Wednesday, 02 September 2015

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Cumbrian author aiming to free the asylum children

Many asylum seekers come to the UK fleeing torture and the threat of death. Others have less compelling claim on this country as a place of refuge.

Clare Sambrook photo
Clare Sambrook

Whatever the strength of their case, all those seeking escape are liable to be locked up behind bars and razor wire.

And so are their children.

During dawn raids, uniformed enforcement officers batter down doors and take mothers, fathers and children, including babies and toddlers, to detention centres.

These families can be held indefinitely as their claim to asylum is assessed, before being either released or deported.

While they wait, their temporary home could be home to riots, hunger strikes and suicides.

Research suggests that being locked up is devastating for children. Many self-harm. Some attempt to kill themselves.

Clare Sambrook is dismayed that the UK is one of the few countries which puts asylum seekers’ children in places resembling prisons.

Clare lives near Penrith with her husband and their two children. She is a former Daily Telegraph journalist and the author of an acclaimed novel, Hide and Seek.

It tells the story of a child who goes missing. Work on the follow-up has been delayed by real-life tales of children in peril.

Clare ventured into the dark world of asylum last summer, through friends in York who had set up a drop-in centre for refugees.

“They heard about this family who were seeking asylum, living very quietly, reporting every week to their local police station as they were supposed to.

“One morning a dozen uniformed officers burst into their home and took the father. Eight months later the mother was arrested as well, leaving a two-year-old boy without his parents for four days. They were reunited in a car park and taken to Yarl’s Wood [in Bedfordshire,
largest of the UK’s four family detention centres] where the family spent more than three weeks behind razor wire.

“They had not committed any crime. They had only exercised their legal right to claim asylum.”

Clare used her background in journalism to publicise the case. The family was granted asylum and released. But for Clare and her friends this was not the end.

“We were incensed that children could be locked up. We thought ‘We’ve got to stop this.’ People often think ‘What can you do as an individual?’ But you’ve got to have a go.”

Last October, Clare helped launch the campaign End Child Detention Now. About 4,000 people have signed an online petition. Nick Hornby, Ian Rankin and Jacqueline Wilson are among the many authors to pledge support, as have actors Colin Firth and Emma Thompson.

Labour MP Chris Mullin tabled an early day motion; a petition allowing MPs to express support. The motion has so far been signed by 118 MPs; nearly one-fifth of the Commons.

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg wrote an open letter to Gordon Brown calling child detention ‘state-sponsored cruelty’. Tim Farron, Liberal Democrat MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, is currently the only Cumbrian MP to have signed the motion.

“People of every political hue feel sickened by child detention,” says Clare, “but only one Conservative MP has signed. Privately they’ll say it’s appalling, but they’re scared of the tabloids. Coming up to an election, nobody wants to be seen to be soft on asylum. Not acting on your principles because you’re frightened of upsetting the papers is moral cowardice.”

It is a phantom fear, Clare feels, at least since last December when the Daily Mail reported Nick Clegg’s letter positively. Even a media which frequently portrays asylum seekers as scroungers and criminals hesitates to say that their young children should be locked up.

“All political parties read the Mail and the Mail’s support takes the political risk out of ending child detention. You can hold the idea that we need a more robust asylum system and hold the idea that the detention of children is wrong. They could end it tomorrow and there would be no downside.”

Campaigners argue that the practice is not only immoral but unnecessary. Families are scooped from their beds and locked up largely because of concerns that they will flee their homes and dodge the asylum process. A red herring, says Clare.

“Detention is supposed to be for people who might abscond. But those people are hard to track down. So the UK Border Agency fulfils its quota by bringing in families who aren’t hard to track down, because they’re not going to abscond.

“They’re putting them through a system designed for those most likely to abscond.”

This system has been condemned by psychologists who describe even brief periods of detention as a recipe for physical and mental illness.

Studies have suggested that being taken from their homes and their friends to a prison-like institution causes depression and anxiety, for children and adults.

“Asylum seekers have been through traumatic experiences to start with,” says Clare. “Detention can stir unwelcome memories of abuse suffered in their country of origin.

“A lot of the parents will have been tortured. A lot of the mothers will have been raped by police officers and men in uniform. They are incredibly vulnerable people. Then 12 men in uniform come and knock their door down. It’s a deeply damaging experience.

“I spoke to one mother who’d been in detention with her two teenage children for months.

She said ‘I had to avoid them breaking down. Teenagers are more vulnerable than toddlers. So I had to behave like a hen protecting its chicks from an eagle.’”

Children seen by psychologists in Yarl’s Wood have been described as confused, frightened, unable to sleep, suffering headaches, weight loss and ‘severe emotional and behavioural problems’. A 10-year-old Nigerian girl placed in detention for a second time was found trying to hang herself.

Clare says: “There was a man in one detention centre who poured boiling water over himself and scalded himself very badly.

The children in there saw this horribly scalded guy every meal time.

“Self-harm and suicide attempts are very common. If a school was having this effect on children it would be shut down immediately.”

Concerns about locking up children have been expressed by the United Nations, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons and numerous charities and medical groups.

Campaigners say their cause is hindered by a lack of information.

No government body is responsible for collating statistics such as how many children are detained, or for how long.

“What makes me angriest is the deception involved. You can’t have a democracy without people having accurate information. But the government deliberately publishes as little as possible.”

End Child Detention Now estimates that between 1-2,000 children of asylum seekers are locked up every year. It is thought that many are detained for more than a fortnight. Periods of two months are not uncommon.

There are also no figures for how many of these families are deported and how many are released. Until granted asylum, the threat of re-arrest looms large.

And the fight to gain sympathy for asylum-seeking adults as well as their children may be the hardest to win.

“There’s a very effective propaganda job being done on asylum seekers,” says Clare. “David Wood of the UK Border Agency is head of ‘criminality and detention’.

“They’re trying to lump in people who are fleeing murderous regimes with criminals.

“It’s always been a tradition in this country that we give sanctuary to people in trouble. It’s quite shocking, and very un-British, that the term ‘asylum seeker’ has become a negative.”

To learn more about the End Child Detention Now campaign, visit



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