On Wednesday 21st July at Prime Minister's Questions, Nick Clegg announced the end of child detention at Yarl's Wood immigration removal centre.
This is fantastic news - and a major step forward towards ending child detention altogether. Mr Clegg promised a fuller statement in the near future which would offer more details.
It is less than a year since Canon Jim Rosenthal and Canon Nick Sagovsky were infamously turned away from Yarl's Wood when trying to deliver gifts for the kids dressed as St Nicholas. Now it seems likely that this Christmas there will be no children locked up in Yarl's Wood, or anywhere else for that matter.
Don't forget that you and people like you made this happen: ordinary citizens who persuaded your prospective parliamentary candidates to sign the Sanctuary Pledge, and who won the commitment to end child detention from Nick Clegg, and to set up a working group to advise on alternatives from David Cameron, at the CITIZENS UK Assembly on May 3rd. That was evident in the fact that the MP who asked the question at PMQs, Dr Julian Huppert, was one of sixty MPs who signed the Sanctuary Pledge. He was convinced to do so by a hard-working CITIZENS for Sanctuary team in Cambridge.
Since then leaders from CITIZENS UK have played a key role in the working group set up to advise on alternatives, and have helped to ensure that the coalition government sticks to its promise to end the detention of children for immigration purposes.
Much of the hard work of finding humane and robust alternatives to child detention is still to be done, but thank you for supporting the Sanctuary Pledge campaign thus far. And for now let's celebrate this important step, tell our friends the story of how organised citizens made this happen, and count our blessings that the Immigration Minister will not have to dress up as St Nick this year!
Describing Citizens UK as "one of the most effective lobbying organisations ever", the immigration minister, Damian Green, last night pledged that there would be no more children of families seeking sanctuary in immigration centres by the end of the summer, and certainly by Christmas.
He said that "weeks, rather than months" after a government review of detention ends on 1 June "we will be able to announce the solution and then we will have got to the point where children are not detained for immigration purposes in the UK".
"This will be a better country when we don't detain children for immigration purposes", he said, adding: "There is no getting away from the fact that if you are a civilised decent human being the sight of young children locked up behind bars should make you feel profoundly uneasy."
Citizens for Sanctuary is campaigning for the implementation of 180 reforms to the asylum system recommended by the Independent Asylum Commission, which was appointed by Citizens UK. Ending child detention has been key to the campaign's efforts to secure a more humane and just system of receiving people seeking sanctuary.
The coalition government's commitment to ending the detention of children for immigration purposes was the result of intense lobbying by the Citizens for Sanctuary "Sanctuary Pledge" campaign, which was backed byb 18 national organisations representing 7 million people. They include the major Christian Churches, as well as the Muslim Council of Britain, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and others.
In January community leaders were trained by Citizens for Sanctuary in 15 areas across the UK, while 500 champions of community organising organised teams of people in 162 key constituencies. Visits were organised to the main detention centre in Bedfordshire at Yarl's Wood. The campaign was an unprecedented attempt to change minds and hearts on the issue.
Leaders and organisers of the Citizens for Sanctuary campaign met key ministers, shadow ministers and representatives from the UK Borders Agency in the run-up to the general election to explore options for ending child detention.
The breakthrough came at the 3 May Citizens UK General Election assembly, when the future prime minister and deputy prime ministers pledged to end the practice and to include Citizens UK in the working party to find alternatives.
Citizens UK is having a major input into the Government's review over the next six weeks.
Mr Green also congratulated Citizens for Sanctuary campaigners for securing a more humane reception centre at the immigration processing centre at Lunar House in Croydon."I'm pleased to say that when I went there last week it now looks like an entry point for human beings rather than cattle. So that's one significant thing you chalked up even before the issue of children in detention," he told the gathering at Westminster Abbey.
He said it was important to separate the issue of sanctuary from that of immigration, to prevent extremist parties claiming that they represent the mass of British people. He said the Government were also carrying out "a general review of the asylum system ... to ensure that decisions are right first time, because much of the misery in the current system, as many people here will know, is caused by the sheer length of time it takes time to come to a decision. It's not good for the individual asylum seeker, but it's also not good for the taxpayer, and it's not good for the general confidence in the system."
He praised Citizens for Sanctuary for representing what he called a "sensible and humane" view of asylum policy.
"The mass of the British people are perfectly sensible and humane on this subject and their views need representing", he said, adding: "Citizens for Sanctuary reflects many of those views and as I said at the start, represents them very, very successfully. I think you're a tremendously successful lobbying group and you should all congratulate yourselves and pat yourselves on the back this evening."
Referring to widespread press coverage at Christmas last year over the refusal by Yarl's Wood to allow Citizens for Sanctuary leaders to give Christmas presents to the children locked inside, Neil Jameson, Citizens UK executive director (left in picture below), asked Mr Green if he could confirm there would be no children there by next Christmas.
"There should be no need for anyone to dress up as Father Christmas this Christmas at Yarl's Wood this year," the minister joked. "If anyone has to, I will."
