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

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