right the first time: Yarl's Wood itself is the moral outrage, not just its family wing.

Ultimately, alternatives must be found to the practice itself, as they have been in many other countries facing similar immigration challenges. Which is why, until the home secretary concedes the illegality of the policy in light of the deputy prime minister's statement, these legal challenges must continue.

If this government is serious about restoring "a sense of decency and liberty to the way in which we conduct ourselves", as Clegg states, then it must cease its practice of paying lip service to human rights in the public arena while fighting through the courts any individual who dares to assert them.

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