No place for children

Some 2,000 children pass through UK holding centres each year. Their imprisonment breaches a key UN

When nine-year-old Adeboye Falode grows up, he wants to be on The X Factor. "I want to be a singer," he says in a broad Irish accent. "Or a footballer." He says it with a shamefaced little smile, as if he is already aware that his life will not work out like that. Currently, Adeboye is under lock and key at Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre, along with his mother, Aderonke, and his brothers Adedire, 12, and Adebowale, 14.

In order to get from the visitors' area to their room in the "family unit", Adeboye and his brothers must pass through up to ten locked doors and undergo a search. "They make you feel like a criminal, when you haven't done anything wrong," says Adebowale. Like the 2,000 other children who pass through the UK's immigration removal centres each year, they have no access to primary NHS care if they fall ill. The food they are given each day consists primarily of chips and rice: "It's disgusting." They have all been taken out of school - particularly worrying for Adebowale, who was studying for his GCSEs next year. He wants to be a doctor. "I just want to go to school and do normal work," he says. How will he feel if he is still in detention this Christmas? "I'll probably explode."

When I meet the Falodes in the visiting area at Yarl's Wood, they have been told they are due for "removal" to Nigeria the following day. "I don't want to sleep because I know they [the guards] will come in the night or first thing in the morning," says the boys' mother. Aderonke is terrified that the guards will try to drug her in order to stop her resisting deportation; Adebowale tells me that he knows another child who was carried unconscious from his cell after hiding under the bed to resist removal. "They had injected him with something," he says. Such rumours abound in Yarl's Wood - Gill Butler, a member of the Yarl's Wood Befrienders' Group, has heard many similar stories. Although difficult to substantiate, they are an insight into the fear and insecurity the place instils in detainees. "If you are not strong, you will go mad in here," says Aderonke. "There is no peace of mind."

The family is planning to resist removal. "Even if Gordon Brown himself called me I would not go," says Aderonke. The boys have been issued with careful instructions: when the men come in the night, they should get into the van quietly, because if they make a fuss they might get hurt during the journey. Only when they reach the safety of the airport should they start to shout and scream. "The children want to resist," says Aderonke. "They just want to go back to school and to their friends. They don't want to go to Nigeria." The Falodes had been living in Belfast for a year before they were detained, having fled Nigeria when the boys' father died. "I was being harassed and threatened by my late husband's family. They wanted me to marry my brother-in-law, and to take the children as slaves." In Belfast, the boys were doing well at school and had joined a local church. "Everyone was so welcoming. Last Christmas, they gave the boys presents, and we made them African food. We were so happy."

Deportation targets

The Falodes' appeal for asylum is unlikely to be successful, as their case is based around a domestic dispute rather than political persecution. (The UK asylum system is often criticised for prioritising the type of claims made by men, who are more likely to be directly involved in politics, and treating problems faced by women, such as domestic and sexual violence, less seriously.) But even if they are to be refused, Adebowale points out: "Why couldn't they just let us stay in a house until they reach a decision?"

The official reason for detaining those whose asylum case has been refused is to prevent them from absconding prior to removal. But the European Commissioner for Human Rights, reporting on detention of children in the UK immigration system in 2005, found: "Prima facie . . . families with their children attending school are less likely to abscond [if their asylum claim is refused] than any other category." Families are easy pickings for a government obsessed with meeting deportation targets.

In detaining children for immigration reasons, the UK breaches the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Children can be detained for an unlimited time without charge or trial. In a report entitled No Place for a Child, Save the Children found that detained children suffer from "weight loss, lack of sleep, skin complaints and persistent respiratory conditions. Children often suffer from depression and changes in behaviour in detention."

Butler, a former nurse who has visited dozens of families in Yarl's Wood, says: "The mental health effects [on children] are devastating. You see bedwetting, nightmares and post-traumatic stress disorder. Imagine the trauma for a child of being woken up in the early hours by eight to ten officers and taken away from home."

Recently, 14-year-old Meltem Avcil, who had been in Yarl's Wood for three months, was transferred to Bedford Hospital after entering into a suicide pact with another detainee and cutting her wrists. Meltem is Kurdish, but had been living in the UK for six years before she was detained. She was even tually released following an intervention by the Children's Commissioner for England, Professor Al Aynsley-Green. "Looking at the immigration system, one is forced to ask: what does the government's slogan 'Every Child Matters' actually mean?" says Adrian Matthews, Aynsley-Green's senior policy adviser on asylum. "It is outrageous that increasingly, children with immigration issues seem to be excluded from that. Things are not considered from the child's perspective in taking the decision to detain . . . [children's] lives are picked up and torn apart."

In 2005, Aynsley-Green produced a report based on a visit to Yarl's Wood, in which he expressed grave doubts about the welfare of children at the centre, remarking: "It is not possible to ensure that children detained in Yarl's Wood stay healthy, stay safe, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution, and achieve economic well-being." However, says Matthews, the commissioner's call for far-reaching reforms went unheeded by the government. "Following our visit, Yarl's Wood did make some small changes, such as replacing the barred cell doors," he says. "However, on the wider issue there has been very little progress."

Once the Falodes have been escorted out of the visitors' hall by a guard, I meet Comfort Adefowoju and her daughters Adesola, ten, Olasubomi, seven, and Sarah, seven months, and son Adedapo, five. Sarah, a tiny, lively baby, has livid red eczema all over her face which, Comfort tells me, she has not been able to get any medicine for. "They don't even provide enough formula. It is four o'clock, and Sarah has only had one bottle so far today." On the first day, Comfort spent the last of her money on formula, but now she has completely run out. "If I can't even buy milk for the baby, how am I going to get a solicitor?"

Early-morning knock

The Adefowojus were picked up from their home in Belfast - they attended the same church as the Falodes - early in the morning and, as is usual practice, told they had to leave immediately. "We didn't have time to get any clothes," says Adesola. "I only brought two pairs of unders, and I don't have any socks." She and her sister have spent the freezing cold winter days - during which they were first transported from Belfast to the Dungavel detention centre in Scotland, then transferred to Yarl's Wood - wearing just a pair of sandals on their bare feet. Olasubomi is wearing a tattered vest and no jumper.

"The children don't understand what is happening," says Comfort. "They were saying to me, 'Are we criminals?'" The family fled Nigeria after Comfort's husband borrowed money from a politician that he was unable to pay back; he ran away, leaving Comfort to deal with the thugs sent to the family home to collect the money. "They threatened to firebomb the house and kidnap the children," she says. University-educated and previously a successful entrepreneur, Comfort was forced out of the house and business she had helped to build. "If they send us back, there is no way these children will not be destitute," she says. "I tell you one thing: they will put us on that plane over my dead body."

The Adefowojus were threatened with removal barely three days after being taken into detention - leaving no time to get legal representation. They managed to resist, but, like the other families in immigration detention this Christmas, they live in fear of another early-morning knock on their cell door.

What can you do?

The New Statesman will report further on children in immigration detention in the New Year. If you are concerned and would like to help, consider doing the following:

Write to Al Aynsley-Green, the Children's Commissioner, expressing your support for his work with children in detention centres, and urging him to continue putting pressure on the government to stop detaining children for immigration reasons. Email: info.request@11MILLION.org.uk

Join a visitors' group. For more information about visiting detainees in Yarl's Wood, see: http://www.ywbefrienders.org

For details of latest campaigns, check the websites of the following pressure groups: Medical Justice Network, which campaigns for detainees' rights - www.medicaljustice.org.uk - and the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns - http://www.ncadc.org.uk

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2007

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The people is sublime: the long history of populism, from Robespierre to Trump

If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide of populism will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

A spectre of populism is haunting the world’s liberal democracies. Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election, the narrow Leave majority in the EU referendum, Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election – breaking the spirit of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act passed by the government of which she was a member – and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s victory in the recent Turkish referendum all testify to the strength of the populist tide that is sweeping through the North Atlantic world. The consequences have been calamitous: a shrunken public realm, a demeaned civic culture, threatened minorities, contempt for the rule of law and an increasingly ugly public mood. If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

The first essential is to understand the nature of the beast. This is more difficult than it sounds. Most democratic politicians seek popularity, but populism and popularity are not the same. Today’s populism is the descendant of a long line of ancestors. The first unmistakably populist movement in history appeared well over two centuries ago during the later stages of the French Revolution. It was led by Robespierre (Thomas Carlyle’s “sea-green incorruptible”) and the Jacobins who promised a reign of “virtue”. They were inspired by the cloudy prose of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that mere individuals should be subject to the general will of the social whole and – if necessary – “forced to be free”. As the revolution gathered pace and foreign armies mustered on France’s frontiers, the Jacobins launched the first organised, state-led and ideologically legitimised Terror in history. Chillingly, Robespierre declared, “The people is sublime, but individuals are weak.” That is the cry of populists through the ages. Appropriately, the Terror ended with Robespierre lying on a plank, screaming with pain before he was executed by guillotine.

The French Revolution – which began with the storming of the Bastille and ended with Napoleon’s ascent to an ersatz imperial throne – has an epic quality about it missing from later chapters in the populist story. Ironically, the second chapter, which opened half a century later, was the work of Louis Bonaparte, nephew of the great Napoleon. In 1848 came a second revolution and a second Republic; Louis Bonaparte was elected president by a huge majority. He tried and failed to amend the constitution to make it possible for him to have a second term; and then seized power in a coup d’état. Soon afterwards he became emperor as Napoleon III. (“Napoleon le petit”, in Victor Hugo’s savage phrase.) The whole story provoked one of Karl Marx’s best aphorisms: “History repeats itself; the first time as tragedy and the second as farce.”

There have been plenty of tragedies since – and plenty of farces, too. Trump’s victory was a tragedy, but farcical elements are already in evidence. Erdogan’s victory was even more tragic than Trump’s, but farce is conspicuously absent. The Leave victory in the referendum was tragic: arguably, the greatest tragedy in the three-century history of Britain’s union state. As with Trump, farce is already in evidence – the agitated comings and goings that have followed Theresa May’s loss of her Commons majority; the inane debate over the nature of the Brexit that Britain should seek; and the preposterous suggestion that, freed of the “Brussels” incubus, Britain will be able to conclude costless trade deals with the state-capitalist dictatorship of China and the “America First” neo-isolationists in Washington, DC. Unlike the French farce of Napoleon III’s Second Empire, however, the British farce now in progress is more likely to provoke tears than laughter.


Picture: André Carrilho

Populism is not a doctrine or a governing philosophy, still less an ideology. It is a disposition, perhaps a mood, a set of attitudes and above all a style. The People’s Party, which played a significant part in American politics in the late 19th century, is a case in point. The farmers whose grievances inspired the People’s Party wanted cheaper credit and transport to carry their products to markets in the eastern states. Hence the party’s two main proposals. One was the nationalisation of the railways, to cheapen transport costs; the other was “free silver” – the use of silver as well as gold as currency, supposedly to cheapen credit. Even then, this was not a particularly radical programme. It was designed to reform capitalism, not to replace it, as the largely Marxist social-democratic parties of Europe were seeking to do.

Rhetoric was a different matter. Mary Elizabeth Lease, a prominent member of the People’s Party, declared that America’s was no longer a government of the people by the people and for the people, but “a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street”. The common people of America, she added, “are slaves and monopoly is the master”.

The Georgian populist Tom Watson once asked if Thomas Jefferson had dreamed that the party he founded would be “prostituted to the vilest purposes of monopoly” or that it would be led by “red-eyed Jewish millionaires”. The People’s Party’s constitutive Omaha Platform accused the two main parties of proposing “to sacrifice our homes, lives and children on the altar of Mammon; to destroy the multitude in order to secure corruption funds from the millionaires”. The party’s aim was “to restore the government of the Republic to the hands of ‘the plain people’ with which class it originated”. Theodore Roosevelt promised “to walk softly and carry a big stick”. The People’s Party walked noisily and carried a small stick. Jeremy Corbyn would have been at home in it.

Almost without exception, populists promise national regeneration in place of decline, decay and the vacillations and tergiversations of a corrupt establishment and the enervated elites that belong to it. Trump’s call to “make America great again” is an obvious recent case. His attacks on “crooked Hillary”, on the courts that have impeded his proposed ban on Muslim immigrants from capriciously chosen Middle Eastern and African countries, on the “fake news” of journalists seeking to hold his administration to account, and, most of all, his attack on the constitutional checks and balances that have been fundamental to US governance for more than 200 years, are the most alarming examples of populist practice, not just in American history but in the history of most of the North Atlantic world.

There are intriguing parallels between Trump’s regime and Erdogan’s. Indeed, Trump went out of his way to congratulate Erdogan on Turkey’s referendum result in April – which gives him the right to lengthen his term of office to ten years, to strengthen his control over the judiciary and to decide when to impose a state of emergency. Even before the referendum, he had dismissed more than 100,000 public servants, including teachers, prosecutors, judges and army officers; 4,000 were imprisoned. The Kurdish minority was – and is – repressed. True, none of this applies to Trump. But the rhetoric of the thin-skinned, paranoid US president and his equally thin-skinned and paranoid Turkish counterpart comes from the same repertoire. In the Turkish referendum Erdogan declared: “My nation stood upright and undivided.” It might have been Trump clamorously insisting that the crowd at his inauguration was bigger than it was.

***

The best-known modern British populists – Margaret Thatcher, Nigel Farage and David Owen – form a kind of counterpoint. In some ways, all three have harked back to the themes of the 19th-century American populists. Thatcher insisted that she was “a plain, straightforward provincial”, adding that her “Bloomsbury” was Grantham – “Methodism, the grocer’s shop, Rotary and all the serious, sober virtues, cultivated and esteemed in that environment”. Farage declared that the EU referendum was “a victory for ‘the real people’ of Britain” – implying, none too subtly, that the 48 per cent who voted Remain were somehow unreal or, indeed, un-British.

On a holiday job on a building site during the Suez War, Owen experienced a kind of epiphany. Hugh Gaitskell was criticising Anthony Eden, the prime minister, on television and in the House of Commons, but Owen’s workmates were solidly in favour of Eden. That experience, he said, made him suspicious of “the kind of attitude which splits the difference on everything. The rather defeatist, even traitorous attitude reflected in the pre-war Apostles at Cambridge.” (Owen voted for Brexit in 2016.)

Did he really believe that Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes and George Moore were traitorous? Did he not know that they were Apostles? Or was he simply lashing out, Trump-like, at an elite that disdained him – and to which he yearned to belong?

Thatcher’s Grantham, Farage’s real people and David Owen’s workmates came from the same rhetorical stable as the American populists’ Omaha Platform. But the American populists really were plain, in their sense of the word, whereas Thatcher, Farage and Owen could hardly have been less so. Thatcher (at that stage Roberts) left Grantham as soon as she could and never looked back. She went to Somerville College, Oxford, where she was a pupil of the Nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkin. She married the dashing and wealthy Denis Thatcher and abandoned science to qualify as a barrister before being elected to parliament and eventually becoming prime minister. Farage worked as a metals trader in the City before becoming leader of the UK Independence Party. Owen went to the private Bradfield College before going up to Cambridge to read medicine. Despite his Welsh antecedents, he looks and sounds like a well-brought-up English public school boy. He was elected to parliament in 1966 at the age of 28 and was appointed under-secretary for the navy at 30. He then served briefly as foreign secretary in James Callaghan’s miserable Labour government in the 1970s.

Much the same is true of Marine Le Pen in France. She is a hereditary populist – something that seems self-contradictory. The Front National (FN) she heads was founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen – Holocaust denier, anti-Semite, former street brawler and sometime Poujadist. In the jargon of public relations, she has worked hard to “de-toxify” the FN brand. But the Front is still the Front; it appeals most strongly to the ageing and insecure in the de-industrialised areas of the north-east. Marine Le Pen applauded the Leave victory in Britain’s referendum – she seeks to limit immigration, just as Ukip did in the referendum and as the May government does now.

