Yarl's Wood Parents on hunger strike to end child detention

By Bianca Brigitte Bonomi (Institute of Race Relations)

27 July 2006, 3:00pm

Parents currently being detained in Yarl's Wood removal centre have begun a hunger strike in a desperate bid to draw attention to the sufferings of their children.

The alarming action, which started at breakfast time this morning, is regarded by the parents as being a drastic, but necessary stage in their campaign to give their children a normal life. One father said: 'We are tired of being treated as less than human beings. The ill treatment of our wives and children must stop. They deserve to be treated with human dignity.'

The plight of the parents and their children was recently documented by Nellie de Jongh, a Zimbabwean refugee, who spent a week with the imprisoned mothers in Yarl's Wood. Her shocking findings appear to reveal neglect and highlight the unsuitability and inhumanity of this environment for children.

SHOCKING DETAILS OF CHILD DETENTION

She profiles a number of cases, including that of Aboubacar Bailey Junior, a four-month-old baby born into the 'captivity of Holloway prison'. According to Ms de Jongh, this child 'served his first 79 days and was then transferred to continue his indefinite sentence in Yarl's Wood'. UK immigration law dictates that this baby's 'crime' is his parentage, as he 'must take the immigration status of his mother'. Baby Aboubacar suffers with a skin condition, but since arriving in Yarl's Wood, his mother does not believe that he has received adequate medical attention. Another child, Aliyah Benoni, was similarly born in prison. For the first days of her life she remained in 'captivity' and now her formative months are being spent in Yarl's Wood, where she continues to serve her indefinite sentence.

Aboubacar's mother Halama revealed to Ms de Jongh her belief that her baby was better taken care of at Holloway prison, where extra milk was provided for new mothers. The findings suggest that factors, including lack of appetite and sleep deficiency, are making it harder for the women to produce vital milk and highlight the fact that the conditions of Yarl's Wood are not conducive to motherhood. Halama said 'I believe that the only reason why babies were treated better in prison is because in prison there are British nationals and at immigration removal centres we are all foreign nationals. That is why they don't care about our babies'.

DRAINING OF NORMALITY

An additional case study documented in Ms de Jongh's report is that of sisters Princess and Promise Solomon. The extent to which these children are being criminalised is highlighted by the fact that they are required to carry an identification card 'at all times', which 'must be produced on request to Officers to obtain access to the centre facilities'. These cards are contributing to the alienation felt by the children, forced to inhabit a completely alien world. The effect that this environment has had on the sisters' physical wellbeing is disturbing. Two and a half year-old Promise has been suffering from recurrent nose bleeds, recognised as a sign of stress, yet her mother alleges that she has not received a thorough medical check up. She is now required to cradle her child each night, as on previous occasions, Promise has awoken with her bedding and clothing covered in blood. One mother has alleged that her two sons Adecokundo and Adeole Taiwo were snatched along with herself in a 'dawn raid'. Prior to their detention, the brothers had been to visit their local doctor and were undergoing treatment for an infection; treatment that their mother now complains is not being followed up in Yarl's Wood. Another young child, Molly Ssebatta, has witnessed a deterioration in her speech since arriving at Yarl's Wood. Equally worrying to her parents is the fact that she has also lost her appetite. Like the other children confined to the grey walls of Yarl's Wood, she simply wants to go back to school and see her friends.

CORROBORATION BY ALL PARY PARLIAMENTARY GROUPS ON CHILDREN AND REFUGEES

Ms de Jongh's disturbing findings are corroborated by a recent paper entitled 'Alternatives to immigration detention of families and children', published for the All Party Parliamentary Groups on Children and Refugees. In its Preface, the paper states: 'Each year, the UK detains around 2,000 children with their families for the purposes of immigration control. Many of these families are here to seek asylum, some have overstayed their visas and others are victims of trafficking. The decision to detain these children is an administrative one and does not require any judicial sanction - their detention is subject to neither independent scrutiny nor time limit. Many of these families have complex immigration or asylum cases, and have experienced trauma and distress. Their children's health, education and emotional needs are rarely met in detention centres.' The paper continues: 'This policy makes a mockery of child rights legislation. The detention of these children runs contrary to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) - though the Government's existing reservation to the UNCRC in relation to immigration means that children are excluded from its protection. Furthermore, the Government's stated aim in its flagship children's policy, Every Child Matters, is for "every child, whatever their background or their circumstances, to have the support they need to: be healthy, stay safe; enjoy and achieve; make a positive contribution; achieve economic well-being." Contrary to government assurances that this also applies to asylum-seeking children, it is clear that in some cases not every child matters.'

The Chief Inspector of Prisons, Anne Owers, has similarly criticised the detention of children. In a recent report, she drew attention to specific concerns about the treatment of families and children in Yarl's Wood.

The parents on hunger strike at Yarl's Wood face a challenging struggle, but supporters hope that the Home Office will act in order to prevent further physical and psychological health problems. As one campaigner told IRR News: 'For these children to be the future, we need to make detention and detainment a thing of the past.'

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