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No place for children

The UK has one of the worst records in Europe for detaining children but accurate figures on how man

It is shameful that UK law allows children who are not British to be detained without time limits and without judicial oversight. Many of the 2,000 or so children detained for administrative convenience every year have been here seeking asylum with their families. Others arrive on their own and are detained because, in the absence of identification papers, the immigration authorities refuse to believe that they are children.

The UK has one of the worst records in Europe for detaining children. However, accurate figures on how many children are detained, and for how long, remain hard to come by, despite repeated requests to the government from campaigners and parliamentarians for better information. Without such data, how can we be reassured by the government's claim that detention is used "only when absolutely necessary and for the shortest possible time"?

In recent years, there has been a growing consensus that the practice must end. According to a paper produced by a cross-bench group of MPs and peers for a campaign led by the Refugee Council and other NGOs in 2006, "There is a broad consensus that locking children up with their families is inherently harmful and to be avoided wherever possible. The UK's children's commissioners, the UK's chief inspector of prisons, international and national non-governmental organisations and community groups have all spoken out against the policy or conditions of detention." Yet despite such stringent criticism, the government has remained largely impervious to the devastating effects of detention on children.

The position usually taken by the government is that detention is used only when all other avenues to persuade families to leave have failed. Furthermore, the seemingly lengthy periods of detention endured by children are blamed largely on parents' attempts to frustrate removal from the country. However, the evidence to substantiate this argument has never been produced. Critics of the policy argue that Home Office decision-making remains poor. They say the emphasis on speed makes evidence hard to collect, and that asylum-seekers face a "culture of disbelief" that relies excessively on unsafe findings on the credibility of their stories. They also argue that there is a dwindling supply of competent legal representation for asylum-seekers, due to changes in legal aid. If the critics are right, it is not surprising that many asylum-seekers resist removal because their fear of return may be both genuine and well founded. But even if we leave aside these arguments, a real political commitment to community supervision as an alternative to detaining families has never been articulated or pursued. I have often heard it said that detaining families is a tried and tested way to keep removal statistics high, at a time when public confidence in the immigration system remains low.

Many of the children the government currently locks up have been here for a considerable time while their families' asylum claims are being processed. I speak to these children in places like Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre, and they answer my questions in regional British accents acquired over many years of integration into our communities and schools. It seems positively cruel to rip up the hopes and aspirations of these young people, who have become settled and enjoy close ties with friends, teachers and neighbours, due to the historic problems of managing the asylum system efficiently.

For more recent arrivals, there is the potential for better decision-making and closer contact management of families in the new "case ownership" system, in operation since April 2007. This could have been the basis for a dialogue between families and case owners, assigned by the Home Office to work on single cases from start to finish, to explore the reasons why asylum-seekers are not returning to their country voluntarily. However, in the experience of families I have talked to, detention always comes as a surprise and a shock, and one that they are unprepared for. I say categorically that this should never be the case. Children's experiences of the process of arrest and detention are truly shocking.

"We didn't have time to collect anything and we don't have any personal belongings, clothes or anything. They even take your phone."

Boy, aged 11, in Yarl's Wood immigration removal centre, May 2008

When I visited the Yarl's Wood removal centre in May this year, I talked to nearly all the families and children there about their experiences. At the top of the list of concerns was the process of being taken into detention. We were told of early-morning raids on their homes - sometimes involving the breaking down of doors and a disproportionate number of officers - to arrest two, three or four people. Some claimed that aggressive officers gave them insufficient time to pack even minimal possessions, or to gather up medicines and items of personal importance or value. With the exception of one family who had contacted relatives to collect their belongings, none of the families interviewed knew what had happened to the possessions they had left behind.

