In 2011, there were nearly 1,000 children each year being held in immigration detention centres for, on average, 16 days, but sometimes up to 61 days. Reetha Suppiah’s two sons, aged 11 and 1 and Sakinat Bello’s 2-year-old daughter were just three of those kids.
Reetha and her sons were woken up early one morning by police officers banging on their door. They had to pack up their things and weren’t allowed to call a lawyer before they were taken into detention in a van with caged windows for 17 days. Much the same happened to Sakinat Bello and her daughter, although they were released after 12 days. The families brought proceedings against the Secretary of State for the Home Department for unlawful detention and for breaches of their human rights. Their main argument was that the Secretary of State’s policy on detaining families with children was unlawful because it could not lawfully be operated in practice.
The judge found that no one could seriously dispute that detention could cause significant and sometimes long-lasting harm to children. Most importantly, he found that the families’ detention was not justified, and there was no evidence that the Secretary of State had complied with her duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of the children as a primary consideration, making their detention unlawful. Plus, she had breached her own policy, which the judge interpreted to mean that detention of families with children should only be allowed in exceptional circumstances. For those reasons, the families’ rights to liberty and security, and family and private life had been breached.
The sting in the tail was that the judge said that the Secretary of State’s policy was lawful. Nonetheless, cases like this led to the government to commit to ending child detention altogether.