Enjoying your stay?

If one measure of a civilised society is how it treats its most
vulnerable young people then the UK’s record on locking up
asylum-seeking children suggests we are not doing very well.
Children from families who have committed no crime and who have no
history of absconding are taken out of school, uprooted from
communities they have lived in for months, sometimes years, then
transported in the back of a van often for hundreds of miles to be
held behind barbed wire under prison-like conditions in a detention

These are now called removal centres but for many of the families
incarcerated in them “removal” may be a long way off. In one
well-publicised case Yurdugal Ay and her four children aged between
seven and 14, were detained for 15 months in Dungavel, Scotland,
before being deported.

The government argues that some families “string out” their appeal
and so it is their own fault that they are held for long periods.
But Alison Harvey, principal policy and practice manager at the
Children’s Society, says that as the Home Office set up the appeals
process they can hardly blame families fleeing persecution from
exploring the avenues open to them to avoid deportation.

“Detention is making these families’ lives a misery and it is a
clear breach of children’s rights,” she says. “We don’t understand
why they have to lock up families with children. They are the least
likely people to abscond. The suspicion has to be that they are
easy pickings to whisk into detention so that the government can
meet its targets on keeping asylum numbers down.”

Much of the research on the effects of detention on children has
been carried out in Australia, which detains all its asylum
seekers. Some work has been carried out here by the charity Bail
for Immigration Detainees and others that strongly suggests
children suffer physical, mental and social damage as a direct
result of detention. No one can contend detention is doing children
anything other than harm.

Bail for Immigration Detainees and the Children’s Society are part
of a consortium that has raised concerns that official information
on children in detention is inadequate. In a snapshot survey in
April, there were a total of 56 children being held. But no ongoing
figures are kept and the consortium is calling for firmer
information on numbers in detention, their age and how long they
have been held.

Helen Ireland, of the Association of Visitors to Immigration
Detainees, says information often comes to light by chance such as
during a visit she made to Magbury Prison in Belfast two weeks ago.
“We discovered there are children in one wing of the prison
-Êa baby and a three year old. They are in with the women
detainees but there are no dedicated facilities for them so we are
going to pursue the matter. The only place they can go is their
cell or the association room which is full of people smoking.
Youngsters do not thrive in detention, they forget how to read and
they develop mental health problems.”

Although children are held at various establishments, most of which
are run by private security firms, currently Dungavel is the only
place that routinely holds children and families for lengthy
periods. During an official visit last year, prisons inspector Anne
Owers found the main sources of detainees’ distress were “the fact
of detention itself, in a prison-like environment and for an
indefinite period with an uncertain future”.

Her report, published in April, recommends that the detention of
children should only happen in exceptional circumstances and even
then only for a very short period “no more than a matter of days.”
Owers has called for an independent assessment of the welfare,
developmental and educational needs of each detained child. As well
as highlighting fundamental issues about the detention of young
people, her report draws attention to what appears to be a basic
lack of humanity when dealing with detainees. In one case a family
with small children arrived at Dungavel from Harmondsworth after a
van journey of about 400 miles. They spent one day at Dungavel and
then were taken to Manchester Airport Detention Centre where they
spent the night (despite the fact that the centre was unsuitable
for children). They were then taken to Tinsley House, Gatwick, just
43 miles from where they started in Harmondsworth.

That happened last year. Last month, according to Rosie Kane,
Scottish Socialist Party member for the Scottish parliament, a
woman and her children aged seven, six and one were taken to
Dungavel from Bradford. They spent 11 hours in the back of a van
and were allowed out just once. “The children were travel sick and
the mother had diarrhoea through fear so they arrived in a terrible
state,” says Kane, a former youth worker. “I know that children
have their fingerprints taken on arrival but when I mentioned this
to two of the mothers they said they hadn’t realised because both
had been hysterical by the time they got there.”

Kane flew to Berlin to advocate on behalf of the Ay family, who are
Kurds and fear deportation to Turkey. “On the plane each of the
children was flanked by two security officers. The seven-year-old
boy was frightened as he could not see his mother.