We were told of children denied the use of a toilet (or allowed to go only while being watched with the door open) before lengthy journeys in caged vans. Girls claimed they were made to get dressed in the presence of male officers, and boys vice versa. Virtually every child spoke of their fear and distress at being awakened and shouted at by adults in uniforms who had entered their homes violently. Children said they were separated from their parents, were not told where they were being taken, and were humiliated in front of friends and neighbours as parents were handcuffed and they themselves were marched into vans. One child told me of being removed from his class at school by uniformed officers. Children, even the youngest, are deeply affected and traumatised by these events. Many of them have recurring nightmares about them, and they often demonstrate changes in behaviour. They can become persistently withdrawn, cling to their parents, refuse food or wet the bed. Children's best interests appear to me to be entirely invisible during the arrest and escorting process.

Girl: "It's a prison. You can't call it anything else, it's a prison."

Boy: "You're not free here. You're not able to go into friends' rooms and things."

Both in Yarl's Wood, May 2008

I first visited Yarl's Wood in October 2005 to see for myself the journey of a child from first point of reception at the centre. I noted then that the numbers of locked doors a child would have to go through before reaching the family unit would be a minimum of eight. Once in the family unit they would have to pass through a barred cell door and be subjected to a search. Even babies' nappies were inspected. While I was pleased that when I returned in May this year the current management had opened the unit out, removed the barred cell door and ceased searching children, it was clear to me that from a fairly young age many children are deeply conscious - and ashamed - of being in what they regard as a prison.

The lack of privacy, the locked doors, the lack of access to treasured possessions, the restrictions on where you can go and at what time, the intrusive and regular roll counts (as if families with children were likely to escape en masse) and the unappealing, institutional food all contribute to many children feeling powerless and frustrated.

Furthermore, detention often puts older children in the position of emotionally "carrying" their parents, who may be experiencing extreme distress, depression and detachment from their parenting role as a result of their situation. In practice, many children are used informally as interpreters between the administration and their parents, when they accompany a parent to the health centre, for example. Some older children shared their parents' fears of return and were utterly convinced that they would be killed if they were sent back. There are no children's mental health services in Yarl's Wood to assist them in dealing with these experiences and worries. On one occasion, I used my powers of entry to interview a teenage girl admitted to hospital from Yarl's Wood who had threatened to kill herself as a consequence of her profound distress.

Children told us time and again how they missed their friends, their pets, their schools and the lives they had built for themselves in the places they had lived before being detained. Some felt cheated because they had not been able to say goodbye, while others didn't want to return because the process of arrest in front of neighbours or school friends had been so humiliating. Despite government policy to the contrary, we came across one young person - about to turn 16 - who had been detained just as his GCSEs had started. He felt that all the work he had done had been wasted; there are no facilities for taking examinations at Yarl's Wood.

There is no specialist paediatric input into health care or clinical governance there, either. Nor does the decision to detain appear to be informed by any risks it may pose to a child's health. Both these features of the detention process can have serious and even catastrophic consequences.

Many parents we met at Yarl's Wood were extremely worried because their children and babies were losing weight. There is grave concern that the imperatives of security mean that babies are routinely put at risk, for example, by not giving mothers access to facilities in their rooms at night to make fresh feeds for bottle-fed babies. Other mothers are unable to sustain breastfeeding because of emotional turmoil and an absence of support from breastfeeding counsellors.

Where a child is under paediatric care prior to detention, it does not appear that there is continuity of the care regime once the child is taken to Yarl's Wood. Some children with long-standing illnesses are denied their scheduled appointments at hospital clinics. A mother who is HIV-positive recently complained to her case worker that the family's detention had meant that her three-month-old child had missed her BCG vaccination. This was the response she received:

It is considered that this risk [of contracting tuberculosis] is purely speculative but even if she were to contract tuberculosis on return to [country of origin], it is not considered that this would reach the threshold [of cruel or degrading treatment or punishment] imposed in the case of N(FC) v SSHD [2005] UKHL 31.

The paediatrician with care of the little girl in the case cited above had not been notified of the child's detention and described her missing her BCG as a "tragic misfortune". In contrast, this mother's case worker at the Home Office viewed the issue not from the perspective of the child's health, but only in terms of whether this could be a "barrier to removal". I surely cannot be alone in thinking that such policies are crass, insensitive and utterly unacceptable.

