A few months ago, I interviewed Faith, a 12 year old girl who was detained with her mother – twice – at Yarls Wood immigration detention centre. Her story, which will form part of a new script about immigration detention and a new viral film iceandfire is making for the OutCry campaign, makes clear just how inhumane this practice is, how blatantly it contravenes the UK’s obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and why it must not continue. Most haunting of all was when Faith talked about the memory of seeing fear and sadness among the other children detained, one of whom had been detained for almost a year. Previous to being dawn raided and detained, Faith had not experienced violence and human suffering first-hand, something her mother had fought hard to protect her from. Faith has witnessed it now.
‘In detention, it’s the same as a prison like you see on T.V. – the appearance was sort of, it wasn’t nice. It was sort of something that you wouldn’t be happy to be in even if it was temporary. I was scared cause I didn’t know what was going to happen. I remember there was one little boy that had chicken pox. I thought that they would have sent him home but no, they moved the little boy with his mother to the singles area but the mother had to leave her other two children behind. The little girl was so sad when the mum left. She was crying her eyes out. It was really sad to see.’
And Faith is not alone. Accounts by other detained children are appearing more and more in news articles and reports, yet Immigration Minister Phil Woolas, Home Office Minister Meg Hillier and David Wood from the UK Border Agency (UKBA) are resolute in their convictions that this is an acceptable practice in controlling migration. It’s a wonder that they, as parents, could consider imprisoning innocent children as an acceptable practice. The recent hunger strikes by over 80 women at Yarls Wood are an indication of the intolerable conditions in which they are forced to live. Dame Anne Owners, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons has been consistently critical of the conditions of immigration detention. In her most recent inspection of Yarls Wood published March 2010, she provides further evidence. The report noted, among other things,
‘…a lack of attention to the needs of the majority population of women. Provision of activities for them was among the poorest seen in any removal centre. It had been inadequate at the last inspection, and had declined even further’…What was particularly troubling was that decisions to detain, and to maintain detention of, children and families did not appear to be fully informed by considerations of the welfare of children, nor could their detention be said to be either exceptional or necessary.’
Claims made by UKBA that people in detention are failed asylum seekers at the end of their asylum process is a clear misrepresentation. In 2009, 28% of appeals against initial UKBA decisions were won, meaning almost a 1/3 of supposed ‘failed asylum seekers’ were people in genuine need of protection. Last year over half of all children in detention were eventually released meaning that families who had genuine claims were among those detained.
As an Australian living under the Howard Government in the first half of the last decade, I was appalled that we were locking up children with their families in degrading conditions in centres in the middle of the desert. I imagined that the world would learn from the inhumanity of such a policy and that no country would want to suffer the international embarrassment that became Australia’s human rights record. Clearly the UK government is not concerned by such matters. The policy in Australia has largely been reversed through hard fought campaigns such as ChilOut along with a timely change of government in 2007 but not before the long term damage was done both to the families detained and the Australia’s reputation. As stated by the current Minister for Immigration Chris Evans:
‘Enormous damage has been done to our international reputation. On 14 occasions over the last decade, the United Nations Human Rights Committee made adverse findings against Australia in immigration detention cases.’
We must urge our government to end the policy of detention of children and families. At iceandfire, our Outreach project Actors for Human Rights is doing what it does best; providing a platform from which the voices behind the stereotypes can be heard. You can help us to get these voices heard by hosting a reading at your local theatre, church, school, pub or any venue where you can gather a group of 50 or more people. Support the campaigns OutCry and ECDN, lobby your MP’s before the election on where they stand on detaining children, sign the Sanctuary Pledge and above all, don’t lose sight of the difference you can make.
By Clea Langton, Regional Co-Ordinator, Actors for Human Rights