The images of children locked up in cages and crying out for their parents shocked the world. That shock was compounded by the country responsible: the so-called Land of the Free, the United States of America. A country which since its inception has promoted itself as a ‘nation of immigrants’, that asked the world to “give me your tired, your poor”. It was surely always a case of when, not if, Trump was going to be forced to act.
In the UK, many look across the Atlantic with despair. Commentators note with relief that here in the UK we value decency and treat people with respect and humanity wherever they come from. And we certainly don’t take children from their parents and put them in cages for no greater crime than coming to our borders and asking for residence.
If only it were so. For sure, the brazen cruelty in the US is on a level beyond the UK. But we are far, far from perfect.
The UK operates a vast immigration detention estate. Our detention centres are hidden away in the countryside and next to airports. They are ‘black holes’ where legal, civil and human rights are deliberately placed out of reach for people who come to the UK as immigrants. Over 30,000 people are locked up in prison-like conditions annually, without trial and without time limit on how long they can be held.
While child detention has decreased significantly, it continues: 1,649 children, 600 of whom were under 11, were detained here since the government officially ended child detention in 2010. Additionally, at one UK airport alone, hundreds of children were detained at last year. Further to this, the government has opened a new G4S-run ‘family unit’ in Tinsely House near Gatwick airport.
When it comes to deportations, the picture in the UK isn’t much better. If you come to the UK as an ‘unaccompanied minor’ (read: as a child, alone), your 18th birthday is nothing to celebrate. The UK deports hundreds of young people – many of whom had spent formative years here – to countries including Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Libya and Syria. If you can’t be deported, they’ll cut off all state support. This week it was reported that three teens in this state of legal limbo took their own lives in last six months.
And even if you have your application for leave to remain accepted as an unaccompanied child refugee, the government won’t let you bring your family here to join you. A private members bill introduced by Angus McNeil is going through Parliament and would remove that restriction: the government is opposing it.
Many young people in Britain arrived here when they were young children, and only find when they turn 18 that they are not – at least according to their paperwork – British. Let Us Learn is a campaign group of young migrants who’ve lived in the UK most of their lives but are blocked from going to university solely because they aren’t allowed student finance. Others, less fortunate still, can face legal limbo and deportation.
It doesn’t end there. Draconian spousal visa rules mean that if you fall in love with someone from outside the EEA, your kids face a good chance of growing up without one of their parents around. British people must earn £18,600 to be eligible to apply to sponsor a non-EEA spouse to live with them in the UK, and the sum goes up for every child they have, not to mention the seemingly never-ending extortionate fees. Close to 40% of British citizens earn less than the income threshold. There are thousands of ‘Skype kids’ growing up in the UK with one of their parents in involuntary exile abroad. The Home Office says it’s not a problem and they can just keep in touch over the internet. Many families with mixed immigration status in the UK face the same fate.
At our border children and young people – many with family living in the UK, and all in need of safe passage – live in terrible conditions and without safety. We turn a blind eye as French police beat and tear gas children in Calais and Dunkirk in their efforts to intimidate them from trying to reach the UK, and we spend tens of millions of pounds each year on fences, walls and other barriers.
The list goes on. While we were right to condemn the US, we should remember that the UK is not perfect. The Conservatives’ current attack on migrants was built on the back of New Labour’s legacies of detention centres and curtailment of asylum rights. Britain and the US need to look forwards, not backwards, for a system that treats people with respect and humanity.
Luke Butterly is Communications Officer for Right to Remain