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20 November 2008

We will get there

The New Statesman’s campaign to free children locked up in UK detention centres has made progress

By Alice O'Keeffe

“Yesterday was one of the worst days I have ever had to experience,” wrote Bethlehem Abate, aged 11. She described how immigration officers had stormed into her home in Leeds, bundling her and her mother into a van. She was writing from inside Yarl’s Wood detention centre. “It felt like we were in prison for doing an awful crime . . . I hope God will get rid of all these worries and this guilt inside because I know . . . that me and my mum are not bad persons.”

This was one of the many responses to the New Statesman‘s No Place for Children campaign, launched in early September with the aim of ending detention of children for immigration reasons. Juliet Stevenson, one of the campaign’s supporters, recently performed Motherland, a play telling the stories of detained women and children in verbatim, in the Houses of Parliament. She remarked on the disparity between the reactions of audiences and the messages from political leaders: “When we perform Motherland people are horrified by the stories they hear, and that is a great source of optimism. But we have to set that against a hardening of attitudes in government.”

Other sources of optimism have emerged from the campaign. The No Place for Children petition, which will be sent to the Home Secretary this month, has more than 3,300 signatures. Among them are writers, politicians and opinion-formers, including Philip Pullman, Nick Hornby and the heads of major children’s charities. On signing the petition, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams (right), said: “If it’s true that a measure of our civilisation is how we treat children, this country still has some way to go. The tragedy of children . . . having to experience conditions appropriate for sentenced offenders is something that has to be challenged, and I am very glad to see this campaign initiated.”

There has been some progress. Since the launch of No Place for Children, the government has announced that it would sign the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in full, dropping the “reservation” that had exempted refugee and asylum-seeking children from enjoying the same rights as those with British citizenship. The Immigration and Citizenship Bill, which goes before parliament in January, imposes a duty on the UK Border Agency for the safety and welfare of children in its care. And, in Scotland, a new project will test alternatives to detention for families.

However, the punitive system that deprives 1,000 innocent children of their liberty in Britain’s immigration detention centres is still in place. The New Statesman will continue to work to bring about change. As Natasha Walter, of the charity Women for Refugee Women, says: “This is not a sprint – it’s a marathon. But we will get there.”

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