Let’s make the end of child detention herald a humane and evidence-based approach to asylum

Clare Sambrook and Esmé Madill, coordinators of End Child Detention Now, on the crucial next stage of the campaign.

When the new government said, ‘We will end the detention of children for immigration purposes,’ some people proclaimed victory. But, as the families locked up in Yarl’s Wood pointed out in a letter published in the Observer, ‘we are still here in the detention centre’.

Immigration minister Damian Green could have halted the dawn raids and detentions that damage children so badly, released the families. Instead he announced a wide-ranging review that may be run by the very Home Office officials who misrepresented the medical evidence of harm in order to defend and sustain this shameful policy.

Representing the interests of asylum families may be charities hand-picked by the Home Office.

Along with many others we at End Child Detention Now, the citizens’ campaign that has worked to raise the profile of child detention through a blast of press coverage, parliamentary lobbying, public letters, vigils and an on-line petition, want the families released now. That’s not a radical position. Malcolm Stevens, a former government adviser writing in the Daily Telegraph, asserted: ‘Children must be removed urgently from wherever their safety and welfare is at risk. As this includes Yarl's Wood, it must be closed at once.’

Families don’t abscond. The UK Border Agency admitted that, albeit accidentally when executive Dave Wood told a parliamentary committee last year the families should be locked up anyway to deter others from coming here.

The medical evidence of harm is ‘incontrovertible’ according to Professor Sir Al Aysnley-Green, writing in The Guardian under the headline:  ‘Speedy end to child detention is needed.’

‘We must be vigilant and monitor the impact of the new policy,’ said Aynsley-Green, the eminent paediatrician who, as Children’s Commissioner, did more than any single person to highlight the horror and injustice of these children’s lived experience. ‘We cannot remove one set of injustices only to have them replaced by new ones.’

‘Until I know that any alternative will be good enough for my children, I’m not celebrating at all,’ said Heather Jones, coordinator of the Yarl’s Wood Befrienders who support vulnerable, frightened families and lone women imprisoned at the notorious Bedfordshire detention centre.

Our citizens’ campaign grew from one such family’s experience. Ali’s mum’s family, Kurdish and politically active, had been persecuted by the Turkish state, her 19 year old cousin shot dead. Herself imprisoned and abused, Ali’s mum claimed asylum here.

First they came for Ali’s dad. Big uniformed men bundled him off for eight months. Then they snatched Ali’s mother, leaving him parentless for four days. Then they took Ali.

This wasn’t Turkey. It was Britain. Ali wasn’t a dangerous criminal. He was a two year old.

The 31st lawyer we called agreed to represent them, secured their release and permission to stay. There had been no reason to detain them.

Fresh from her 28-day ordeal in Yarl’s Wood, Ali’s mother sat on the sofa, catatonic. Our country had done this. We felt shame, outrage.

We persuaded Chris Mullin MP to table an early day motion urging the government to stop detaining children. Stealing time from our normal lives — our campaign is unfunded — last October we contacted MPs, journalists, every single person we knew, using Mullin’s motion and a national online petition to focus minds on the urgent need to End Child Detention Now.

Most people, even MPs and journalists, had no idea about the dawn raids and the child inmates, the needlessness and the terrible harm. But once they knew, decent people were appalled and wanted to stop it. That first fortnight, 400 of them, including Emma Thompson, Colin and Livia Firth, signed the petition.

Henry Porter opened a stinging attack in the Observer recalling Tom Paine — ‘Just because we have got into the habit of ignoring something that is wrong doesn't mean it becomes right’ — on the very morning that, in Tinsley House Removal Centre, a little girl who had been locked up, released, sent home, then forcibly locked up again, found it all too much and tried to strangle herself.

When Lorek et al — published in Child Abuse & Neglect — found that children in Yarl’s Wood suffered from confusion, fear, sleep problems, headaches, abdominal pain, severe emotional and behavioural problems, we circulated the study to journalists, doctors and parliamentarians. Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg agreed to ask all his MPs to sign Mullin’s motion. And they did.

Our letter in the Guardian, signed by dozens of leading novelists, commended the doctors’ research for exposing ‘the deceit in UK Border Agency claims that treating children with care and compassion is a priority’.

We combined forces with Medical Justice, with families who had experienced detention, with Positive Action in Housing, Shpresa Programme and hundreds of refugees from every Albanian speaking country. At schools across London, children created handprints and letters asking the Prime Minister to stop locking up children like them.

In December, when leading medical Royal Colleges condemned the detention policy, we chipped in a supportive letter in the Observer, signed by Quentin Blake, Michael Bond, Carol Ann Duffy, Michael Rosen, Jacqueline Wilson and sixty other leading children’s authors.

With help from Natasha Walter of Women for Refugee Women, signatories Beverley Naidoo —once a young prisoner of South Africa’s apartheid regime — and illustrator Karin Littlewood performed a workshop for children inside Yarl’s Wood. Beverley’s chilling account in the Guardian provoked 700 people to sign the petition.

Michael Bond kindly forwarded a comment from Paddington Bear —  ‘Mrs. Bird, who looks after the Browns, says if she had her way she would set the children free and lock up a few politicians in their place to see how they liked it!’ — that commanded a page in the Independent soon after the Rev Professor Nicholas Sagovsky, made his inspired visit with Santa Claus to Yarl’s Wood.

We sensed the tide turning when Nick Clegg accusing Brown of ‘moral cowardice’ got a positive Daily Mail page, headlined: ‘Brown attacked for not scrapping asylum policy that leaves hundreds of children behind bars at Christmas.’

Our articles and letters appeared in the Guardian, Independent, Big Issue in the North, Community Care, local newspapers in Yorkshire and Cumbria. The 3000th person signed online. One frozen December day, children and young people from Shpresa Programme, and Paddington Bear, petitioned Number 10 Downing Street. More than 200 people gathered outside a Dagenham church holding candles for the children behind razor wire.

When Sir Al Aynsley-Green released his February report on Yarl’s Wood, our Guardian comment exposed Home Office attempts to misrepresent his findings. In the Daily Telegraph leading church people supported his call to end the detention policy: ‘Our faith calls us to look particularly to the needs of the most vulnerable in our community’.

In the Guardian dozens of prominent artists including Sir Nicholas Hytner, Joanna Lumley, and Lenny Henry asserted that, ‘disregard for children's welfare . . . underpins the very existence of the government's detention policy’, while Dr Edie Friedman, rabbis and social action groups asked: ‘How many more appalling medical reports about the psychological damage to children in detention must we read before the Border Agency puts an end to this shameful and inhumane practice?’

On the Daily Politics Programme, Michael Morpurgo, outside Yarl’s Wood, declared, ‘Even our worst condemned criminals do not have their children dragged into jail with them.’

Questions were asked in the Lords, the Commons and the Scottish Parliament. Mullin’s motion drew support from 121 MPs. Just one Tory signed, but many privately confessed their disgust at the policy. The public petition surged towards 5000. More than 525 doctors have signed the Medical Justice petition.

The truth — that there is no excuse for detaining families who are at no risk of absconding in conditions known to harm their mental health — has got its shoes on and has run all the way to Westminster. We must not let it falter now. This final stage requires a massive effort from all the many groups who have fought so well, and also from powerful charities who have yet to use their muscle.

On Sundays at our York refugee drop-in, brave, beautiful, talented, funny children make handprints for the campaign, cards for Mothers’ Day, theatre for Refugee Week. Real children, they live and breathe, it falls to all of us adults to protect them. Leaders of the major children charities, please, summon the rage and passion and courage of your founders, speak up, speak out and make sure the politicians really do end child detention now.