Dan Godshaw (@DanGodshaw) has worked for NGOs on migrant advocacy and support for 10 years. He has visited people held at Brook House IRC as well as supporting Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group’s (@GatDetainees) research and campaigning work since 2013. Dan holds an MA in Migration Studies from The University of Sussex, and is currently an ESRC-funded doctoral researcher on immigration detention and gender at The University of Bristol.
There are many ways that children who do not have British citizenship can enter the UK, including as unaccompanied asylum-seeking minors, as dependents and through birth, where neither parent has citizenship or settled immigration status. Children who are not citizens, or ‘young arrivers’ often face difficulties growing up in the UK, but their rights are generally more extensive than those of adults. It is far less likely that they will be detained or deported than adults. Once children approach 18, they move from protected to unprotected status. Many are not able to secure settled immigration status, but even when they do, they risk automatic deportation orders if they go to prison.
Having spent a significant part of their formative years in the UK, some adults end up detained in Immigration Removal Centres while the government tries to deport them to places that feel foreign. This can be a frightening process which dramatically challenges identities and rights that they previously took for granted. But there has been little written on the topic and no research about this group in relation to immigration detention.
A new research project I conducted with Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group (GDWG) uncovers ways in which people who arrived when they were under 18 become detained as adults, and explores how detention affects them as a distinctive group. The report, Don’t dump me in a foreign land: Immigration detention and young arrivers, provides a platform for the voices of people whose conceptions of safety, belonging and Britishness have been shaken by the immigration controls they are now subjected to. Drawing on interviews with those held in detention and practitioners who work with them as well as analysis of Home Office documents, we established a number of key findings which showed that that young arrivers share common routes to detention and experience specific forms of harm while detained.
First, young arrivers in detention are likely to have experienced trauma as children and to have been in the care system. Inadequate support and inappropriate care placements can leave them vulnerable, and local authorities sometimes fail to regularise immigration status and citizenship. A lack of guidance as well as use of police intervention to deal with disruptive behaviour can lead to early convictions.
Social services are the main reason I’m [in detention]…If they didn’t just see me as caseload, if they saw me as a person instead, all of this could have been avoided with one thing – getting me a passport…that should have been part of their duty of care…the actual care was bad enough, but not doing that was even worse (Anthony, Brook House)
Second, detained young arrivers are likely to have been through the criminal justice system. Crimes that lead to deportation orders are often minor and are inextricably tied to growing up as marginalised young people in Britain, but their status as foreign national prisoners mean that they are treated differently to their British peers. Young arrivers are not adequately informed about the possibility of detention and deportation, and are not granted opportunities for rehabilitation and reintegration into society.
[Young arrivers in detention] grew up on council estates where people sold drugs and got into trouble. We never knew any different…The judge said that I’m a product of this environment, that I didn’t come to this country to commit a crime. He’s learnt this in the UK so he’s our problem (Ahmed, formerly detained)
Third, young arrivers feel deeply connected to the UK, and being detained triggers intense shock. Detention causes people who had previously felt British to begin to feel foreign, excluded from society and the identity they had grown up with. Detention causes fear about being deported to places where they have few connections, meaning that post-deportation futures are unimaginable and feel impossible.
They’re trying to send me somewhere I don’t know…I’ve never been to Jamaica…I’ve never even been on a plane before…It’s not right on anybody to detain or deport them, but I think it’s 10 times worse for someone…who doesn’t know nothing else…I’d be shocked. I can’t really imagine it (Christopher, The Verne)
Finally, young arrivers, who often have substantial networks of family and friends in the UK, face difficulties in maintaining relationships in detention which leaves them isolated from their support networks. Young arrivers are also likely to experience prolonged detention and are particularly vulnerable to mental illness while detained. These findings show that recent Home Office guidance to prevent vulnerable people being detained in response to Stephen Shaw’s Review into the Welfare in Detention of Vulnerable Persons are not being implemented.
I used to jump and scream if someone shouted. I’m taking Clomipramine. I’ve been diagnosed with depression and PTSD… [in detention] there is no enjoyment for me…I’m alone…sometimes I feel that my heart will blow up…you need education, hospital, nice food, nice people…You can’t find this in here. You just wait. Depression affects me a lot (Bidar, Brook House)
These findings led to a series of policy recommendations for government, local authorities and support services. GDWG urges the government to implement the following key recommendations without delay:

  • Indefinite immigration detention should be brought to an end and replaced with a 28-day limit and community-based alternatives.
  • The 2016 Home Office ‘Guidance on adults at risk in immigration detention’ should be implemented properly and administrative factors should never take precedence over safety and wellbeing.
  • Young arrivers should be classed as a potentially vulnerable group generally unsuitable for detention and Home Office guidance should consider the dynamic nature of vulnerability in detention.
  • When people arrive in the UK as children, settled immigration status should be granted swiftly. They should then automatically be on a path to citizenship.
  • There should be an advocate who takes responsibility for regularising every child’s status and, one this is achieved, registering them as a British citizen.
  • Links between criminality and growing up in Britain, including within the care system, should be recognised. Young arrivers should not be demonised as foreign national prisoners and automatic deportation orders should not be issued.

I presented the research to an audience of practitioners, academics, people formerly held in detention, students and local community members at The Hive in Dalston on the 2nd November. The presentation was followed by a panel Q&A, chaired by Thangam Debbonaire (MP for Bristol West and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees), with Ridy (an artist and expert by experience, held in detention for more than 5 years), Melanie Griffiths (researcher on immigration detention and deportation, University of Bristol) and Hindpal Singh Bhui (Detention Team Leader, HM Inspectorate of Prisons). The discussion was lively and hopeful, and it was inspiring to see a large audience so engaged and passionate about the problem of immigration detention. To conclude this blog post, I’ll explore three important points raised in the discussion.
In response to claims by the research participants that their treatment by immigration authorities was racist, an audience member asked the panel to describe examples of institutional racism. In their responses, the panel addressed differential media attitudes that present the detention and deportation of white migrants from powerful countries as abhorrent compared to relative silence over migration controls far more commonly applied to black or other racialised migrants. They also talked about the many levels on which institutional racism operates on those in detention – from administrative decisions to predominantly detain people from particular racialised groups, through to the postcolonial logic of controlling, objectifying and excluding people from former colonies.
Another audience member made the point that detention is intimately linked to deportation and asked why, by detailing the experiences of young arrivers in detention, we were not going further to challenge the practice of deportation more broadly. There was agreement amongst the panel that challenging deportation is vital work because of the potential impact on safety, family life, identity and wellbeing of young arrivers as well as the fact that there is growing evidence that deportations often fail and lead to re-migration. However, from a campaigning perspective, the panel agreed that a focus on detention was needed at present in the context of renewed media and parliamentary interest in the issue.
The final question put forward in the discussion was what we, as ordinary people, can do to support and change policy and practice towards young arrivers. Several valuable ideas were put forward by the panel members and by the chair. They included contacting your MP directly and persisting until you get a response, working carefully with journalists to shift mainstream representations of young arrivers, volunteering with a local detention visitors group or other support service and, crucially, helping to create cultural change in attitudes through grassroots campaigning work and everyday conversations with friends and family, colleagues, and other acquaintances.
This research is a tool for change, and I would encourage organisations and individuals to use it to help bring about a transformation in the way that young arrivers are treated in the UK, as well as to encourage meaningful detention reform more widely.