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.