Yesterday, on World Refugee Day, Donald Trump did a complete about turn on his ‘tough’ ‘zero tolerance’ immigration policy after images of US border officials separating children from their parents and locking them in wire cages caused outrage the world over.
Melania Trump had come out against her husband and said ‘she hates to see’ children being separated from their parents as they try to enter America. She wasn’t the only one. Former First Lady Laura Bush has called the policy ‘immoral’. Theresa May has called the pictures ‘disturbing’ and this week, social media on both sides of the Atlantic has been awash with images of hundreds of children of immigrants being torn away from their parents.
The images are heart-breaking. The stories are heart-breaking. The audio of children crying and asking for their parents is heart-breaking. The statistics are shocking: over a six-week period at least 2,000 children have been separated from their parents. Some of them were as young as 3 months old.
What made Trump decide to sign an executive order undoing family separation at the borders of his country? Did Melania convince him? Was it Ivanka? Did he decide that World Refugee Day was a good day for a photo opportunity at which he could utter the words? ‘we’re looking to keep families together. Very important’ in one breath before reaffirming how ‘tough’ he was on immigration because he would still prosecute people trying to cross America’s borders as criminals in the next? Had the sheer weight of public moral outrage been keeping him up this week? Or, did Kim Kardashian drop the President a WhatsApp imploring him to change his tune?
We may never know. It’s sort of like how we’ll never understand why extremely conservative people are against abortion because they are pro the rights of unborn children but seemingly completely fine with voting against admitting living and breathing child refugees into their country (cough Jacob Rees Mogg). One of life’s great mysteries, I guess.
What we do know is this: Trump’s policy was indefensible. Hell, even he didn’t like it. At the signing of his executive order he even said, ‘I didn’t like the sight, or the feeling of families being separated’. In some ways, Trump has played a blinder here – he talked a tough game to get elected but knew exactly when to portray himself as compassionate.
If there has been a positive upshot to Trump’s presidency it has to be that it has inspired people to take more of an interested in politics and express outrage. He might not be our President but, still, people based in Britain engage with what he’s doing, criticise him and march against him.
The calling out of his inhumane child cruelty this week is very much an example of that. But, sometimes do we do we focus on America at the expense of acknowledging what’s going on in our own country? After all, Trump isn’t the first and he certainly won’t be the last politician who has played politics with the lives of vulnerable people in order to look ‘strong and stable’.
We don’t detain immigrant or refugee children separately to their parents in Britain, thankfully. In fact, in 2011 the Coalition government pledged to end child detention and quietly closed Cedars, a facility where children were detained alongside their parents.
However, despite this, as recently as 2015 an investigation found that UK border officials had sent teenagers as young as 14 straight to detention centres. At the same time, the Refugee Council published a report which said that 127 minors had been found detained as adults in UK detention centres since the pledge was made to stop the practice.
We don’t yet have figures for child detention in 2017, but in 2015 163 children were detained by the Home Office. That then number fell by half in 2016.
So, while we may not see cruel border separations or wire cages full of innocent children in Britain, our country’s immigration policies are hardly beyond criticism.
A few months ago, a hunger strike at Yarl’s Wood made headlines. The attention given to detained women as they refused to eat shone a light on something that has been going on for years.
Many of the women detained at Yarl’s Wood and other so-called ‘immigration removal centres’ like it around the country, have committed no crime. And yet, they have their freedom taken away. There are reports of them being taken to hospital appointments in handcuffs, some are separated from their loved ones and they are forced to wait in an anxious limbo knowing that they could be woken up and told they’re being put on a plane with little or no warning.
Britain is the only EU member state which has no time limit on how long asylum seekers can be detained. In this country people can, effectively, be held indefinitely despite the fact that the name ‘Immigration Removal Centre’ implies that detention is temporary.
Other countries don’t feel the need to detain and imprison asylum seekers, so why do we? Belgium, for example, runs ‘return houses’ for asylum seeker families, as well as those awaiting return to other nations. Staff are on hand to advise and prepare families for different outcomes – being granted asylum or returned. In Canada asylum seekers are not detained – fewer than 4% abscond and this system has been found to be no less than 93% cheaper than the cost of detention.
It's right that we are all outraged by Trump. What other possible emotional response is there? The problem is that our outrage so often is fleeting, and scandals are only sustained short term. Another World Refugee Day has come and gone, just like the coverage of Yarl’s Wood earlier this year came and went.
What happens when we stop paying attention? Cruel policies continue to happen out of sight or, perhaps in the case of Yarl’s Wood, in plain sight depending on how you choose to see it.