The Royal Colleges of Paediatrics and Child Health, GPs and Psychiatrists, as well as the UK Faculty of Public Health, have said detention of children and their families in removal centres for failed asylum seekers causes “significant harm” and should be ended without delay.

In the absence of an immediate end to the detention of children, the royal colleges and the UK Faculty of Public Health said the commissioning of healthcare in the removal centres should be transferred from the Home Office to the NHS.

Children in such circumstances were already among the most vulnerable in the UK and the harmful effects of arrest and detention only added to their difficulties, they said.

Dr Philip Collins, a forensic adolescent psychiatrist at South London and Maudsley Foundation Trust, told a news conference that children of asylum seekers were “uniquely at risk” of “very high levels” of mental health problems.

He said: “The harsh reality about this country’s immigration policy is that we are significantly damaging the mental health of many of the children and young people who end up, through no fault of their own, being detained in a prison-like environment by the UK Border Agency.”

Professor Cornelius Katona, a consultant psychiatrist at Kent and Medway Mental Health Partnership Trust, said in many instances, the way in which children were placed in the centres was “very traumatic”.

“That experience of detention has re-awakened the experience of previous trauma in the country or countries from which they came,” he added.

Currently around 1,000 children a year, mainly from families seeking asylum, are held in such centres for around two weeks on average, with some held for longer.