Karen McVeigh, The Guardian, Tuesday 13 October 2009
"Medical experts have found clear evidence that children held in UK immigration centres develop mental and physical health difficulties, according to a report published today.
In the first study of its kind, a team of paediatricians and psychologists found 73% of children they examined had developed clinically significant emotional and behavioural problems since being detained. None had previously reported such problems.
All those seen by a psychologist displayed symptoms of depression and anxiety and of being disoriented, confused and frightened by the experience. One child suffered the re-emergence of post-traumatic stress disorder, related to a previous war experience.
The report raised serious concerns over child protection issues after finding that at least 12 of the children had been separated from a main carer, two placed in detention with an adult with whom they had never lived, and one mother and her 20-month-old baby separated for three weeks during an outbreak of chicken pox.
The study, published in Child Abuse & Neglect: the International Journal, examined 24 children aged between three months and 17 years detained at Yarl's Wood immigration removal centre in Bedfordshire, which is operated by Serco for the UK Border Agency. It found that:
* Eight children had lost weight since entering detention, including a two-year-old and a nine-year-old, both of whom had lost 10% of their body weight.
* Three children had regressed and refused to feed themselves or would only take milk.
* Most of the 20 children seen by a paediatrician complained of recent health problems including abdominal pain, headache, coughing and vomiting. Two required hospital care.
* Ten out of 11 children examined by a psychologist had begun to experience sleep problems, including nightmares and difficulty falling or remaining asleep.
* Four children began bed-wetting, although they had previously been dry for a number of years and two started daytime soiling and wetting, indicators of severe stress.
* Four children had regressed language skills, including one child who had become selectively mute.
* All nine parents interviewed reported severe psychological distress, and 6six out of nine had contemplated suicide. Two were on suicide watch.
Recent Home Office figures reveal that 470 children were detained with their families this year. Of 225 children released from detention in the second quarter this year, only 100 were removed from the UK, prompting calls from MPs and children's rights groups for an end to children being detained unnecessarily.
The authors of today's study say that as there is "no clear evidence to indicate that detention is necessary in order to prevent families from absconding, more humane alternatives to current practice must be explored".
Dr Ann Lorek, consultant paediatrician at the Mary Sheridan centre for child health in Lambeth, south London, said: "Our study contains evidence that children in detention have worsening physical and mental health and express worrying levels of trauma and sickness, despite well-intentioned staff. As doctors we ask for safeguards to protect these vulnerable children from further harm in detention."
Dr Kim Ehntholt, clinical psychologist at the traumatic stress clinic, Camden and Islington NHS foundation trust, in north London, said that their findings support previous Australian studies showing the negative effect of detention on children and their parents.
She said: "The detained children's mental health is likely to have been negatively affected by a combination of factors including a recent deterioration in their parents' mental health, increased fear after being suddenly placed in a detention facility which children often believe is prison, anxiety over returning to their country of origin where they may have experienced traumatic events, as well as the abrupt loss of home, school and friends."
Families involved in the research, who had been in detention on average 43 days, were referred to the authors by the charity Bail for Immigration Detainees. "
Download the report - "The mental and physical health difficulties of children held within a British immigration detention centre: A pilot study"
Last Updated on Tuesday, 13 October 2009 15:00