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

JON BERKELEY
Show Hide image

The empire strikes back

How the Brexit vote has reopened deep wounds of empire and belonging, and challenged the future of the United Kingdom.

Joseph Chamberlain, it has been widely remarked, serves as an inspiration for Theresa May’s premiership. The great municipal reformer and champion of imperial protectionism bestrode the politics of late-Victorian and Edwardian Britain. He was a social reformer, a keen ­unionist and an advocate for the industrial as well as the national interest – all values espoused by the Prime Minister.

Less noticed, however, is that May’s excavation of Chamberlain’s legacy is a symptom of two larger historical dynamics that have been exposed by the vote for Brexit. The first is the reopening on the British body politic of deep wounds of race, citizenship and belonging, issues that home rule for Ireland, and then the end of empire, followed by immigration from the former colonies, made central to British politics during the 20th century. Over the course of the century, the imperial subjects of the queen-empress became British and Irish nationals, citizens of the Commonwealth and finally citizens of a multicultural country in the European Union. The long arc of this history has left scars that do not appear to have healed fully.

The second dynamic is the renewal of patterns of disagreement over free trade and social reform that shaped profound divisions roughly a century ago. Specifically, the rivalry was between a vision of Britain as the free-trade “world island”, supported by the City of London and most of the country’s governing elite, and the protectionist project, or “imperial preference”, articulated by Chamberlain, which sought to bind together the British empire in a new imperial tariff union, laying the foundations for industrial renewal, social progress and national security. The roots of these commitments lay in his career as a self-made businessman and reforming mayor of Birmingham. A leading Liberal politician, Chamberlain broke with his own party over home rule for Ireland and, with a small group of Liberal Unionists, joined Lord Salisbury’s Conservative government of 1895, becoming colonial secretary. He subsequently resigned in 1903 to campaign on the question of imperial preference.

The fault lines in contemporary political economy that Brexit has starkly exposed mimic those first staked out in the early part of the 20th century, which lie at the heart of Chamberlain’s career: industry v finance, London v the nations and regions, intervention v free trade. This time, however, these divides are refracted through the politics of Britain’s relationship with Europe, producing new economic interests and political ­alliances. What’s more, the City now serves the European economy, not just Britain and her former colonies.

Chamberlain is the junction between these two critical dynamics, where race and political economy interweave, because of his advocacy of “Greater Britain” – the late-Victorian idea that the white settler colonies of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa should be joined with the mother country, in ties of “kith-and-kin” solidarity, or more ambitiously in a new imperial federation. Greater Britain owed much to the Anglo-Saxonism of Victorian historians and politicians, and was as much a Liberal as a Conservative idea. Greater Britain was a new way of imagining the English race – a ten-million-strong, worldwide realm dispersed across the “white” colonies. It was a global commonwealth, but emphatically not one composed of rootless cosmopolitans. Deep ties, fostered by trade and migration, held what the historian James Belich calls “the Anglo-world” together. It helped equip the English with an account of their place in the world that would survive at least until the 1956 Suez crisis, and it was plundered again by latter-day Eurosceptics as they developed a vision of the UK as an integral part, not of the EU, but of an “Anglosphere”, the liberal, free-market, parliamentary democracies of the English-speaking world.

Greater Britain carried deep contradictions within itself, however. Because it was associated with notions of racial membership and, more specifically, with Protestantism, it could not readily accommodate divisions within the UK itself. The political realignment triggered by Chamberlain’s split with Gladstone over Irish home rule, which set one of the most enduring and intractable political divides of the era, was symptomatic of this. For Chamberlain, Irish home rule would have entailed Protestant Ireland being dominated by people of “another race and religion”. Unless there could be “home rule all round” and a new imperial parliament, he preferred an alliance with “English gentlemen” in the Tory party to deals with Charles Stewart Parnell, the leader of Ireland’s constitutional nationalists.

The failure of Chamberlain’s kith-and-kin federalism, and the long struggle of nationalist Ireland to leave the UK, left a bitter legacy in the form of partition and a border that threatens once again, after Brexit, to disrupt British politics. But it also left less visible marks. On Ireland becoming a republic, its citizens retained rights to travel, settle and vote in the UK. The Ireland Act 1949 that followed hard on the Irish Free State’s exit from the Commonwealth defined Irish citizens as “non-foreign”.

A common travel area between the two countries was maintained, and when immigration legislation restricted rights to enter and reside in the UK in the 1960s and 1970s, Irish citizens were almost wholly exempted. By the early 1970s, nearly a million Irish people had taken up their rights to work and settle in the UK – more than all of those who had come to Britain from the Caribbean and south Asia combined. Even after the Republic of Ireland followed the UK into the European common market, its citizens retained rights that were stronger than those given to other European nationals.

In 1998, the Good Friday Agreement went a step further. It recognised the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to hold both British and Irish citizenship. Common EU citizenship north and south of the border made this relatively straightforward. But under a “hard Brexit”, Britain may be asked to treat Irish citizens just like other EU citizens. And so, unless it can secure a bilateral deal with the Republic of Ireland, the UK will be forced to reinvent or annul the common travel area, reintroducing border and customs controls and unstitching this important aspect of its post-imperial, 20th-century settlement. Will Ireland and its people remain “non-foreign”, or is the past now another country?

 

***

 

Today’s equivalent of 19th-century Irish nationalism is Scottish national sentiment. Like Gladstone and his successors, Theresa May is faced with the question of how to accommodate the distinct, and politically powerful, aspirations of a constituent nation of the United Kingdom within the unsteady framework associated with the coexistence of parliamentary sovereignty and ongoing devolution. Scotland’s independence referendum bestowed a sovereign power on its people that cannot be set aside in the Brexit negotiations. The demand for a “flexible Brexit” that would allow Scotland to stay in the European single market is also, in practice, a demand for a federal settlement in the UK: a constitutional recognition that Scotland wants a different relationship to the EU from that of England and Wales.

If this is not couched in explicitly federal terms, it takes the unitary nature of the UK to its outer limits. Hard Brexit is, by contrast, a settlement defined in the old Conservative-Unionist terms.

Unionism and federalism both failed as projects in Ireland. Chamberlain and the Conservative Unionists preferred suppression to accommodation, a stance that ended in a war that their heirs ultimately lost.

Similarly, the federal solution of Irish home rule never made it off the parchment of the parliamentary legislation on which it was drafted. The federalist tradition is weak in British politics for various reasons, one of which is the disproportionate size of England within the kingdom. Yet devising a more federal arrangement may now be the only means of holding the UK together. May’s unionism – symbolised by her visit to Edinburgh to meet Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, in the first days of her premiership – will be enormously tested by a hard Brexit that cannot accommodate Scottish claims for retention of single-market status or something close to it. Separation, difficult as this may be for the Scottish National Party to secure, may follow.

The idea of Greater Britain also left behind it a complex and contentious politics of citizenship. As colonial secretary at the end for 19th century, Chamberlain faced demands for political equality of the subjects of the crown in the empire; Indians, in particular, were discriminated against in the white settler colonies. He strongly resisted colour codes or bars against any of the queen’s subjects but allowed the settler colonies to adopt educational qualifications for their immigration laws that laid the foundation for the racial discrimination of “White Australia”, as well as Canadian immigration and settlement policies, and later, of course, the apartheid regime in South Africa.

Nonetheless, these inequalities were not formally written into imperial citizenship. The British subject was a national of the empire, which was held together by a common code of citizenship. That unity started to unravel as the colonies became independent. Specifically, a trigger point was reached when, in 1946, the Canadian government legislated to create a new national status, separate and distinct from the common code of imperial citizenship hitherto embodied in the status of the British subject.

The Attlee government responded with the watershed British Nationality Act 1948. This created a new form of citizenship for the UK and the colonies under its direct rule, while conferring the status of British subject or Commonwealth citizen on the peoples of the former countries of empire that had become independent. It was this that has made the act so controversial: as the historian Andrew Roberts has argued, it “gave over 800 million Commonwealth citizens the perfectly legal right to reside in the United Kingdom”.

This criticism of the act echoed through the postwar decades as immigration into the UK from its former empire increased. Yet it is historically misplaced. The right to move to the UK without immigration control had always existed for British subjects; the new law merely codified it. (Indeed, the Empire Windrush, which brought British subjects from the Caribbean to London in June 1948, docked at Tilbury even before the act had received royal assent.)

At the time, ironically, it was for precisely opposite reasons that Conservative critics attacked the legislation. They argued that it splintered the subjects of empire and denied them their rights: “. . . we deprecate any tendency to differentiate between different types of British subjects in the United Kingdom . . . We must maintain our great metropolitan tradition of hospitality to everyone from every part of our empire,” argued Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, the Tory shadow minister of labour and future home secretary.

As the empire withered away in the postwar period, some Conservatives started to change their minds. Enoch Powell, once a staunch imperialist, came to believe that the idea of the Commonwealth as a political community jeopardised the unity of allegiance to the crown, and so was a sham. The citizens of the Commonwealth truly were “citizens of nowhere”, as Theresa May recently put it. As Powell said of the 1948 act: “It recognised a citizenship to which no nation of even the most shadowy and vestigial character corresponded; and conversely, it still continued not to recognise the nationhood of the United Kingdom.”

Once the British empire was finished, its core Anglo-Saxon populace needed to come back, he believed, to find their national mission again, to what he viewed as their English home – in reality, the unitary state of the UK – rather than pretend that something of imperialism still survived. On England’s soil, they would remake a genuine political community, under the sovereignty of the Crown-in-Parliament. If Greater Britain could not exist as an imperial political community, and the Commonwealth was a fiction, then the kith and kin had to live among themselves, in the nation’s homeland.

Contemporary politicians no longer fuse “race” and citizenship in this way, even if in recent years racist discourses have found their way back into mainstream politics in advanced democracies, Britain included. However, the legacies of exclusivist accounts of nationality persist, and not merely on the populist right. British politics today is dominated by claims about an irreconcilable division between the attitudes and national sentiments of the white working classes, on the one hand, and the cosmopolitanism of metropolitan liberals, on the other.

But thinking and speaking across this artificial divide is imperative in both political and civic terms. Many Remainers have the same uncertainties over identity and political community as commentators have identified with those who supported Brexit; and the forms of patriotism exhibited across the UK are not necessarily incompatible with wider commitments and plural identities. Above all, it is vital to challenge the assumption that a regressive “whiteness” defines the content of political Englishness.

 

***

 

Brexit thus forces us once again to confront questions about our citizenship, and the question of who is included in the nation. In an ironic twist of fate, however, it will deprive the least cosmopolitan of us, who do not live in Northern Ireland, or claim Irish descent, or hold existing citizenship of another EU country, of the European citizenship we have hitherto enjoyed. Conversely it also leaves a question mark over the status of EU nationals who live and work in the UK but do not hold British nationality. The government’s failure to give guarantees to these EU nationals that they will be allowed to remain in the UK has become a matter of deep controversy, on both sides of the Brexit divide.

As only England and Wales voted for it, Brexit has also exposed the emergence once again of distinct identities in the constituent nations of the UK. Although Scottish nationalism has been the most politically powerful expression of this trend, Englishness has been growing in salience as a cultural and, increasingly, as a political identity, and an insistent English dimension has become a feature of British politics. Although talk of a mass English nationalism is misplaced – it can scarcely be claimed that nationalism alone explains the complex mix of anxiety and anger, hostility to large-scale immigration and desire for greater self-government that motivated English voters who favoured Brexit – it is clear that identity and belonging now shape and configure political arguments and culture in England.

Yet, with a handful of notable exceptions, the rise in political Englishness is being given expression only on the right, by Eurosceptics and nationalists. The left is significantly inhibited by the dearth of serious attempts to reimagine England and ­different English futures, whether culturally or democratically.

It is not just the deep politics of the Union and its different peoples that Brexit has revived. The divisions over Britain’s economy that were opened up and positioned during the Edwardian era have also returned to the centre of political debate. Though as yet this is more apparent in her rhetoric than in her practice, Theresa May seems drawn to the project of reviving the Chamberlainite economic and social agendas: using Brexit to underpin arguments for an industrial strategy, a soft economic nationalism and social reform for the “just about managing” classes. She has created a new department responsible for industrial strategy and advocated places for workers on company boards (before watering down this commitment) as well as increased scrutiny of foreign takeovers of British firms. Housing policy is to be refocused away from subsidising home ownership and directed towards building homes and supporting private renters. Fiscal policy has been relaxed, with increased infrastructure investment promised. The coalition that delivered Brexit – made up of struggling working-class voters and middle-class older voters (or the “excluded and the insulated”, as the Tory peer David Willetts puts it) – is seen as the ballast for a new Conservative hegemony.

Presentationally, May’s vision of Brexit Britain’s political economy is more Chamberlainite than Thatcherite, a shift that has been obscured in Brexit-related debates about migration and tariff-free access to the European single market. Her economic utterances are edged with a national, if not nationalist, framing and an economic interventionism more commonly associated with the Heseltinian, pro-European wing of her party. In a calculated move replete with symbolism, she launched her economic prospectus for the Tory leadership in Birmingham, advertising her commitment to the regions and their industries, rather than the City of London and the financial interest.

It is therefore possible that May’s project might turn into an attempt to decouple Conservative Euroscepticism from Thatcherism, creating a new fusion with Tory “One Nation” economic and social traditions. It is this realignment that has left the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, often exposed in recent months, since the Treasury is institutionally hostile both to economic interventionism and to withdrawal from the single market. Hence his recent threat to the European Union that if Britain cannot secure a decent Brexit deal, it will need to become a deregulated, low-tax, Dubai-style “world island” to remain competitive. He cannot envisage another route to economic prosperity outside the European Union.

It also leaves those on the Thatcherite right somewhat uncertain about May. For while she has sanctioned a hard Brexit, in crucial respects she appears to demur from their political economy, hence the discontent over the government’s deal to secure Nissan’s investment in Sunderland. As her Lancaster House speech made clear, she envisages Brexit in terms of economically illiberal goals, such as the restriction of immigration, which she believes can be combined with the achievement of the new free trade deals that are totemic for her party’s Eurosceptics.

In practice, the Prime Minister’s willingness to endorse Hammond’s negotiating bluster about corporate tax cuts and deregulation shows that she is anything but secure in her Chamberlainite orientation towards industrial strategy and social reform. Her policy positions are shot through with the strategic tension between an offshore, “global Britain” tax haven and her rhetoric of a “shared society”, which will be difficult to resolve. May has embraced hard (she prefers “clean”) Brexit, but a transformation of the axes of conservative politics will only take place if she combines Euroscepticism with a return to pre-Thatcherite economic and social traditions. This would make her party into an even more potent political force. The recent shift of the Ukip vote into the Tory bloc and the notable weakening of Labour’s working-class support suggest what might now be possible. This is the domestic politics of Chamberlain’s social imperialism shorn of empire and tariff – only this time with better electoral prospects.

 

***

 

There are some big pieces of 20th-century political history missing from this jigsaw, however. In the 1930s, Chamberlain’s son Neville succeeded where his father had failed in introducing a modest version of tariff reform, and trade within the empire rebounded. Britain abandoned the gold standard in 1931 and cheap money revived the national economy. The collectivism of the wartime command economy and the postwar Keynesian settlement followed. New forms of economic strategy, industrial policy and social reform were pioneered, and the Treasury beliefs in limited state intervention, “sound money” and free trade that had defined the first decades of the 20th century were defeated.

This era was brought to an end by the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. Her government smashed the industrial pillars and the class compromises that had underpinned the postwar world. The ensuing “New Labour” governments inherited a transformed political economy and, in turn, sought to fuse liberal with collectivist strands in a new settlement for the post-industrial economy. What many now view as the end of the neoliberal consensus is, therefore, better seen as the revival of patterns of thinking that pre-date Thatcherism. This tells us much about the persistent and deep problems of Britain’s open economic model and the continuing, unresolved conflict between finance and parts of industry, as well as London and the regions.

Brexit brings these tensions back to the surface of British politics, because it requires the construction of a completely new national economic and political settlement – one that will be thrashed out between the social classes, the leading sectors of the economy, and the nations and regions of the United Kingdom.

Few peacetime prime ministers have confronted the scale and kinds of challenge that Brexit will throw up: holding together the UK, revitalising our industrial base, delivering shared prosperity to working people and renegotiating Britain’s place in Europe and the wider world. This is the most formidable list of challenges. Lesser ones, we should recall, defeated Joe Chamberlain.

Michael Kenny is the inaugural director of the Mile End Institute policy centre, based at Queen Mary University of London

Nick Pearce is professor of public policy at the University of Bath

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era