20th November 2006, Universal Children’s Day

Childhood behind bars

Locked up for fleeing conflict, persecution and poverty: never in a child’s best interest
“Detaining a child causes such suffering and has such long-term impacts on their physical and mental health and development that alternatives should always be found. Yet children in so many countries continue to be locked up for no reason other than their immigration status” said Anna Gallagher, coordinator of the International Detention Coalition (IDC).
For example, in Malaysia undocumented children are arrested and held in detention centres and prisons. The National Human Rights Society of Malaysia (HAKAM) knows of many cases of detention of new-born babies, arrested along with their mothers who have approached government hospitals for medical assistance during childbirth, as well as of asylum-seeking children.
While the IDC accepts that states have the right to manage the flow of migrants across their borders, this right is not absolute. Freedom from arbitrary detention is a fundamental human right. States are not entitled to use detention as a deterrent, especially the detention of children who are at seriously increased risk of long-term trauma.
Recently we have seen changes in some states’ policies on detention of children. The decision of the South African High Court in 2004 that no unaccompanied foreign child may be detained at Lindela Repatriation Centre has brought positive changes. The transfer of the custody of unaccompanied immigrant children in the United States from the former Immigration and Naturalization Service to the Office of Refugee Resettlement in 2002 resulted in less unaccompanied children in detention. And the Australian government has changed its policies on detaining children.
“For 13 years, thousands of children were held in Australian immigration detention centres for periods averaging 15 months. Routinely exposed to violence, their mental health regularly deteriorated to the point where they committed acts of self harm. In June 2005 the government ended this policy and currently allows 55 children, otherwise in detention, to live freely with their families. Where the will exists, governments can find humane alternatives to detention” said Jesuit Refugee Service Australia Director, David Holdcroft SJ.
The IDC applauds these steps forward. They clearly demonstrate that states are capable of changing this practice. But our members report that, despite these advances, children are still being detained.
“The policy change in the US for unaccompanied children was welcome. But we are concerned about the increasing number of families with children now being held in detention in the US in conditions that are just not suitable for children. The stated reason for this program is to deter irregular immigrants from bringing their children with them. But people fleeing persecution cannot just leave their children behind” said Michelle Brane of the Women’s Commission on Refugee Women and Children and a member of Detention Watch Network.
“Despite the 2004 High Court decision, the detention of children in immigration facilities in South Africa continues to be of concern to Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR). Access to the detention centres for monitoring is hampered by too many regulations and the authorities are unwilling to give information about the age of detainees. This leads to failures in the system and cases of children still being detained” said Jacob van Garderen of LHR.
On 20th November 1989 the international community adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) to recognise their vulnerability, identifying the best interests of the child as a guiding principle. On 20th November 2006 the IDC calls on states to respect without reservation all the rights of children laid out in the CRC. It reminds states that they have a specific duty of care towards children within their jurisdiction and that they are obliged to seek alternatives to detention, such as child-friendly reception centres and foster families, before more young lives are harmed. 
For further information, contact the coordinators of the IDC:
Anna Gallagher Tel: (+34) 947 530 128       Fax: (+34) 947 530 129     
                                            E mail: [email protected]
Melanie Teff Tel: (+44) 772 192 7098       E mail: [email protected]
Notes to the editor
The IDC is a coalition of over 100 non-governmental groups and individuals working in over 50 countries around the world which have come together to raise awareness of governments’ detention policies and to promote greater respect for the human rights of detainees. 
The IDC advocates limiting the use of, seeking alternatives to, and using the least restrictive forms of, immigration detention.
The steering committee of the IDC brings together a number of leading international NGOs which share concerns about the treatment of immigration detainees, such as Amnesty International, Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch, Jesuit Refugee Service, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children, World Council of Churches, and a number of national NGOs.
For further information about the International Detention Coalition, visit their website at: