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4 September 2008

A pointless and brutal practice

Natasha Walter introduces the shocking cases of two young girls detained at Yarl's Wood

By Natasha Walter

Having worked as a journalist for the past 15 years, I have met quite a few people with heart-rending stories to tell, and whose courage in overcoming adversity has been extraordinary. But some of the people whose experiences have moved me the most I have met right here in the UK, and they are children.

I first met Meltem Avcil in Yarl’s Wood detention centre near Bedford last year, when she was just 13 years old. Meltem had been living in the UK for six years, but was snatched from her home with her mother at dawn and then imprisoned for three months. Meltem supported her mother by listening to her experiences of torture and persecution in Turkey. She spoke bravely to journalists and campaigners, and wrote hopeful letters to lawyers. Meltem and her mother now have refugee status and will be able to live in the UK safely, but if they had not resisted their attempted deportation, they would now be back in Turkey. While she was in Yarl’s Wood she made friends with other girls her age, including Jasmine from Cameroon, whose story appears below, and who had been detained with her mother and younger sister.

In 2006 I founded a charity, Women for Refugee Women, which works in partnership with other organisations to raise awareness of how the British asylum system fails women and children. Undoubtedly one of the worst aspects of the current asylum system is the detention of children and families. This policy is carried out with an absence of any proper transparency or accountability: while one family will escape detention, another in precisely the same situation will be detained without warning. While one family will be detained just before deportation, another will be locked up while parents are in the middle of making their asylum claim. While one family will be detained for a couple of days, another family will be imprisoned for months. As you can see in the stories told in this launch issue for the New Statesman‘s No Place for Children campaign, many of the families that are detained and even put on the aeroplane for deportation actually have watertight legal claims to stay in this country.

I visited Meltem in detention with the actor Juliet Stevenson, and we subsequently told her story and those of other asylum-seekers who had been detained in Yarl’s Wood in theatrical form. The play Motherland enjoyed sell-out performances at the Young Vic in March this year and will be performed at Westminster on 10 November. Our hope is that it might bring home to politicians and policymakers the effects of their policies on individual women and children.

Although Meltem can now invest her energies in her education and her life as an ordinary teenager, she admits that she feels that the trauma of being detained will never leave her. Whenever I talk to her I am struck by her lack of bitterness, and her determination to give something back to the society that treated her with such cruel disregard.

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I hope that the vivid moral example of this child and others like her will one day move ordinary British people to understand why the detention of families is both brutal and pointless, and why it should now be stopped.

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