School children and community leaders gather outside the Houses of Parliament asking the UK government to stop refugee children being detained in the UK on the 27th of June 2023, in London United Kingdom. The demonstration organised by Citizen UK and Together With Refugees brought British children and community leaders together with banners, placards, teddy bears and messages of support to ask the House of Lords to make changes to the new government Illegal Migration Bill which could see up to 2 classrooms of children detained every day. (Photo by Andy Aitchison)


The UK’s top children’s charities are today (Tuesday 11 July 2023) joining refugee charities, faith leaders, medical bodies and others to call on the government to scrap plans to lock up refugee children as part of the Illegal Migration Bill . They have signed an open letter to the Prime Minister, published today, when MPs are due to debate the child detention aspect of the Bill in the House of Commons. 

The 152 signatories to the letter, coordinated by the Together With Refugees campaign coalition, include NSPCC, Save the Children, Barnardo’s, The Children’s Society,  Coram and Children England, as well as the BMA, MSF, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, Choose Love, Freedom from Torture, Refugee Council, Safe Passage International, Citizens UK and Plan International UK. 

It highlights the government’s plans to lock up refugee children as one of the most extreme and cruel aspects of the Bill and states: “Most people would rightly be appalled by the idea of detaining thousands of children who arrive here in search of safety, having fled war zones and persecution. As a nation, we must stand firm in our commitment to uphold children’s rights and show care and compassion to any child in desperate need of protection. 

“Today we stand together to call on your government to retain existing time limits which prevent the routine detention of refugee babies, toddlers and children.”

It also underlines recent concerns raised by the medical community and says: “Before the coalition government ended the routine detention of children in the UK in 2011, medical experts found that almost all detained children suffered a significant deterioration in their mental and physical health as a direct result of their detention. Reported child mental health difficulties included emotional and psychological regression, post-traumatic stress disorder, clinical depression and suicidal behaviour.”

Ali Ghaderi was a teenager when he arrived in the UK as a refugee from Iran about five years ago. He is a performer and activist and has founded the Babylon Project to support other refugee and asylum seeking young people through drama and art. He said: “When I was forced to leave home in fear for my life I was very young and very scared. I can’t imagine how I would have felt arriving in a new country desperately seeking safety only to be put behind bars. Those in power must vote against it today and put an end to this horrific plan.”

Enver Solomon, Refugee Council CEO and Together With Refugees spokesperson, said: “We know from our work that refugee children are often scared and deeply traumatised. They need our protection, not punishment. A Conservative-led government rightly ended the appalling practice of locking up refugee children in 2014 by introducing strict time limits. This government must not go back on this.”

James Blatchley-Afsa, Citizens UK Assistant Director, said: “Citizens UK worked with others to stop children being detained for immigration purposes in 2011. Our hearts break that thousands of babies, toddlers, child refugees, and families will be put into prison-like conditions under the government’s completely unnecessary proposals.The devastating life-long consequences are already well understood. Our government must lead with compassion and stop these plans before it is too late.”

Dr Carol Homden CBE, Chief Executive of the children’s charity Coram, said: “Whilst it is positive that the government is reconsidering its plans to lock up refugee children, the concessions being talked about for unaccompanied children are wholly inadequate – and they offer nothing to help children who arrive with their families, who are some of the youngest and most vulnerable. Anything other than the existing safeguards could cause serious harm to babies, toddlers and children who have already fled the horrors of war and persecution. They should be protected not punished. We call on the Prime Minister to keep in place the limits introduced by a Conservative-led government over a decade ago.”

Rt Rev Paul Butler, Lord Bishop of Durham, said: “The Government has a legal and moral obligation to protect all children, unaccompanied or accompanied, British or refugee. Another policy objective cannot simply override these safeguarding responsibilities, that all children should be able to rely upon. But the Illegal Migration Bill allows the government to lock up any child  indefinitely, simply on the basis that they are an asylum seeker, all whilst knowing the devastating consequences this will have on their lives. There are no exceptions and it will impact babies, toddlers, child victims of trafficking, children seeking safety alone and even those still in their mother’s womb. We are better than this and we know what is right having banished this immoral practice before. The government must listen and do the right thing again.”

A Refugee Council impact assessment found that the government’s plans to detain children could affect over 45,000 children in the first three years of the Bill coming into force, including nearly 15,000 children who have been separated from their parents and have come to the UK alone. 

The Illegal Migration Bill hugely expands the Home Secretary’s powers to detain people. Alongside the new duty to remove, the Home Secretary has the power to detain anyone who arrives in the UK without prior permission, including children, whether they are lone children or with their family. The government will also have the power to deploy the use of force on pregnant women and children. There is no time limit for how long someone can be detained for. Current time limits were introduced following serious harm that vulnerable people faced in detention centres. Under the new law, these vital safeguards would no longer apply. This in effect allows for the indefinite detention of children, including unaccompanied children.