Public outrage

On our recent visit, we considered, among others, 14 sets of medical notes of children from sub-Saharan Africa. Only two showed that they had been given anti-malarial prophylaxis - and even then both for inadequate lengths of time. This puts these children at serious risk of life-threatening malaria if returned. We would not dream of exposing our own children to such risk if travelling to the same countries. Detaining children significantly increases the risk that, when removed, they will die from preventable diseases given the level of paediatric support that would otherwise be available in their communities in the UK. The interests of children who have no right to remain in the UK are best served by keeping them in the community where their health and education needs can be taken into account fully when planning any removal.

We welcome the recent moves to create a more child-friendly immigration system. We were encouraged by the government's decision to review the UK's immigration opt-out on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and its recent commitment to change legislation to make the UK Border Agency subject to a duty to promote the welfare of children. In light of these welcome developments, we hope now to see serious consideration given to ending the detention of children who are subject to immigration control.

We stand a far better chance of achieving that goal if the public expresses its outrage. I welcome the New Statesman's commitment to this aim and hope the glare of public exposure will hasten the end of this shameful breach of a child's basic right to liberty. The government has rightly earned praise for the "Every Child Matters" policy programme. It is now time for it to live up to its rhetoric by making sure that every child really does matter, including those caught up, through no fault of their own, in a system that can only be described as inhuman.

Martin O’Neil for New Statesman
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Why the British addiction to period drama is driving away our best black and Asian actors

There is a diversity crisis in British TV and film as, increasingly, stars are decamping to America to make their career there.

Back in April, a six-part drama called Undercover premiered on BBC1. Perhaps you were one of the five million people who watched it: the story was audacious and continent-hopping, enfolding a narrative about a man on death row in the United States with an all-too-believable tale of a Metropolitan Police officer who marries a woman he is meant to be keeping under surveillance.

The reason the programme attracted so much attention, however, was not what it was about, but whom. Starring Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester, Undercover was widely reported as the first mainstream British television drama with black actors in the lead roles. This wasn’t true: as James Cooray Smith wrote on the New Statesman website, that milestone was passed in June 1956 by Mrs Patterson, a BBC adaptation of a Broadway play starring Eartha Kitt.

Yet Undercover was still a breakthrough. Smith, casting his mind back over more than six decades of British television, could not think of more than a handful of other examples. Writing in the Observer, Chitra Ramaswamy expressed her feelings with quiet devastation: “In 2016, it is an outrage that it’s a big deal to see a successful, affluent, complicated black family sit at a ­dinner table eating pasta.” Think about that. In 2016 in Britain, a country where more than nine million people describe themselves as non-white, it is news that a black, middle-class family should not only feature in a prime-time BBC drama but be at its heart. Undercover exposed how white most British television is.

Actors of colour have appeared on British film and TV screens for decades, and they have been visible on British stages for centuries – yet they have been shunted into the margins with depressing regularity. In January the actor Idris Elba urged British MPs to take the matter seriously. “Although there’s a lot of reality TV,” he argued, “TV hasn’t caught up with reality.”

In February, there was renewed uproar over the lack of racial diversity in Hollywood at the 88th Academy Awards, and the infuriated hashtag #OscarsSoWhite blossomed again on social media. A month later, Lenny Henry argued that black and minority ethnic (BAME) talent was being “ghettoised”. The term could hardly be more charged. Speaking at the London premiere of Mira Nair’s film Queen of Katwe, the actor David Oyelowo said: “What we need now is for a change to come. I think the talk is done.”

There has been some change. In March, the Royal Shakespeare Company opened a production of Hamlet starring Paapa Essiedu, an actor of Ghanaian heritage raised in London. It was the first time that a black performer had taken the role for the company. A new set of BBC diversity targets both on- and off-screen was unveiled in April. Noma Dumezweni is playing Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the West End, and in October the BFI launched Black Star, a nationwide season celebrating black talent in film and TV. But what does the picture really look like, in late 2016? And what, if anything, needs to change?

