LONDON, U.K. — Amid growing controversy over the treatment of refugees, the British government plans to begin forcibly returning child asylum seekers to Afghanistan, possibly as early as August, according to government officials.
The United Kingdom Border Agency aims to initially deport 12 boys a month to a 4 million pound (nearly $6 million) “reintegration” center in Kabul, which would provide care for minors when their families cannot be found, a Home Office official said.
The deportation proposal represents a major shift in British policy; previously, the government was reluctant to return children out of fears for their safety.
Immigration Minister Damian Green said that the government was acting responsibly and that “the best interests of the young person is a primary consideration in the decision-making process.”
The new policy comes as the plight of refugees is already under intense scrutiny here. Earlier this month, a government report revealed that a Darfuri teenager had killed himself after being told he was to be deported to Sudan.
Last week, the United Nations announced that it would investigate allegations that Iraqi asylum seekers were beaten by British security officers during a flight back to Baghdad. In another blow to asylum seekers, the Refugee and Migrant Justice organization, which provides legal assistance to refugees, will close for lack of funding, the group announced this week.
About 3,000 unaccompanied minors, more than half of them from Afghanistan, sought asylum in Britain in 2009. The region around Birmingham has seen an almost 700 percent increase in the number of child refugees in the last six years. This has placed huge strains on city council budgets, already struggling with steep cuts and fewer resources, and it creates difficulties in finding care for the children, many of whom arrive traumatized.
Refugee organizations and human rights groups have criticized the government’s new policy.
“Returning migrant children to their country of origin just won’t work for every child,” said Simone Troller, children’s researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Before deporting vulnerable children to places like Afghanistan, governments need to make sure it is in the children’s best interests.”
These worries are shared by Gemma Juma, of the non-governmental Refugee Council. “The British government has an international obligation to vulnerable children and shouldn’t be using them as a scapegoat for the message that refugee children aren’t welcome in Britain,” she said. "It needs to remember that these are children first and asylum seekers second.”
The divisive issue was recently debated in the House of Lords. Roger Roberts, a Liberal Democrat, raised concerns that the move was a "backward" step, and suggested that it could be in violation of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. “This seems to be treating the most vulnerable children in among us in a very harsh way,” he said.
Britain rejects about 73 percent of all asylum applications.
Rejection evidently proved too much for one teenager, Abdullah Hagar Idris. On Christmas Day 2007, the 18-year-old Darfuri teenager took his own life after receiving news the night before of his pending deportation.
Abdullah had been serving a 12-month jail term for a minor offense and was due to be released in a few days. He had been excited about starting a new life in Britain after fleeing persecution in Darfur the year before, relatives said. But soon after receiving news of his imminent deportation to Sudan, he used his own sheets to hang himself, according to the police.
Like Abdullah, many of the children arriving in Britain seeking asylum have made harrowing journeys. Often they are fleeing persecution, their families broken apart by conflict, their parents killed.
Families are often forced to scrimp together money to pay a smuggler. Many refugees then travel into Europe in the back of truck containers or on rickety boats across the Mediterranean from Africa. The American and European press have reported numerous cases over the years of refugees kept in stifling, cramped conditions for long periods of time during which some die of suffocation.
The government has said that sending children back will discourage others from making similar journeys.
Troller, from Human Rights Watch, argues that this is not always the case. “If a child is sent back to somewhere where it does not feel safe and happy, it will try and leave again, risking its life in another horrific journey to get back to Europe,” she said.
After more than 30 years of war, the risks to children in Afghanistan are perhaps among the greatest anywhere. Human Rights Watch says that instead of spending 4 million pounds on a reintegration center, the money would be better used to help the Afghanistan government establish child protection programs.