“They arrived in Germany with no paperwork – no medical records,
nothing. It’s a disgrace. Human rights are being abused left, right
and centre.”

There is growing unease in Scotland about Dungavel and the fact
that as asylum is not a devolved power what goes on there is
controlled from London. Gordon Jeyes, of the Association of
Directors of Education in Scotland and director of children’s
services in Stirling, told a public meeting on Dungavel earlier
this month that the interests of children in Scotland should be
paramount. “Who on behalf of the stateÉis considering the
interests of the child? Where in all of this is the corporate
parent?” He pointed out that the country had a proud record on
legislation enshrining the rights of the child. “But none of these
statutes and laws, none of the commentaries say in brackets ‘except
the children of asylum seekers who are temporary guests in our

It is a sentiment echoed by human rights lawyer Aamer Anwar. As a
criminal lawyer he travels to prisons all over the country but
feels the regime in Dungavel is harsher than most of them and very
hard on children. The meal times are strict – breakfast between
8.30 and 9am, an hour for lunch and the evening meal at 5.30pm with
no access to the kitchen at other times.

“The children get hungry in the evening but women are fined for
taking them cereal as food is not allowed in the rooms. The guards
hold food searches – often late in the evening, waking the children
up. I dealt with a family who were up all night because their child
was ill. They arrived 10 minutes late for breakfast and were told
they could have no food.”

Anwar and his colleagues are exploring legal avenues to try and
close down the family unit at Dungavel. Meanwhile, voluntary
organisations are discussing alternatives to detention. Liz
Nicholson, director of Shelter Scotland, says: “We are aware of the
impact on youngsters of putting them in bed and breakfast
accommodation. How much worse must this be for children who are
already scarred?”

Robina Qureshi, director of Positive Action Housing, which is also
involved in the talks, points out that it costs £700 a week
per detainee in Dungavel. “We can set people up for a lot less than
that. Houses not prisons sounds like a glib slogan but that’s just
what we’re talking about here. I’ve spoken to many detainee
families and not one has tried to abscond yet they are routinely
held for months. People end up on suicide watch, they self-harm,
their mind goes. The momentum is growing to halt the disgusting
treatment of these families. It’s time to stop robbing children of
their childhood.”

Ruth Stark, professional officer of the British Association of
Social Workers in Scotland, believes social care professionals
should be more vocal over raising concerns about what is being done
to children in our name. “When Scotland finally gets its children’s
commissioner, we should all be pressing for this to be top of their
agenda. Whichever way you look at it, detaining children is just

Detained when leaving the UK

Mercy Ikolo fled from Cameroon and sought asylum in the Irish
republic. When her daughter Percile was born there 14 months ago
she put in an application for residency.

“I have a flat in Dublin and I was building a life there for my
daughter and I. We travelled to Scotland to visit some friends but
on the way home I was stopped at Belfast airport.” She was taken to
Dungavel. “They told me it was a centre but I could see immediately
it was a prison. The atmosphere there is not good. You are not
allowed to go out to breath air or see the sky when you want to.
You must ask permission for everything. The children are crying a
lot of the time. Before, my daughter was a happy child but in
Dungavel she became very moody.

“Our room was OK. It had a TV but you don’t want to watch it
because you have so much on your mind. All the families just sit in
their room thinking about their problems. One day they brought me a
letter from the Home Office saying they were deporting me to
Uganda, somewhere I have never even been.

“I told them my baby was born in Ireland and I had a home there.
But they took us to the airport anyway. I said I couldn’t go to
Uganda and I was crying and crying so they drove me back to

“Later I was given bail because Rosie Kane, the MSP, offered my
daughter and I a place in her home. I am very grateful but I still
have the uncertainty hanging over me.

“I made friends in Dungavel but there are some very distressed
people in there. I went back to visit to tell them ‘keep your
spirits up – one day you will be free’.”   

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