After Trump’s child detention chaos, we must look more closely at Britain’s policies

NELMA was invited to write an article for the Big Issue as part of the anti-Trump protests in the UK this past week. Here is a longer version of the article which was printed on July 10, 2018.

Donald Trump’s first presidential visit to the UK on July 13th is likely to be met by a hail of righteous protest. The official Stop Trump campaign is calling on activists nationwide to stage a ‘carnival of resistance’ to show the 45th president he is unwelcome in a diverse and progressive twenty-first century Britain. Trump’s right-wing populism and attention-seeking public persona and have made him the focal point of left-liberal indignation not just in the US, but across the Global North, with the pull of anti-Trumpism reflected in the Together Against Trump groups that have sprung up in cities across the UK ahead of his visit.

Protesting Trump is self-evidently a good thing. But the intensely personalised focus of British anti-Trumpism can also provoke unease, particularly in activists working to draw attention to the inequities of UK government policy around ‘race’ and migration. If parochialism is a dangerous temptation in grassroots politics, turning the American new right into an all-eclipsing Great Satan would surely be equally counterproductive. With only so much energy and political oxygen to go round, there’s a case for saying UK campaigners need to spend less time on Trump and more time fighting the power closer to home.

Immigration policy is a case in point. Images of children held in cages on the Mexico-US border, crying for parents detained or deported by American border police, have met with justifiable outrage over the past month. Amnesty International called the forcible separation of over 2000 children from their parents ‘nothing short of torture’ . An ‘act of state terrorism against children’, wrote Henry Giroux, noting that migrant children are being held ‘hostage’ to scare prospective migrants and to placate Trump’s xenophobic  political base.

Watching the news and social media, you’d be forgiven for thinking that such callous treatment of child migrants could only happen in Trump’s America. But the UK’s record on similar issues is little short of scandalous. Trump’s policy on the Mexico border employs the same rhetoric of deterrence, and the same casual scapegoating, that has powered Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’, with the UK also making migrant children pay the price of populist opportunism.

The ongoing plight of the migrant children in Calais, increasingly forgotten by a novelty-driven news cycle, is to a large extent the creation of UK government policy. With legal routes to asylum closed off by the Home Office, child migrants are forced to live rough in northern France or to attempt dangerous crossings with the help of smugglers. The closure of the Dubs scheme after bringing only 480 children to the UK exemplifies Britain’s insouciance towards separated child migrants.

Once in the UK, it is illegal for lone children to be locked up in immigration detention for more than 24 hours. But in practice the Home Office does so regularly. In the context of a ‘culture of disbelief’, asylum-seeking children are age-assessed as adults and unlawfully detained, sometimes for months.

It’s not just Trump’s USA that breaks up migrant families by locking up parents. Hundreds of parents in the UK are detained every year without time limit. Children are placed in local authority care during their parent’s detention, and even their deportation.

A 2013 report by Bail for Immigration Detainees  showed that children lost weight, had nightmares, suffered from insomnia, and cried frequently during their parents’ time in immigration detention. Parents described profound grief at being separated from their children, with some saying they considered taking their own lives during their detention.

Detention is not the only policy choice which break up migrant families. London local authorities have been known to threaten to take children into care simply because their parents are homeless and have the wrong papers. In 2017 a Guardian video exposed how families were forced to sleep on buses after being denied help from social services because of their immigration status. NELMA (North East London Migrant Action), works to challenge these and similar injustices towards destitute migrant families.

After the Windrush scandal, there is increasing awareness of the pernicious effects of the ‘hostile environment’. But there remains little outcry about policies that routinely drive migrant parents and their children into homelessness and poverty. Thousands of children face destitution every year because their carers are denied essential benefits on the basis of their immigration status. Such children are also excluded from free school meals and other key welfare provisions. Either British-born or on the path to settlement, these children are here to stay. Yet the prohibitive cost of registration as a British citizen means their rights continue to be denied.

Children should never be separated from parents because of immigration status. But nor should young people from migrant backgrounds live as second-class citizens, as they do in the UK in 2018. The use of children as collateral in debates about borders must stop, and, since, children cannot survive independently of those who care for them, any effort to support child migrants demands wholesale reform of Britain’s draconian and increasingly privatised border regime.

Anti-Trumpism is a good thing, but it will be a much better thing if we can seize the opportunity to further the struggle against anti-migrant nationalism over here as well as over there.

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