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Uploaded: 25 June 2003

Desperately seeking safety

Locked behind barbed wire, subjected to intimate body searches: is this how Britain should treat children?

Diane Taylor
Friday June 27, 2003
The Guardian

For 13-year-old Newroz Ay, home is a small, bare room that she shares with her mother, two sisters and brother. Although she loves learning, lessons are just a couple of hours a day. She is allowed one hour a day in the open air in a yard surrounded by metal fences and barbed wire.

The yard has a yellow line painted on the ground, and if she accidentally crosses the line while playing, the guards bark at her to get back into the permitted area. Her only journeys beyond the barbed wire fence are to court hearings in a dark, airless van with small windows. At both ends of her journey she will be forced to undergo an intimate body search - inside her mouth and shoes, in her hair and in her clothes.

Newroz Ay has committed no crime, nor does she live in a dictatorship on another continent. She lives in the UK, in Dungavel, a former prison that is now an immigration detention centre - recently renamed removal centre - in Scotland. She is a Kurd seeking asylum and she is a statistic that the government partially obscures.

The Home Office refuses to release annual figures about the number of asylum-seeker children held in immigration detention centres - the equivalent of category B prisons. Nor will officials publish the length of time children are incarcerated. Only less incriminating snapshot figures are released - the number of children detained on a particular date. This figure hovers around the 50 mark and conceals the true extent of detention. The Ay children have been detained for an unprecedented 11 months and may well be locked up much longer; UK detention is arbitrary and without a time limit.

In October 2001 the government tightened existing immigration laws so that families with children could be detained under the same rules as adult asylum seekers. Detention is supposed to be for those asylum seekers at risk of absconding, but the charity Bail for Immigration Detainees says it has no evidence that families do abscond. They are more likely to be detained because they are easy to find, generally remaining in one place so their children can go to school.

The government boasts that its asylum policy is "fairer, faster and firmer". The Ays have only seen evidence of the "firmer" part. The children had a normal childhood, living in freedom in Gravesend, Kent, between 1999 and 2002 while waiting for their asylum claim to be processed. Detention and deportation procedures kicked in last summer.

The clinical psychiatrist, Zachary Steel, carried out a study of the mental health of children held in migrant detention centres in Australia for more than two years, and found alarming rates of mental illness. In his study, published last month, he observed that the children's mental health deteriorated sharply after entering detention. Newroz has been diagnosed with clinical depression and her hair falls out in clumps. She is sad and finds it difficult to eat. She repeats over and over: "Can you help us?"

When children in this country commit serious crimes there is, quite rightly, a rigorous, transparent process to protect them if they are incarcerated. But this rigour does not extend to asylum-seeker children.

In countries such as the US and Australia, which have notoriously tough policies on asylum, there are signs that the authorities are becoming increasingly uncomfortable about the detention of children. A court in Australia has ruled that child asylum seekers must no longer be indefinitely detained, while in the US - which puts shackles, leg irons and belly chains on detained children as young as seven for court appearances - conditions are being reviewed.

But here the government shows no sign of easing up. Guidance under the Children Act 1989 states that depriving children of their liberty must be a "last resort". But the government wants to extend the detention of children with the establishment of accommodation centres. There are plans to reopen Yarl's Wood, the detention centre damaged in a fire in February 2001, as a dedicated detention unit for women and children. Is this the kind of initiative the Home Office had in mind when drawing up its mission statement "to build a safe, just and tolerant society"?

Ironically for the Ay children, they did not experience the persecution and trauma that drove their parents out of Turkey. The children were born in Germany, where the Ays first sought refuge. They arrived in the UK after the German authorities threatened to deport them to Turkey. For the children it is the process of seeking a safe haven that has seriously damaged their emotional health.

Locking up vulnerable, traumatised children, to prove its mettle to people who are unlikely to vote for it anyway, is the most shameful thing this government has done. Newroz Ay is getting quieter and sadder and thinner. She yearns for the childhood she tasted in Gravesend. It is a matter of great urgency that she and all the other children in her situation are released without delay.


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