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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Diane Taylor

Child refugees could develop PTSD if locked up by UK, medical bodies say

A UK Immigration Enforcement officer escorts a child migrant on arrival at the Marina in Dover,  January 2022.
A UK immigration enforcement officer escorts a child on arrival at the Marina in Dover last year. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

The UK’s top medical bodies have called for an urgent meeting with ministers after suggesting that tens of thousands of children could be locked up indefinitely if the illegal migration bill, which has been going through parliament, becomes law.

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Psychiatry, the Royal College of General Practitioners and the Faculty of Public Health have written a letter to the home secretary, Suella Braverman, and the health secretary, Steve Barclay. The letter has come at the start of Refugee Week coordinated by Together With Refugees, a coalition of more than 500 national and local organisations representing refugees, and has called for an emergency meeting to outline the serious harm and risks the health professionals say these children would face.

They have warned that children could develop post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal thoughts and other mental and physical risks and have added that detaining minors would cause “unimaginable levels of harm”.

Current time limits for detention are: 24 hours for separated children; 72 hours for children in families; and 72 hours for pregnant women. Detention beyond those limits requires ministerial approval.

The bill, if enshrined in law, would give the home secretary new detention powers without time limit, which would apply to both unaccompanied children and children with their families and are without the possibility of bail for 28 days. The new powers could be exercised in any place that the home secretary considers appropriate.

A Refugee Council impact assessment has found that this could affect over 45,000 children in the first three years of the bill coming into force, including nearly 15,000 children who have been separated from their parents and have come to the UK alone.

Prof Kevin Fenton, the president of the Faculty of Public Health, said: “There should be no place for locking up children who have fled terrible circumstances to find safety in the UK. The evidence is clear that it causes horrific harm to their physical and mental health with lifelong consequences.”

A briefing released on Monday by Médecins Sans Frontières examining the impact of detention on refugee children in Greece and Nauru island found that it caused a range of serious medical issues, with a significant number of children suffering from trauma- and fear-induced symptoms including sleep disturbances and nightmares, behavioural issues and developmental regression, helplessness and detachment, skin conditions and self-harm, compounded by their containment and very bad living conditions.

Enver Solomon, the CEO of Refugee Council and a spokesman for Together With Refugees, said:“Most people in the UK would rightly be appalled by the idea of locking up thousands of children who arrive here in search of safety, having fled war zones and persecution. We know from our work that they are scared and deeply traumatised, in dire need of being looked after with great care. Putting them behind bars will only compound their trauma and cause huge distress.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “It is vital we send a clear message that the exploitation of children, used by traffickers and ferried across the Channel, cannot continue. That is why families, and children who come to the UK illegally will not be exempt from detention and removal under the illegal migration bill.

“While this legislation gives the home secretary the power to remove an unaccompanied child under 18 from the UK, we have amended the bill to make clear that this will only be exercised in very limited circumstances, such as for the purposes of reunion with a parent or removing someone to their safe home country.

“We have additionally clarified that an unaccompanied child can also only be detained in very limited circumstances. The statistics do not take into account how the bill will be implemented and do not include any allowance for the deterrence effect of the measures in the bill.”

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