Above all, the Front National appeals to a mythologised past, symbolised by the figure of Joan of Arc. Joan was a simple, illiterate peasant from an obscure village in north-eastern France, who led the French king’s forces to a decisive victory over the English in the later stages of the Hundred Years War. She was captured by England’s Burgundian allies, and the English burned her at the stake at the age of 19. She was beatified in 1909 and canonised in 1920. For well over a century, she has been a heroine for the Catholic French right, for whom the revolutionary triad of liberté, egalité, fraternité is either vacuous or menacing.

***

The past to which the FN appeals is uniquely French. It is also contentious. A struggle over the ownership of the French past has been a theme of French politics ever since the French Revolution. But other mythologised pasts have figured again and again in populist rhetoric and still do. Mussolini talked of returning to the time of the Roman empire when the Mediterranean was Mare Nostrum. Trump’s “Make America great again” presupposes a past when America was great, and from which present-day Americans have strayed, thanks to Clintonesque crooks and the pedlars of fake news. “Take back control” – the mantra of the Brexiteers in the referendum – presupposes a past in which the British had control; Owen’s bizarre pre-referendum claim that, if Britain left the EU, she would be free to “rediscover the skills of blue water diplomacy” presupposed a time when she practised those skills. Vladimir Putin, another populist of sorts, is patently trying to harness memories of tsarist glory to his chariot wheels. Margaret Thatcher, the “plain, straightforward provincial” woman, sought to revive the “vigorous virtues” of her Grantham childhood and the “Victorian values” that underpinned them.

As well as mythologising the past, populists mythologise the people. Those for whom they claim to speak are undifferentiated, homogeneous and inert. Populists have nothing but contempt for de Tocqueville’s insight that the ever-present threat of majority tyranny can be kept at bay only by a rich array of intermediate institutions, including townships, law courts and a free press, underpinned by the separation of powers.

For populists, the threat of majority tyranny is a phantom, invented by out-of-touch and craven elitists. Law courts that stand in the way of the unmediated popular will are “enemies of the people”, as the Daily Mail put it. There is no need to protect minorities against the tyranny of the majority: minorities are either part of the whole, in which case they don’t need protection, or self-excluded from it, in which case they don’t deserve to be protected.

Apparent differences of interest or value that cut across the body of the people, that divide the collective sovereign against itself, are products of elite manipulation or, in Thatcher’s notorious phrase, of “the enemy within”. For there is a strong paranoid streak in the populist mentality. Against the pure, virtuous people stand corrupt, privileged elites and sinister, conspiratorial subversives. The latter are forever plotting to do down the former.

Like pigs searching for truffles, populists search for subversives. Inevitably, they find what they are looking for. Joe McCarthy was one of the most squalid examples of the populist breed: for years, McCarthyism was a baneful presence in Hollywood, in American universities, newspaper offices and in the public service, ruining lives, restricting free expression and making it harder for the United States to win the trust of its European allies. The barrage of hatred and contempt that the tabloid press unleashed on opponents of Theresa May’s pursuit of a “hard” Brexit is another example. Her astounding claim that a mysterious entity known as “Brussels” was seeking to interfere in the British general election is a third.

As the Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Müller argues, all of this strikes at the heart of democratic governance. Democracy depends on open debate, on dialogue between the bearers of different values, in which the protagonists learn from each other and from which they emerge as different people. For the Nobel laureate, philosopher and economist Amartya Sen, democracy is, above all, “public reasoning”; and that is impossible without social spaces in which reasoning can take place. Populism is singular; democracy is plural. The great question for non-populists is how to respond to the populist threat.

Two answers are in contention. The first is Theresa May’s. It amounts to appeasement. May’s purported reason for calling a snap general election was that the politicians were divided, whereas the people were united. It is hard to think of a better – or more frightening – summary of the spirit of populism. The second answer is Emmanuel Macron’s. For the moment, at least, he is astonishingly popular in France. More important, his victory over Le Pen has shown that, given intelligence, courage and generosity of spirit, the noxious populist tide can be resisted and, perhaps, turned back. 

David Marquand’s most recent book is “Mammon’s Kingdom”: an Essay on Britain Now” (Allen Lane)

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2007