The million pound payout by the UK Border Agency to wrongly detained child asylum seekers hit the headlines on Friday. A number of these children were Sri Lankan, fleeing persecution and human rights abuses only to end up caught in another nightmare in Britain. It is thought to be the first case of its kind and the largest immigration detention payout for a single case, according to the Guardian.

The youngest of all the children was a 14-year-old Sri Lankan girl. Children who fled conflicts such as Sri Lanka’s, having lost parents and any documentation to determine their age, ended up in the very adult world of detention centres, shuttled around, without the duty of care they deserve.

One major difficulty for immigration officials is asylum seekers arriving with no paperwork, so it’s problematic to determine their age. This is particularly pertinent in the case of the Sri Lankans, as during the tumultuous escalation of the conflict in 2009 and its chaotic aftermath many people fled their homes with very little. For some, that might have meant leaving home with just the clothes they had on, for others it meant leaving with no identification or paperwork.

This lack of paperwork was one excuse given by the Sri Lankan Government for holding civilians after the conflict in internment camps. Many civilians are still in these camps. At times the situation seems Kafkaesque, with thousands of civilians interminably waiting for the state machinery to identify who they are- primarily it seems to weed out any LTTE cadres, so they can be shuttled off to other camps and detained without charge.


(Image: Prison Bars by jellevc, published under a Creative Commons licence)

The case changed the UK Border Agency’s policies towards child asylum seekers. UK Border Agency has promised to improve training and tighten up procedures for determining the age of asylum seekers to try and prevent the same situation arising again.

But the Refugee Council said: “The Government pledged to end child detention nearly two years ago, and while they have made steps to do this for children with their families, children who are here on their own, many having fled horrifying experiences in their own countries, are still being detained due to flaws in the system. This is unacceptable… We know from our work with detained young people that detention can severely damage their physical and mental wellbeing…’

The Refugee Council urged an ideological rethink as much as anything, saying ‘Most importantly, these young people must be given the benefit of the doubt.’ Let’s hope this approach truly gets adopted for future child asylum seekers, of all nationalities.