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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.

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Brothers in blood: how Putin has helped Assad tear Syria apart

The Syrian catastrophe has created the worst humanitarian crisis since the end of the Second World War. And the world watches helplessly as Putin and Assad commit war crimes.

Sometimes we know the names. We know Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old boy who, covered in mud and dust, was pictured on the back seat of an ambulance in the aftermath of an air attack. We know his name because pictures and a video of him were released on social media and travelled around the world. The outrage that followed was widespread and sincere, the image of the dazed little boy seeming to symbolise the greater plight of the beleaguered residents of Aleppo. But then the moment passed. Few will know that a few days later doctors announced that Omran’s elder brother Ali, who was injured in the same air strike, had died from his injuries. He was ten.

Sometimes we know the names of the babies pulled from the rubble of collapsed buildings – occasionally alive, but often dead; or the names of the children weeping over lost parents; or the women grieving over lost husbands and children; or the elderly simply waiting (and sometimes wanting) to die.

We know Bana Alabed, the seven-year-old girl trapped inside Aleppo whose Twitter account has gone viral in recent weeks. “Hi I’m Bana I’m 7 years old girl in Aleppo [sic],” reads the on-page description. “I & my mom want to tell about the bombing here. Thank you.”

A series of pictures depicts Alabed and her mother, Fatemah, struggling to live as normal a life as possible, one showing the little girl sitting at an MDF desk with a book. Behind her, in the corner, is a doll. “Good afternoon from #Aleppo,” says the caption in English. “I’m reading to forget the war.”

The conflict, however, is never far away. Alabed, whose mother taught her English, has repeatedly tweeted her own fears about dying, followed by stoic messages of defiance whenever the immediate threat of an impending air strike passes. On the morning of 3 October, her words were simply: “Hello world we are still alive.” On 17 October, Fatemah tweeted: “The airstrikes ended in the morning, all the last night was raining bombs.”

But in most cases we never know the names of the victims of air assaults led by Presidents Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin. One of the most haunting images to emerge in recent weeks was that of a mother and child, killed while sleeping in the same bed. The scene had an eerily preserved-in-amber feel to it: a snapshot of snatched lives, frozen in the act of dying. Pictures of ruined buildings and distraught civilians have become routine now, holding our attention briefly – if at all.

As many as 500,000 people are believed to have been killed since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in early 2011. According to a report released in February this year by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research, a further 1.9 million have been wounded. Taken together, those figures alone account for 11.5 per cent of Syria’s pre-revolutionary population. Combine that with the number of Syrians who have been displaced – more than ten million (almost 50 per cent of the population) – and the sheer scale of the disaster becomes apparent.

The conflict has become the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. Today it centres on Aleppo, in north-west Syria, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and a cradle of human civilisation. Various conquerors from the Mongols to the French have fought battles there but none, so it would seem, has been quite as ruthless or committed to the city’s annihilation as Bashar al-Assad.

Aleppo remains the most significant urban centre to have been captured by the anti-Assad rebels, most of whom will (by now) be strongly influenced by an Islamist world-view. Indeed, the most prominent fighting groups on the rebel side are overwhelmingly Islamist in their troop composition and beliefs, a sad marker of Western failures to support secular forces that led the anti-regime resistance in the incipient phases of the uprising.

Yet Aleppo remains too important to fail. Although rebel forces succeeded in capturing only half of the city – the western side remained firmly in the control of the regime – the symbolism of anti-Assad forces holding ground in Syria’s second city (which also served as the country’s economic hub) has buoyed the rebel movement.

Assad is more brazen and bullish than at any other point since eastern Aleppo fell into rebel hands in July 2012. That optimism is born of a strategy that has already worked in other parts of the country where the regime’s troops have slowly encircled rebel-held areas and then sealed them off. Nothing can leave, and nothing can enter. Once the ground forces seal off an area, an aerial campaign of barrel bombs and missile attacks from both Syrian and Russian fighter jets inevitably follows.

To get a sense of just how terrible the aerial campaign has been, consider that the United States accused the Russian air force of potential war crimes when a UN aid convoy was bombed just west of Aleppo last month. It was carrying food and medicines when it was hit. Since then, the UK and France have said that Russia’s bombardment of Aleppo amounts to a war crime.

Putin’s support has come as a boon to Assad ever since Russia formally entered the conflict in September 2015. Despite his administration already using Iranian forces and aligned groups such as the Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah, rebels had continued to make significant gains throughout the early months of 2015. The most important of these was the capture of Idlib city, 40 miles from Aleppo, which presented Assad with two problems. The first was that it dented the official narrative of revanchist military successes by his forces. The ­second was that it handed the rebels power in a province adjoining Latakia Governorate in the west, where Syria’s Alawites are largely concentrated (Russia has an airbase in an area south-east of the city of Latakia). The Alawites are a heterodox Shia sect to which the Assad family belongs, and which forms the core of their support base.

