Images of children held in cages on the Mexico-US border, crying for parents detained or deported by American border police, have been met with outrage over the past few weeks. Amnesty International called the forcible separation of over 2,000 children from their parents “nothing short of torture”.
Watching the news and social media, you’d be forgiven for thinking such callous treatment of child migrants could only happen in Trump’s America. But the UK’s record on similar issues is little short of scandalous. Trump’s policy on the Mexico border employs the same rhetoric of deterrence, and the same casual scapegoating, that has powered Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’, with the UK too making migrant children pay the price of populist opportunism.
The ongoing plight of the migrant children in Calais, increasingly forgotten by a novelty-driven news cycle, is to a large extent the creation of UK government policy. With legal routes to claiming asylum in the UK closed off by the Home Office, child migrants are forced to live rough in northern France or attempt dangerous crossings with the help of smugglers.
The closure of the Dubs scheme – launched to enable unaccompanied youngsters to come and live safely in the UK – after bringing over only 480 children exemplifies Britain’s insouciance towards separated child migrants.
Once in the UK, it is illegal for lone children to be locked up in immigration detention for more than 24 hours. But it does happen as asylum-seeking children are age-assessed by immigration officers and detained, sometimes for months. Abdul-Muttalab Ali, a teenager from Sudan, was detained after immigration officials did not believe he was under 18. A court case in 2017 awarded him damages, and Lord Justice Davis warned that the verdict “has a wider importance for other cases”, opening up the possibility the government might have to pay out large sums in compensation to child migrants wrongly placed in detention.
It’s not just Trump’s USA that breaks up migrant families by locking up parents. Hundreds of parents in the UK are detained every year without time limit, with children placed in local authority care during their parents’ detention.
A 2013 report by Bail for Immigration Detainees showed that children lost weight, had nightmares, suffered from insomnia and cried frequently during their parents’ time in immigration detention. Parents described profound grief at being separated from their children, with some saying they considered taking their own lives.
Detention is not the only UK policy choice that breaks up migrant families. London local authorities have been known to threaten to take children into care simply because their parents are homeless and have the wrong papers. In 2017 there were reports of families forced to sleep on buses after being denied help from social services because of their immigration status. The group we campaign with, NELMA, works to challenge these and similar injustices towards destitute migrant families.
After the Windrush scandal, there is increasing awareness of the pernicious effects of the ‘hostile environment’. But there remains little outcry about policies that drive migrant parents and their children into homelessness and poverty. Thousands of children face destitution every year because their carers are denied essential benefits on the basis of their immigration status. Such children are also excluded from free school meals and other key welfare provisions. Either British-born or on the path to settlement, these children are here to stay. Yet the prohibitive cost of registration as a British citizen means their rights continue to be denied.
Children should never be separated from parents because of immigration status. But nor should young people from migrant backgrounds live as second-class citizens. The use of children as collateral in debates about borders must stop, and since children cannot survive independently of those who care for them any effort to support child migrants demands wholesale reform of Britain’s draconian and increasingly privatised border regime.
Anti-Trumpism would be a much better thing if we can seize the opportunity to further the struggle against anti-migrant nationalism over here as well as over there.