There has never been a better time to hold politicians to a pledge to end the detention of children in immigration centers, according to an organizer of a grass-roots movement calling for those seeking asylum in Great Britain.

A “perfect storm” of circumstances – the approaching election in Great Britain, the likelihood of a high turnover of members of Parliament, and growing evidence showing the harmful effects on children – could see the beginning of the end of the controversial practice. That’s the view of those affiliated with the grass-roots movement, Citizens for Sanctuary. Currently, around 1,000 children are locked up each year at U.K. Border Agency centers, such as Yarl’s Wood.

The policy has received widespread criticism from all corners of society, including the Baptist Union of Great Britain, with medical studies increasingly showing damage to the children held.

Jonathan Cox, lead organizer of Citizens for Sanctuary, said now is the time to provide the impetus to change. “It’s the one moment in the electoral cycle when we as citizens have some power,” he said.

“We have to make our politicians and prospective MPs (members of Parliament) make a certain level of commitment otherwise our bargaining power is much weaker for later.”

Citizens for Sanctuary has trained civil society leaders – many from faith communities – in more than 150 battleground constituencies across the country in community-organizing techniques.

“There is also a crescendo of support calling for an end to this,” Cox said. “We will never have a better opportunity than this in a generation. It’s an absolutely pivotal moment.”

Cox says the community-organizing techniques will equip people to negotiate with their prospective Parliamentary candidates and persuade them to sign up to the Sanctuary Pledge, which calls on candidates to commit to supporting policies that end the detention of children and families for immigration purposes. They will then hold the winning candidate to account at local meetings six months after the election.

“No candidate is going to publicly support the detention of children,” Cox said. “At this time the candidates are serving you. It’s so important they realize the level of opposition to the practice.”

As well as working at the grass-roots level, Citizens for Sanctuary is also targeting political leaders.

Recently, representatives from 18 religious and civil society organizations in the United Kingdom, including the Rev. Jonathan Edwards, general secretary of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, joined refugees and former child detainees in Westminster to call on the Home Secretary and his opposition counterparts to back the Sanctuary Pledge campaign.

The leaders sent letters to the Home Secretary and the principal spokespeople on home affairs in the other mainstream political parties, asking to outline what steps their parties would take to reduce and ultimately end the detention of children and families.

It also requests that they meet a delegation of leaders from the Sanctuary Pledge campaign to discuss practical steps that can be taken to end child detention following the election.

“There is overwhelming evidence that holding children in detention centers is damaging to their physical and emotional well-being,” Edwards said. “Children are particularly vulnerable, and no matter where they are from, we all have a duty to protect them from harm.”

Last year the medical profession said the practice of child detention should end “without delay.”

In February, the children’s commissioner published an investigation stating that Yarl’s Wood was still distressing and harmful for children despite some improvements.

And recently, the chief inspector of prisons, Dame Anne Owers, published another report critical of the practice.

Home Office minister Meg Hillier, during an interview for the BBC Daily Politics show, said while it is regrettable children were locked up, they were there because their families had refused to leave voluntarily.

She also stated that if the government stopped locking up asylum-seekers and their children, then the price of trafficked children would rise, putting more children at risk of trafficking.

This article appeared originally in The Baptist Times of Great Britain.

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