Friday, 19 September 2008

A necessary act far too long in the making

Seventeen years after it first appeared, the British government is at last to sign the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, according to BBC News. At first, one might have cause to wonder what has taken the government so long to sign such a progressive, and necessary, agreement on protections for children. Once put into the context of the main thrust of British political discourse, however, it all soon becomes clear. As the BBC report explains:
The UK has for the past 17 years retained an opt-out allowing child migrants and asylum seekers to be locked up without judicial scrutiny.


The opt-out has meant the "best interest" rule does not apply to immigrant children in the UK and makes it easier for officials to lock them up, sometimes for weeks or months, pending planned deportation.

The story goes on to say that though the new rules will "force the UK Border Agency to put migrant children's welfare first" in deportation decisions, which any civilised person can see as the more humane course of action, the government has "argued that immigration control should take priority over signing the convention" since 1991. Moreover, it did not come to the decision to sign because it realised how callous this policy was, but only because "ministers became convinced it would not become a loop-hole which frustrates effective immigration control."

It took a while before I could let this sink in. The Government turnaround was not inspired by the recent revelation that we detain 2,000 refugee children per year, and the accompanying outcry from refugee and children's charities. Just as it remained unmoved by Save the Children's legal challenge against the barring of refugee children from attending mainstream schools in 2003, and the reports that children of asylum seekers were being born in jail and locked in detention centres. No, it had to be sure that this would not become a "loop-hole" in immigration law or, more accurately, that there was minimal risk of the right-wing press attacking them for being "soft."

That the government would worry about such a thing over and above the welfare of the most wretched and desperate children in the country, and that the media would attack a law protecting children on the grounds of hypothetical abuse by "bogus" asylum seekers is a damning indictment of the callous right-wing populism of both parties.