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Innocent prisoners

Only Asylum-seekers' children can be locked up without committing a crime. Gillian Slovo visited two

I stood in front of the visitors' door of Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre, near Bedford, waiting for a rubber-gloved guard to unlock a door, check my fingerprints, pat-search me, unlock another door, let me into a large room, and then lock me in. Memories of visiting my parents in South African jails, of gates and turning keys, resounded. The memories knocked again, and loudly, as I watched a child dressed in pink skipping through a door that had just been unlocked. But this time, while I was still the visitor, the child was the imprisoned.

In the week that the solicitor of an eight-year-old Iranian boy, having challenged the legality of his detention, secured his release from Yarl's Wood at the high court, 36 other children remained in detention. Marie, who "celebrated" her third birthday in Yarl's Wood, and her baby brother, John, are two of them. They are the children of Elizabeth Kiwunga Rushamba, a Ugandan asylum-seeker, and this is Marie's second stay. Children can only be held for more than 28 days with ministerial authorisation: by the time I visited, Marie and John had been in for 57. With Elizabeth's bail application pending, she has no idea how long they will be incarcerated.

From the outside Yarl's Wood, sitting squatly in a complex that includes a Red Bull wind tunnel, and a roofing and a storage company, looks more like an anonymous technical college than a detention centre. It can hold 405 women and children: at present there are around 350. With plans to increase numbers of detentions by as much as 60 per cent, there is talk of rebuilding the section destroyed in a fire soon after Yarl's Wood opened in 2001.

The right to seek asylum was born out of a world shamed by the genocide of the Holocaust. And yet asylum has now become a political football, with the government so determined to prove its muscle that it is prepared to lock up children. Yarl's Wood's inmates have committed no crime: although detention is supposed to be their last stop before removal, many appeal and are then let out pending further adjudication.

Women with children are kept in a special unit inside the complex. Child protection rules mean that their section is closed off, thus increasing the number of keys that must be turned in locks every time the children leave their section. It took me, what with queuing, fingerprinting, photographing and searching, 15 minutes to make it to the visitors' room: it took Elizabeth and her children, waiting for a guard to bring them down, another 20. As I sat at table number 25, on a blue-cushioned chair in a sea of other, identical chairs and tables, I read the rules. "Please note," I read, "that a hug and kiss at the start and end of your visit is acceptable only," this a result, my guide Heather Jones of Yarl's Wood Befrienders told me, of couples becoming a little too intimate in the visitors' room.

Three-year-old Marie made straight for the small plastic slide that stood by a television blaring out a Fifties Christmas movie. There she stayed, playing loudly for almost all the time we adults talked, while her baby brother sat on Heather's lap. Only towards the end of the interview, as tears leaked down her mother's cheeks, did Marie join us. She climbed all over her mother as if nothing out of the ordinary was occurring. "Perhaps she has seen her mother cry too often," was Heather's comment.

In her short life, Marie has seen many things. She was two when officials stormed her home at 6am after Elizabeth's first asylum application was refused. Marie was witness to her pregnant mother being pushed out and shoved into a van. The metronome of dates that her mother narrates - October to November 2007, and 13 July until this moment - is the stuff of Marie's young life.

Her world is this prison

She has seen her mother being restrained by a police officer while she brushed her teeth, and she has seen the same officer watching while her mother washed her. She and her baby brother were put alone into a police van, only to re-meet their mother in a police station. Now her world is reduced to Yarl's Wood family centre, the room with its two fitted beds and squeezed-in cot, and the nursery where other children inexplicably appear and disappear, and this space where visitors may come.

If her fingernails need cutting she must go with her mother to the office so they may use the only available scissors: she stands mute as her mother pleads for juice and baby yoghurt to help her brother's constipation. And when she sees her mother crying she acts as if she hasn't.

Marie's experiences are not uncommon. Take the seven-year-old daughter and the nine- and twelve-year-old sons of Margaret (not her real name). The two youngest were asleep at home in December 2007 when Margaret heard rattling. Having recently rid her house of rats, she thought they must have come back. But no - the noise was coming not from the kitchen, but from the front door. She shouted out to ask who was there and when the answer came "Police" she, who lived in an area where the police often came to ask about her neighbours, was not too perturbed. But when she opened the door a crack, 15 officials from immigration and the police - she couldn't tell which was which - burst in.