The first challenge is that many in the film and TV industry find it difficult to talk about the subject. Researching this article, I lost count of the number of people who demurred to go on the record, or of actors who seemed eager to speak but were then dissuaded. Fatigue might be partly to blame – it’s exhausting to be asked repeatedly about diversity because you didn’t go to Harrow and your skin isn’t white – but I got the sense that there’s more going on.

One man who passionately believes this is the screenwriter Trix Worrell, the creator of the pioneering Channel 4 sitcom Desmond’s, which brought an African-Caribbean barbershop in south-east ­London to Middle England’s living rooms in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“TV is very difficult to break into. There’s a protectionism there,” he says with a shrug, when we meet for coffee on the seafront in Hastings, where he now lives. “People are nervous about rocking the boat.”

Though cheerful about most of the things we discuss, Worrell admits to feeling a roiling anger when it comes to this particular matter. Does he think that diversity has improved since he was pitching Desmond’s, three decades ago? “No. I say that with absolute certainty and surety.”

It is hard to underestimate the influence that Desmond’s had. The series ran for 71 episodes and at its peak it had five million viewers, remarkable for a sitcom. Starring the veteran actor Norman Beaton alongside a largely British-Guyanese cast, it made that community visible in a way that has not been rivalled in Britain in the 22 years since it came off air. It did so with the deftest of touches, addressing problems of interracial relationships and tensions within the black community through warm comedy.

“Up to that point, black people were ­never seen on TV,” Worrell recalls. “The only time we appeared in any media was in the red tops – muggings, vice. The idea was to show a black family who were just like any other.” Yet it seems that, apart from the spin-off comedy series Porkpie, occasioned by Beaton’s sudden death in 1994, Channel 4 has regarded the idea of portraying a normal black family in a sitcom as too great a gamble in the years since, despite an increase in the number of non-white roles in its other drama output.

Worrell smiles, but it is clear that the ­matter isn’t a joke. “The thing that’s said among black people is that there’ll only be one black sitcom every ten years.”

***

When I phone Paapa Essiedu while he’s on a lunch break from Hamlet, I am prepared to get a more positive perspective. Just 26, Essiedu has had a spectacular and seemingly unimpeded rise. A graduate of the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, he joined the RSC in 2012 and then hopped to the National Theatre in Sam Mendes’s King Lear, before returning to Stratford. The Telegraph greeted his debut as Hamlet with the notice that every actor dreams of: “A new star is born”.

But Essiedu seems ready to implode with frustration. “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “This stuff has been here for decades and decades: we’re lying to ourselves if we think there’s been a lack of awareness until now. Lots of people are talking and talking, but we need action.” Has he experienced racism directly? “Put it this way: quite often, I’ve been in a room where everyone else is white.”

A major issue, he says, is the apparently unshakeable addiction of British TV and film to corsets-and-cleavage period drama, which has left many BAME actors locked out of the audition room. The BBC is in the middle of a run of literary spin-offs, from War and Peace to The Moonstone. Over on ITV, we have had Victoria and the invincible Downton Abbey.

It still feels as though much of British drama is stuck in an airbrushed version of the country’s past. Though partly set in contemporary Egypt, BBC1’s adaptation of The Night Manager by John le Carré had only a handful of non-white actors in significant roles. Allowing for exceptions such as the BBC’s version of Andrea Levy’s Windrush-era novel Small Island, broadcast in 2009, you could be forgiven for thinking, had you never visited Britain, that people of only one skin colour live in this country. That the largely white drama series are successful on the export market only helps to extend the cycle.

“Producers say, ‘Oh, we commission stuff that people want to watch,’” Essiedu tells me. “But it’s such a narrow version of history – middle-to-upper-class Caucasian men, generally. Period drama can be from anywhere in the world: Africa, Asia. Where are those stories?”

Drama is just a sliver of broadcasting output, but other genres aren’t much better. Journalists from ethnic-minority backgrounds have made steady progress in television newsrooms – but not fast enough, Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy has ­argued; there is a glaring absence, however, when it comes to lifestyle and entertainment TV. The recent success of the intrepid youth TV star Reggie Yates notwithstanding, it is difficult to ignore or account for the dearth of BAME presenters in documentaries and “serious” factual programming; and no major current British chat show has a permanent anchor who isn’t white.