A letter yesterday from the prime minister, David Cameron, to Neil Jameson, chief executive of Citizens UK, thanking him for the 3 May General Election assembly.
Thank you very much for welcoming me to speak at the Citizens UK / London Citizens general election event during the recent campaign. This was a great opportunity and an incredible event. Please pass on my thanks to your team for their hard work in organising the day. I wish you every success in the future.
On the pledge to end the detention of children for asylum purposes, we have delivered as we promised.
- Summer 2008: Independent Asylum Commission (IAC) recommends an end to child detention
- January 2009: CITIZENS for Sanctuary launches as a CITIZENS UK campaign to use community organsing to implement the IAC's recommendations
- August 2009: CITIZENS for Sanctuary persuades leading faith organisations to support a campaign in the run-up to the election calling for an end to child detention.
- September 2009: CITIZENS for Sanctuary launches the Sanctuary Pledge campaign at the Lib Dem, Labour and Conservative party conferences. After a presentation on the issues and an emotional testimony by a Zimbabwean leader, Lib Dem MPs and advisers agree to support the Pledge. One of Nick Clegg's advisers tells us: "Your intervention has influenced the Lib Dem manifesto - we will call for an end to child detention."
- December 2009: Canon Nick Sagovsky and 'St Nicholas' are turned away from Yarl's Wood detention centre when attempting to deliver gifts to the children there. The story makes national news and raises awareness of the Sanctuary Pledge. Soon after, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg writes to Gordon Brown calling for an end to child detention.
- January 2010: CITIZENS for Sanctuary leaders and organisers contact the immigration spokespeople of each party and inform them about the Sanctuary Pledge. The Lib Dems, Greens, Plaid Cymru and Scottish National Party agree to support the Pledge.
- January-March 2010: CITIZENS for Sanctuary community organisers train groups of community leaders in 15 locations across the UK in how to build powerful coalitions and negotiate effectively with their local parliamentary candidates. Over 500 people are trained, and begin to approach their candidates.
- March 2010: Child Detention Minister, Meg Hillier, meets with Barbara Nalumu, Lorin Sulaiman and organisers from CITIZENS for Sanctuary to explore options to reduce child detention. At a further meeting there is a strong commitment to reduce child detention, but no clear action plan for taking this forward.
- March 2010: Leaders of the 18 partner organisations formally launch the Sanctuary Pledge at the Mothers' Union HQ in Westminster, and write to the Home Secretary and his opposition equivalents, seeking their response.
- March 2010: CITIZENS for Sanctuary leaders successfully deliver Easter eggs to the children detained at Yarl's Wood.
- April 2010: The Lib Dem, Green, Plaid Cymru and Scottish National Party manifestos all contain commitments to ending child detention as a result of lobbying by CITIZENS for Sanctuary.
- April 2010: CITIZENS for Sanctuary leaders meet with their Prospective Parliamentary Candidates and persuade many candidates from all the mainstream parties to back the Sanctuary Pledge.
- April 2010: Members of London Citizens meet with Labour's Meg Hillier to clarify the party's position on child detention. She agrees to set up a working group to reduce, and ultimately end, the detention of children, and promises that CITIZENS UK will be represented on that group.
- May 2010: Over 300 CITIZENS for Sanctuary leaders from across the UK attend the CITIZENS UK Assembly of 2,500 people where Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg and David Cameron are asked to commit to ending child detention. Nick Clegg is unequivocal, David Cameron describes the practice as "unacceptable" and promises to set up a working group to look into the issue, Gordon Brown also commits to a working group. Both agree that CITIZENS UK will play a key role in the working group. There is now a cross-party consensus on the issue. All of the leaders agree to meet with CITIZENS UK at least once a year to be held to account for their promises.
- May 2010: Gordon Brown writes a letter announcing his endorsement for the Sanctuary Pledge and promising to encourage other candidates to sign.
- May 2010: The election result is indecisive. What we do know is that at least 60 of those elected from all of the major parties have personal relationships with CITIZENS for Sanctuary teams in their constituencies, signed the Sanctuary Pledge, and agreed to meet with them six months later to be held to account for progress they have made in implementing the Pledge.
- May 2010: David Cameron and Nick Clegg agree a coalition between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems. Thanks to the lobbying of the Lib Dems, the coalition commits to ending the detention of children for the purposes of immigration control.
Obviously the battle is not won until every child is out of detention. But what is clear from this potted history of the campaign is that community organising works! If it wasn't for the power of citizens who lobbied hard at both local and national level, striking relationships with power players in all of the main parties, putting the issue on the Lib Dem agenda at party conference last year, getting it included in four manifestos, gaining Conservative acquiescence at the CITIZENS UK assembly, and pushing Labour to endorse the Sanctuary Pledge - then history would not have turned out like this.
So well done to those committed, thoughtful citizens who really struggled hard to make the Sanctuary Pledge campaign a success. You just made history.