Keen to reverse these gains – and others made elsewhere – Assad enlisted Putin, given Russia’s long-standing interests in, and ties to, Syria. The Kremlin has long regarded Syria as an important ally, and has served as the country’s main arms supplier for the past decade. There are important assets to preserve, too, such as the Russian naval base in the port city of Tartus on the Mediterranean, which was first established during the Soviet era.

For his part, Putin has felt emboldened by events. The world is changing – not just in the Middle East and North Africa, where the
contours of power continue to be recast, but also closer to home in Ukraine, where the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown in 2014.

The West is still haunted by the 2003 invasion of Iraq and has been reluctant to be drawn too deeply into the Syrian War. In 2013, the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own people. This was a violation of President Barack Obama’s so-called red line against the use of chemical weapons, but no retaliatory action came and there was nothing to prevent the Kremlin from using force to shape events in Syria – as it had done in Ukraine.

All of this has marked a new phase of brutality in a conflict already noted for its barbarism. Civilians who avoid death from combined Russo-Syrian air assaults suffer under Assad’s strategy of “starve or submit”, in which supplies are withheld from besieged areas, slowly choking off those ­inside. It has been used to devastating effect against civilians in towns such as Madaya and in Daraya, on the outskirts of Damascus, both of which fell to government control after being sealed off from the outside world for several years. Such a strategy is not designed to deliver quick victories, however. Consider how the residents of Daraya defied Assad’s forces for four years before capitulating in August 2016.

Assad and his allies (Putin, Iran, Hezbollah) have decided to punish and brutalise, deliberately, civilian populations in rebel-held areas. To invert the famous aphorism attributed to Chairman Mao, they hope to dredge the sea in which the revolutionaries swim. And so, it is the 300,000 residents of eastern Aleppo who must suffer now.




It’s easy to lose track of precisely what is happening in the Syrian War as parcels of land swap hands between rebels and the regime. Assad’s forces first began encircling Aleppo at the start of July this year and succeeded in imposing a siege by the middle of that month, after cutting off the last of two rebel-controlled supply routes into the city. The first was the Castello Road, which leads from the town of Handarat into the north-western part of ­rebel-controlled territory. The second route, via the Ramouseh district (which led into the south-western end of the city), had already been sealed off.

The closure lasted for roughly four to five weeks before the rebels re-established access. Aleppo is too important for them, and the siege has forced various groups to work together in breaking it. The effort was led by Jaish al-Fateh (JaF, the “Army of Conquest”), an umbrella group and command structure for several of the most prominent jihadist and Islamist groups operating in northern Syria. JaF also co-ordinated the Idlib military campaigns. One of its key members is Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS, “the Syrian Conquest Front”), which was previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN or “the Supporters’ Front”) and was recognised as al-Qaeda’s official chapter in Syria.

Several months before the regime began its assault on Aleppo, rebel groups in the north recognised the deteriorating situation there, stemming principally from Russian air strikes. As a result, al-Qaeda urged the various factions to merge and work together to counteract not just Assad, but also Putin. Even the global leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, issued a speech last May titled “Go Forth to Syria”, in which he called on all fighting groups to unite in order to consolidate their control across the north. This opened the way at the end of July for Jabhat al-Nusra to declare that it was formally severing its links with al-Qaeda. It “rebranded” as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

There are two reasons for doing this. The first is to erode partisanship among the Islamist groups, forcing them to set aside differences and narrow their ambitions in favour of the greater goal – in this case, the breaking of the siege of Aleppo, while also deepening rebel control across the north. The second aim of rebranding is to win popular support by portraying themselves as fighting in the service of ordinary civilians.

Groups such as JFS and others are succeeding in both of these goals. Responding to the abandoned and assaulted residents of Aleppo, they have repeatedly demonstrated their commitment to alleviating the humanitarian crisis. Much of their messaging echoes this theme. The group’s English-language spokesman is Mostafa Mahamed, an Egyptian who previously lived in Australia. “[JFS] is deeply embedded in society, made up from the average Syrian people,” he explained on Twitter, after the group decoupled from al-Qaeda. “We will gladly lay down our lives before being forced into a situation that does not serve the people we are fighting for . . . jihad today is bigger than us, bigger than our differences.”

It is indisputable that this ethos of “fighting for the people” has endeared the group to civilians living in besieged areas – even when those civilians don’t necessarily agree with the full spectrum of its religious beliefs or political positions. That goodwill was only reinforced when the group helped break the siege of Aleppo (in which approximately 500 rebels were killed) in August, if only for a few days. Assad reasserted control within a week, and entrapped the residents again in the middle of that month. The rebels are now planning how to break the siege decisively, but have not yet launched a major counteroffensive.