Adil Ray’s BBC1 comedy Citizen Khan, which focuses on the escapades of the overbearing Muslim patriarch Mr Khan and his family in the Sparkhill area of Birmingham, is a rare exception. It has just returned for a fifth season. A worthy successor to Desmond’s in its tongue-in-cheek approach to potentially inflammatory issues (the 2014 Christmas special featured the birth of Mr Khan’s grandson, Mohammad, on Christmas Day) the programme also resembles its forebear in a more depressing way: it appears to be one of a kind.

When I ask Ray why he thinks this is, he selects his words carefully. “It’s not prejudice exactly,” he says, “but in the TV business, there are a lot of formulas. If you’re doing curry, get an Asian person. If it’s hip-hop, someone who’s black. If you’re doing a walk in the countryside, or drinking tea in the Cotswolds . . .” He leaves the sentence hanging.

What appears on screen is only the visible part of the problem. Actors get cast in roles only if writers write them; projects get made only if commissioners commission them. TV and film are notoriously incestuous and competitive industries. Careers are unstable. Knowing someone who knows someone is often – too often – the only way of getting work.

According to figures produced this year by Creative Skillset, many media companies fail dismally when it comes to representation. Just 24 per cent of those in senior roles in cable or satellite firms are female; 4 per cent of employees in positions in senior terrestrial broadcast are BAME; and, if the numbers are to be believed, there are no BAME people at all working on the senior production side of independent film companies. The figures aren’t entirely robust – they rely on organisations filling in forms and returning them – but if they’re anywhere near the truth they make for grim reading.

The BBC’s statistics are more encouraging (according to the latest figures, BAME people make up 13.4 per cent of staff overall and hold 9.2 per cent of leadership roles) but don’t include freelancers, an area in which it is reasonable to suppose that, without quotas to fill, representation will be worse. In September, the media regulator Ofcom put broadcasters on notice that they could face “harder-edged” regulation if they did not improve diversity.

Chi Onwurah, the MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, who has been vocal about these matters in parliament, says that the BBC has a special duty to up its game. “It’s not doing enough,” she tells me. “If it was, there wouldn’t be a problem. It was very interesting watching the [European Union] referendum; all the efforts broadcasters have gone to to make sure there was balance. If they went to half that effort for BAME, gender and disability, it would be a different world.”

The BBC is keen to show that it is paying attention. Last year, it appointed Tunde Ogungbesan as its new head of “diversity, inclusion and succession”, and in April his team announced eye-catching targets: gender parity across every part of the corporation; 8 per cent of staff disabled; 8 per cent of staff lesbian, gay or trans; 15 per cent of staff from BAME backgrounds. Those numbers will be replicated on screen, lead roles included, and are roughly equivalent to averages for the overall population of Britain.

Yet the idea that established BBC presenters will go quietly seems optimistic. Take the ruckus that the comedian Jon Holmes recently raised when his contract with The Now Show (Radio 4) wasn’t renewed. Holmes asked in the Mail on Sunday: “Should I, as a white man . . . be fired from my job because I am a white man?”

Ogungbesan – a former head of diversity for Shell – has a businesslike attitude to the challenges he faces, which are, he concedes, considerable. “We’ve got four years to do this, and we know there’s a hell of a lot of work to do.” That is why his team has given itself a deadline. “Hopefully, when we hit those targets in 2020, we’ll be the most diverse broadcaster in the UK.”

How does he respond to Onwurah’s suggestion that the BBC is skilled at announcing targets but less good at making change happen? “We’re publishing our results,” he says. “You’ll be able to hold us to it.”

And what if the targets aren’t met? Ogun­gbesan laughs, for perhaps a touch too long. He will not consider the possibility. “I’m like a boxer. I refuse to look at it.”

***

If British TV and film don’t get their act together soon, there may be no one left to cast. Increasingly, black and Asian stars are decamping to America to make their career there. Among those who have joined the brain drain are Archie Panjabi and Cush Jumbo (The Good Wife), David Oyelowo (Selma) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). Idris Elba, who brooded brilliantly in BBC1’s crime procedural Luther, would likely never have been cast in a big British series if he hadn’t already made a name in the United States with The Wire. Before she appeared in Undercover, Sophie Okonedo said in an interview that the scripts she was offered from the US far outnumbered those from the UK.

Visiting Los Angeles recently, I tracked down Parminder Nagra, who made her name in Bend It Like Beckham before being spotted by a producer for the long-running medical drama ER. In 2003 she was offered the role of the Anglo-American doctor Neela Rasgotra, which she played until the series ended in 2009. A big part in the NBC crime drama The Blacklist followed, along with other film and TV work.

She never intended to move, she says, laughing ruefully, when we meet at a café in a well-to-do suburb of LA populated by movie folk. She has worked occasionally elsewhere but, 13 years on, she is still on the west coast. “The jobs I’ve got, like most actors, haven’t come about in a conventional way. It’s generally because someone is open-minded enough to look at you.”

Although she is careful to make it clear that the US is far from a utopia in terms of how it portrays race, sexuality or gender on screen – she tells a gruesome tale of a white writer who sent her his attempt at an “Asian” character – Nagra senses that things are more open in the US. “It’s a bigger pond here, because of the sheer size of the country,” she says. “There are writers of colour in the UK, but what happens is that you’ve only got one or two people at the top who are making decisions about the taste of the country . . . Those people are white.”

The landscape is certainly more open in the US. Leaving aside the allegations about Bill Cosby, NBC’s Cosby Show (1984-92) was a force for good, with its focus on a middle-class African-American family and with the numerous ethnically diverse shows it made possible: A Different World, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In Living Color, Scandal (the last was commissioned by the influential black writer-producer Shonda Rhimes). Back in the early 1980s, the gentle NBC sitcom Gimme a Break! – starring Nell Carter – explored issues of racism, too.

US cable and online subscription ­services are even more courageous. Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black has an ethnically kaleidoscopic cast and plotlines that vault across almost every conceivable question of gender, sexuality, body image and politics. Where it has apparently taken the BBC until 2016 to realise that families can be both black and upper middle class, ABC in the US was years ahead: in 2014 it commissioned Black-ish, which offers a subtle portrait of an advertising executive who frets that he is losing touch with both his Obama-era kids and his inner-city origins.

Nagra nods. “There still are a lot of issues here, but if you’re an actor of colour, there is more work. All those British period dramas are really well done, but there’s a yearning there: ‘Can I please just see somebody like me on TV?’”

The reason all this matters is that TV, theatre and film have a duty to show us not merely who we are, but who we can become. In Undercover, Okonedo becomes Britain’s first black, female director of public prosecutions: this may seem unlikely, given the state of the UK’s judiciary, yet seeing it on TV helps to shift perceptions. No one would argue that Okonedo’s co-star Dennis Haysbert got Barack Obama into the White House by playing a black president of the United States in 24, but perhaps it made such a world marginally more imaginable.

The time is overdue for British TV to abandon its fetish for bodices and show us what our nation actually looks like, in all its variety – and to be more imaginative about the kind of history it presents. Colour-blind casting is mainstream in theatre. Actors of various heritages appear in Pinter or Chekhov and no one raises an eyebrow.

Anthropologists argue that race and gender are forms of performance, sets of shared codes, rather than something intrinsic to who we are. Is it so difficult to imagine a Jane Austen production with performers of black or Asian heritage? Is that any harder to believe than the thousand impossibilities we witness every day in TV drama?

I ask Essiedu if he is optimistic. Yes, he says forcefully. “I have to be. Optimism is the only way we initiate change.”

When I put the same question to Nagra, she pauses to think. “I remember being asked about this when I started ER, and I was a bit tired of the issue even then. Yet here we still are.” Her expression is wry. “So ask me in ten years’ time.”

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile