Their right to liberty

The NS campaign against holding children in immigration detention centres has gathered powerful supp

Last year's Christmas issue of the New Statesman contained my report from the Yarl's Wood detention centre in Bedford, where I went to visit two families. Aderonke Falode was being detained with her three sons, Adeboye, nine, Adedire, 12, and Adebowale, 14. Comfort Adefowoju had four children with her, including her seven-month-old baby, Sarah. Sarah's face was covered in livid red eczema, and Comfort had not been provided with medicine or enough food for her. "It's four o'clock and Sarah has had only one bottle so far today," she said.

The older children told me of their distress at being woken in the early hours by teams of immigration officers who gave them a matter of minutes to pack their things and leave for detention, followed by possible "removal" to countries they had little or no memory of. They were receiving only the most basic education and medical care. More than anything else, they were living in fear. "They make you feel like a criminal, when you haven't done anything wrong," said Adebowale, who had been removed from school in the middle of his GCSEs.

That report would lead, in 2008, to the launch of the New Statesman's No Place for Children campaign, which calls for an end to the detention of children for immigration reasons. After I left Yarl's Wood that afternoon, I discovered that the UK locks up about 2,000 children every year in immigration detention centres, with woefully inadequate provision for their well-being and no judicial review of their cases. They can be held for an indefinite period of time.

The tragedy of children having to experience conditions appropriate for sentenced offenders has to be challenged

The stories I heard from campaigners and visitors to detention centres grew ever more shocking: Baby C, a 12-week-old suffering from gastroenteritis, was left with no food for 18 hours while being held at Yarl's Wood with her mother; Meltem Avcil, 14, who wrote a moving testimony for the campaign's launch issue, was hospitalised after cutting her wrists when her mother's bail application was refused for the third time (she and her mother have both since been granted asylum).

The Children's Commissioner for England, Sir Al Aynsley-Green, argued passionately in the New Statesman that the way the UK immigration system treats children is "positively cruel" and "inhuman". He called on the government to "live up to its rhetoric by making sure that every child really does matter". Many other high-profile supporters of the campaign supported his call, from Juliet Stevenson and Philip Pullman to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who said that: "The tragedy of children having to experience conditions appropriate for sentenced offenders is something that has to be challenged."

The response from the Home Office has been to defend the policy on the basis that, as the former minister for immigration Liam Byrne wrote: "We never want to split up families."

They have not provided any evidence that detaining families is necessary, and their promised testing of alternative ways of dealing with children in the immigration system has been badly planned and inconclusive. There seems to be no sense of urgency for a proper review of the system: Phil Woolas used his first interviews as the sector minister to play to attack immigration lawyers and NGOs. He made the suggestion, later hurriedly withdrawn, that the government would introduce a "cap" on immigration.

Only pressure from the public for reform will create any real and secure chance of humane treatment for children in the UK immigration system. The No Place for Children campaign has provided a platform for that: more than 3,000 people signed our petition addressed to the Home Secretary, and many more wrote letters and emails in support. There is a powerful lobby of campaigners, lawyers, politicians, writers and opinion-formers building around this issue. Let's hope 2009 is the year the government finally grants all children in Britain their most basic right to liberty.