A freelance American journalist and film-maker, Bilal Abdul Kareem, who has reported on rebel movements inside Syria more intimately than most, has found himself among those trapped inside eastern Aleppo since the siege was restored seven weeks ago. “We came here expecting a two- or three-day trip,” he told me during an interview over Skype.

Life inside is becoming insufferable for civilians, Abdul Kareem said; every building is potted and scarred by shrapnel damage. Those whose homes remain standing are the lucky ones. “Your day consists of nothing,” he said. “There’s no work, there’s no fuel, no industrial zone, no food to sell. ­People sit around and chit-chat, drink tea, and that’s all they do.”

Food supplies are already running low, with most people limiting themselves to basics of chickpeas and groats – crushed grains such as oats or wheat. Sealed off from the rest of the world, those inside preoccupy themselves with survival and wait for the next wave of attacks.

It is tempting to ask why the inhabitants of Aleppo did not flee when they had the chance. Indeed, the Assad regime routinely accuses the rebels of preventing civilians from leaving besieged areas, though there is no evidence to support this view. On 17 October Russia and the Syrian regime said they would halt their bombardment for eight hours on 20 October to allow rebels and civilians to evacuate the city.

In truth, what choice do the civilians have? Most do not trust Assad and they are therefore unwilling to move into regime-administered areas. The alternative is to become refugees, with all the uncertainties and trials associated with that. For instance, refugees have found themselves subject to sectarian violence in Lebanon, and they have few opportunities to find employment in Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan, the three countries where most of the fleeing Syrians have found shelter.

For them, merely to exist in rebel territory is an act of defiance, which is precisely why Assad’s forces make no effort to distinguish between combatants and civilians in rebel areas. To be present is a crime.

The effects of this have been devastating. A spokesman for the Syrian American Medical Society told Middle East Eye, an online news portal, that in July, Syrian and Russian jets had hit medical facilities in rebel-held territory every 17 hours.

Only a few hospitals and medical staff remain. The physical conditions are primitive and perilous. Doctors work in makeshift facilities – a former flat, a commercial garage – which makes them unable to provide anything beyond basic emergency care. In-patient facilities are non-existent, not just because of high demand from those newly injured in fresh attacks, but also from fear that the facility itself will be targeted. “People are literally shuffled out of the hospital with IV [intravenous drips] in their arms,” Abdul Kareem says.

The West’s indifference to all this – coupled with its occasional pious pronouncements and diplomatic dithering – has squandered any goodwill Washington might once have had among Syria’s beleaguered civilians. When Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, and John Kerry, the US secretary of state, agreed a ceasefire in September it lasted barely two days because they overlooked the fears of those trapped inside eastern Aleppo.

The deal had stated that no party would try to capture any new territory. That might seem reasonable enough but given that the ceasefire came into effect just days after Assad re-established the siege of Aleppo, those on the inside were being asked, in effect, to acquiesce to their own starvation.

Deprived of food and medication, no one trusted Assad to negotiate access in good faith, especially after he thwarted UN efforts to deliver aid. “People saw it as a conspiracy,” Abdul Kareem told me. Moreover, there were no significant groups inside eastern Aleppo that claimed to have accepted the terms of the ceasefire in the first place. Kerry had negotiated on their behalf without approval and without securing any humanitarian concessions.

“What planet are these people on?” Abdul Kareem asked. “[Do] they think people will turn on their protectors, for people who didn’t do them any good? They look to JFS and Ahrar [Ahrar al-Sham is one of the Islamist groups fighting in JAF]. Western intervention is pie in the sky.”

The rise of these reactionary rebels is a direct result of liberal elements not being strongly supported at any stage in the conflict. Left to fend for themselves, many have deserted their cause. Those who have persisted not only risk the constant threat of being killed by Russo-Syrian bombs, but are also at threat from jihadist elements operating in rebel areas. That much was clear when remnants of the secular opposition protested against the leader of JFS, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, in the southern Idlib town of Maarat al-Nouman earlier this year. Many of those who did were arrested by jihadists and intimidated into silence.

Whereas liberals are fragmented and frayed, the Islamist rebels continue to coalesce into an ever more coherent unit. The overwhelming might of Russian airpower has convinced them of the need to form a united front in order to pool their resources and co-ordinate their efforts. That is one of the reasons why a jihadist group called Jund al-Aqsa (“Soldiers of al-Aqsa”) announced early this month that it was disbanding and being absorbed into JFS.

Herein lies the real story of how Aleppo – and, indeed, Syria itself – has been delivered to the jihadists. A conspiracy of all the external parties has forged a menacing millenarian movement that is embedded in civil society and communities across the north. Whether Aleppo falls or not, the jihadists will endure.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a member of the war studies department at King’s College London

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood