Amy Taylor reports on the plight of asylum-seeker
children removed from the UK and how their schoolfriends are
rallying to their cause. That source of support, though, may be
about to end.
Familiar? Probably not. But for hundreds of asylum-seeker
children whose claims have failed it is the first stage in their
removal from the UK with their families. They may be forbidden to
go to the toilet before they leave and have no chance to say
goodbye to their friends.
Many people are waking up to the harsh reality of the asylum
removal process and rejecting the negative stereotype of asylum
seekers portrayed in some parts of the media.
As the government increases the number of removals, many
communities are rising up to challenge what is happening to friends
One of the strongest sources of this campaigning has been from
children. Pupils throughout the country have been bombarding the
Home Office with e-mails, faxing airlines, and signing petitions
demanding their schoolfriends be allowed to stay. Teachers have
been supporting campaigns, often objecting to the way the removal
of children is carried out.
Kathleen Marshall, Scotland’s children’s commissioner, has been
contacted by several head teachers who have had pupils removed from
schools. They told her the experience affected the whole school and
the children’s friends and other asylum-seeker children were left
She says: “It is unacceptable that we have procedures that inspire
fear in the hearts of innocent children. They shouldn’t pay the
price for our desire to control immigration.”
The Home Office says visits by police and immigration officers to
pick up a family can last several hours, during which time the
family may be able to have breakfast and pack. It says immigration
officers will try to identify the “optimal time” to arrive to avoid
disruption, and denies family members are prevented from going to
The Home Office argues that families cannot be told the date of
their removal as it would make it easier for those who choose to
But Marshall says that, in some cases, the harm to children caused
by being taken away suddenly outweighs this risk. She believes a
lot could be done to make the removal process more humane.
Nora McKenna, children’s education policy adviser at the Refugee
Council, questions how likely families are to abscond. “Single
people? Possibly. But a family with children? It would be very
difficult,” she says.
The experience of the Kachepa family may be typical.
One Sunday at 7am, 12 immigration officers surrounded the family
home in Weymouth, Dorset. Verah Kachepa and her children, Natasha,
20, Alex, 17, Anthony, 16, and Upile, 10, were given half an hour
to collect their belongings before they would be taken away.
Kachepa says she was forbidden from talking to any of her children
and they were not allowed to go to her bedroom while she was
packing. She was also refused permission to speak to a friend by
phone. “They were telling me to hurry up but in between they were
taking pictures and asking questions of me,” she says.
“They don’t treat us as human beings. I know that all those people
that come here must have families, but the way they treated my
children it’s like they don’t have them. I don’t want anybody to go
through what I have been through.”
Kachepa brought her family from Malawi in January 2001 to join her
husband, Alex, who had been given a work permit as a pharmacist.
Six months later, Alex visited Malawi for what he said would be two
weeks but never returned and began living with the niece of the
country’s former dictator, Hastings Banda.
Kachepa claimed asylum because she feared for her and her
children’s lives if they returned because of the power wielded by
the niece’s family. She says her husband also used to physically
But her asylum claim failed and the immigration officers arrived at
the Kachepa home on 13 March. They were taken to Yarl’s Wood
removal centre in Bedfordshire but the Home Office has since
decided to let them stay until the end of July so the children can
finish the school year. Kachepa feels that this concession is the
result of the campaigning by local people. But cynics may point out
that Weymouth lies in Dorset South, a key Labour marginal. The
local Conservative candidate recently caused a furore when he
doctored a picture in which he was campaigning on behalf of the
Tim Balmforth, head teacher of All Saints school in Weymouth, which
Anthony attended, says his pupils were upset when the teenager was
removed. “It’s not dissimilar to having bereavement in the school,”
He adds that some of the pupils, with those who attended schools
the other Kachepa children were at, collected 1,000 signatures to
petition the Home Office for the family to stay.
Balmforth says: “My main concern was the way the whole thing was
handled – the heavy-handed nature with which it was done and the
fear and terror which I would deem to be unnecessary. This is not a
family which was going to go to ground. They are totally law
Marshall disagrees with the detention of asylum-seeker children.
Usually, families are taken to a detention centre just before they
are removed – but they can be detained at other stages of the
process if it is felt they might abscond.
The Home Office says families are detained only when necessary and
for a minimum period.
Rob Fuller, head of religious studies at the Notre Dame Roman
Catholic School for Girls in Plymouth, agrees with Marshall that
children should not be detained before being returned. Two pupils
at his school were recently removed.
On 17 March, Ruir Thaha and her two daughters, Hanna, 12, and
Sebrin, 14, were put on a flight to Dusseldorf and handed over to
German immigration officers. The Thahas had lived in Plymouth for
three years but the Home Office said their asylum application had
to be dealt with in Germany because it was their first point of
entry in Europe. The Kurdish family is from Iraq but say death
threats have been made against them there. Panic-stricken at the
prospect of being returned to Iraq, they arrived in the UK after
being refused asylum in Germany.
Six immigration and police officers went to get the Thahas at
7.13am on 24 February. They were given one hour to dress and pack
their belongings. Sebrin and Hanna also allege they were threatened
that if they did not dress quickly they would be taken away in
their night clothes. They were taken to Tinsley House removal
centre near Gatwick Airport.
Fuller says the children at the school supported the girls. They
collected a petition of 840 names, including the signatures of
children from other local schools, to ask the Home Office to let
the family stay.
Fuller says the girls should have been allowed to stay in the UK
until they had completed their education and points out that the
removal would put back Sebrin’s schooling by at least a year. She
missed an exam while she was in the removal centre.
He says: “The best policy would have been to be in school. Perhaps
schools could be given the responsibility to monitor the children’s
He was surprised to find out that schools were not told when pupils
would be removed.
The Home Office says this is because there may be either practical
or legal reasons why a visit does not occur on the planned
The Institute of Race Relations says all asylum-seeker children
whose claims have failed should be allowed to remain in the UK
until the end of secondary school. The charity has launched a
declaration for schools to sign in support of this.
The number of pupils and teachers campaigning to prevent the
removal of asylum-seeker children has increased over the past five
years but in future some children will not have access to such
In 2002 the government announced plans to create accommodation
centres to house 3,000 asylum seekers and provide education for the
children. Plans for the first centre to be built, near Bicester,
Oxfordshire, have been approved. The Home Office says education is
to be provided on-site to ensure that no additional strain is
placed on services near the centres.
The institute condemns the plans, arguing that the centres would
prevent children becoming a part of the community.
It is unclear when the first centre will open but it seems that,
just as asylum seekers are finding allies, these may be taken away,
leaving them to fight their corner alone.
- The Institute of Race Relations declaration can be viewed at www.schoolsagainstdeportations.org