Margaret tells me that while she was kept naked in a downstairs room, in the company of three male officers, others - only two of them women - went upstairs for the children. The two youngest were shaken awake by strangers: "Come on, we're going for a little ride." Because the elder son was not at home, a policeman used Margaret's mobile phone to ring him. "We've got your mum," he was told. "You've got to give us the address where you are." Margaret said, "My son did not know whether somebody was telling him whether his mum was dead." Only when the mother of the friend with whom the boy was staying insisted on driving him home, rather than to an anonymous police station as she was told to do, did he discover that his mother, although distraught, was basically all right.

And there was worse to come. Margaret is HIV-positive and, being unwell, was suspected of having contracted TB. She says that for the first 11 days of their second detention, she and her children were kept in the health centre in solitary seclusion. They were allowed out for only half an hour a day.

Of Yarl's Wood health care, Nick Lessof, consultant paediatrician at Homerton Hospital in east London, who on behalf of Medical Justice has helped some of the detained children, says: "Apart from the intrinsic harm in detaining children, there is a very serious lack of health care in Yarl's Wood. It is a culture in which children remain invisible, a good old-fashioned whistle-blowing scandal. What officials say is happening bears no relation to reality."

He goes on to describe the cases of two children, both suffering from sickle cell anaemia, who turned up at the health centre with temperatures of 40 degrees and refusing to drink. "If this happened within the NHS, these children, who have a serious disease, would immediately be admitted to hospital and given IV fluids and IV antibiotics." At Yarl's Wood they were sent back to the rooms, their mothers told merely to make their listless children drink more.

Margaret's children might well see more of the health centre soon: they are to be tested for HIV. When Margaret was free, she was counselled and prepared before she took her test, so that when the news came it wasn't such a shock. But this time there has been no counselling. "The kids are going to testing on Monday," she says. "I'm just numb. Numb."

It is the children who bear the effects of their mother's numbness. "If the kids don't want to go to school," Margaret says, "they don't have to. They just sit in rooms." She describes herself as always tired, unable to look after them. "The eldest boy looks after the others," she says. "He carries my burden. He feels what I'm going through."

Numbness is a good word for Yarl's Wood. It is what I have felt on both occasions of my visits there. I sat opposite some of the poorest, most powerless, and certainly the most disenfranchised women in this country, as they held on to the pieces of paper that they produce over and over again to try to explain their case to strangers. Most of them have already suffered terrible harm - a fact the Home Office often concedes while adding that, the situation in their country having changed, they can now go back.

Detention centres such as Yarl's Wood are there, the government would argue, to stop failed asylum-seekers from absconding. Yet surely women with children who go to school and nursery are among the least likely of absconders?

The children of asylum-seekers are the only children in this country who can be locked up without oversight of the courts and without ever having committed a crime. The government's decision to detain them is not subject to judicial scrutiny. They are the casualties of a political system that demonises asylum-seekers.

Take Amina (not her real name), another former inmate, who was released from custody because, as a victim of torture, she should, even by Home Office rules, never have been imprisoned. Amina said: "I don't think they even value us as people . . . I don't think this would happen if this was the British public . . . They do these things because we are detainees." After a visit to Yarl's Wood, it is hard not to agree with her.

Yarl's Wood is one step on from 42-day detention for suspects. It is not simply that compassion and dignity are being denied but that a fundamental principle of our democracy - that we do not imprison children - is openly flouted.

Speaking in 2007, Liam Byrne, minister of state at the Home Office, said: "I have to sign the authorisation for every child held in detention for longer than 28 days. I have never signed that authorisation without thinking of my three children at home."

Are these not just crocodile tears? For can we really believe the minister would stand silently if his children were threatened with this kind of mistreatment? And would we? Would we stay silent if they were our children?

Gillian Slovo's latest novel, "Black Orchids", will be published by Virago in November (£17.99)

This article appears in the 15 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Iran