Refugee charities are urging the British government to ditch its plans of snatching the children of asylum seekers from their families and forcing them into care.
When an asylum seeker's claim has failed, Section 9 of the country's Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants) Act of 2004 allows the British Home Office to withdraw support if they are not taking "reasonable steps" to return to their country of origin. Local authorities will generally continue to support the children of a failed asylum seeker, but can only support adult members the family if failing to do so will lead to a breach of their human rights.
Section 9 creates a risk that asylum seekers and their families will be left destitute and their children taken into care.
Since December 2004, Section 9 has been implemented in three pilot areas: Central/East London, Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire. So far, 116 families, including 219 children and 36 adult dependents have been affected, from countries which include Pakistan, Somalia, Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
A report into the 12-month pilot by the Refugee Council and Refugee Action, titled "Inhumane and Ineffective — Section 9 in Practice," highlights the misery caused by Section 9 and its complete failure to achieve its aims.
Maeve Sherlock, chief executive of the Refugee Council, says:
"When it launched Section 9, the government said the aim was to encourage families to return home, and not to make them destitute. This report shows that it has achieved the complete opposite result. Families have been made homeless, had their support removed and are living in fear of having their children taken into care, and yet almost none have taken steps to leave the U.K. Section 9 is inhumane and ineffective and should be dropped immediately."
The report, which was released in January 2006, is based on work carried out by the Refugee Council and Refugee Action in Leeds, London and Manchester.
The report reveals that out of the 116 families affected by the pilot implementation of Section 9, only one family has left the U.K.; at the most three families have signed up for voluntary return; at least 32 families, or more than a quarter of those affected, have gone underground; and 80 percent of the parents on the pilot had mental health problems that have been made worse by Section 9.
"This is a harsh and ill thought out policy based on the flawed logic that making families destitute and threatening to take their children into care will coerce them into going home," Maeve Sherlock says.
The families affected are reluctant to return to their countries of origin because the countries are unsafe. Many of the families are at risk of arrest, torture, detention and death at the hands of agents of the state should they return to their countries of origin.
In October 2005, three judges in the British Asylum and Immigration Tribunal ruled, in a test case, that a Zimbabwean asylum seeker, who cannot be named for legal reasons, would be at risk if he were sent back to Harare. One of the results of this ruling is that the British Home Office cannot return Zimbabweans to that country because to do so would be in violation of the tribunal's ruling.
The Guardian (Jan. 29) reports that the implementation of Section 9 has also provoked a backlash by social workers who are now reluctant to cooperate with the Home Office.
Sandy Buchan, chief executive of Refugee Action describes the policy as "cruel and unworkable." She says it is causing enormous suffering to vulnerable families and has completely failed to deliver on its objectives.
"To threaten parents with the loss of their children if they don't sign a form that says they want to go home is unjust and inhumane. The proper place for all children, regardless of their immigration status, is with their parents.
"Destitution and family separation should not be used as deliberate tools of coercion by any civilized society. This policy is essentially troubling as it has come at a time when there is increasing doubt over whether or not some asylum seekers receive a full and fair hearing of their claim," Buchan says.
A Children's Society spokesperson expressed concern that some children are now being denied access to health care, housing and education.
"We know of 35 families who have gone underground, losing all contact with authorities and so denied access to basic health care, housing and education as a result of these government pilots.
"Regardless of the outcome of an asylum claim, it is never justified to punish children for the actions of adults," the spokesperson said.
In November 2005, an investigation by the leading children's charity, Barnardo's and the Refugee Children's Consortium revealed the serious damage being done to vulnerable children by the British government's asylum and immigration policy.
Barnardo's urged the British government to uphold the principle that refugee children are children first and foremost, and U.K. asylum policy should protect their welfare as a first principle.
Alison Webster, principal policy officer for Barnardo's also said children should not be used as a tool for enforcing immigration decisions.
"For them, their parents are often the only stable part of their lives," she said.
In "Breaking the Cycle: Taking Stock of Progress and Priorities for the Future" (September 2004), the British government's Social Exclusion Unit points out that refugees, asylum seekers, and children living in poverty or in local authority care are at risk of social exclusion.
The report also says experience of the care system is found in cohort study analysis to increase greatly the likelihood of negative outcomes, most notably the chances of contact with the police.
"Young people who have experienced institutional care are significantly more at risk of social exclusion than other young people; they are likely to leave school without qualifications, end up in prison, and to become homeless," the report says.
Writer and human rights activist Siobhan Logan condemned the British government's "cavalier" attitude towards separating children from their families.
"It is extraordinary how cavalier the British government can be about separating children from their families. They have done it in the past with working class families who were British. They are doing it now with children of asylum seekers whose applications have been refused but who still cannot go back to their countries of origin because the countries are unsafe," she said.
Logan accused the government of criminalizing asylum seekers and refugees.
"Asylum seekers are already in a very vulnerable position and then face destitution and exclusion at the hands of government policy here. They have become a political football for our media and political parties who promote the idea that asylum seekers are sponging off us.
"Asylum seekers are the modern scapegoats — what Jews were in an earlier period or Irish or Asian immigrants after them. This shambolic government deflects attention from its own shortcomings by trying to criminalize the poor," she said.
This article was first published in the World Press Review.