I’ve been off this blog for a good while as you will have noticed. Busy with the International Petition to Stop School League Tables for Five Year Olds  (if you haven’t signed yet, do consider it.) It was featured in Nursery World this week:

 Nursery World article on Stop School League Tables for Five Year Olds International Petition

I’d been wondering how to pick up on this news blog once more after such a long time – but then realised that a very important High Court Judgement was served this week – highly relevant to the issues around child detention that campaigners have been dragging into the light of print (and screen) for many years. An end to child detention? Read this analysis of the High Court judgement written by Simon Parker:

“In the High Court on Tuesday, Mr Justice Wyn Williams might have driven the last nail into the coffin of Britain’s infamous and long-running child immigration detention policy. The detaining of children for immigration purposes has been denounced as a ‘scandal’ and a ‘moral outrage’ by the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, yet the current Home Secretary has spared no expense in expertly and robustly defending the policy…

see..Open Democracy for the rest of this piece:

Following leaks to the Socialist Worker the Guardian reports today:

“Children in immigration centres face deportation within weeks…

“Immigration officials charged with carrying out the government’s pledge to end the detention of children in immigration centres have launched a scheme designed to deport them and their families from the country within weeks.

The move dashes expectations of a more liberal alternative to child detention. Families with children facing removal are to be given a two-week ultimatum to leave the country voluntarily, according to a document seen by the Guardian”

See also: The Guardian report

Socialist Worker Exclusive: Tories and secret plans to deport children (report on leaked UKBA documents).

Amongst the tragic litany of human rights failings at Yarl’s Wood comes this news release I received from Clare Sambrook today. She attached a PDF file of the Executive summary of an independent review by Befordshire local safeguarding children board.

Clare’s copy follows:

The report exposes litany of failings by: Local authority managers, Local authority social workers Local police, Local GP UKBA’s ‘Children’s Champion’ and Serco.

Commenting on the report, Malcolm Stevens, former senior government advisor on Social Services said: ‘Yarl’s Wood failed these children. Here is evidence of whole system failure in and around Yarl’s Wood. This calls into question whether the children there now are being properly looked after. It calls into question the competence of UKBA to conduct the current review into arrangements for children. The government urgently needs to appoint someone with independence, experience and professional competence to run the Review into ending child detention.’
Malcolm Stevens, Justicecare Solutions.

Among the failings:

The Local Authority learned of evidence that children below the age of criminal responsibility engaged in sexual activity but failed to carry out complex enquiries in respect of two families, under section 47, Children Act, 1989.

The local authorities’ managers and social workers misunderstood the significance which should attach to the age of criminal responsibility

They misunderstood the concept of “consent” believing in error that such young children could be consensually involved in sexual activity.

They failed to investigate concerns that older children may also have been involved in the sexual abuse of a child, and that these older young people might pose a continuing threat to other detainees.

The local authority social workers:
failed to interview the mother of a child said to have been abused;
failed to liaise adequately with other agencies;
failed to carry out appropriate checks with other localities;
failed adequately to secure police involvement in the enquiries.

The police:
inappropriately terminated their inquiries without reference to specialist child protection officers.

The GP failed to recognise that this was a child protection situation, failed to ensure that the child was seen by a paediatrician.

UKBA’s ‘Children’s Champion’ failed to challenge the decisions made by local statutory agencies.

UKBA failed to brief ministers properly: ‘UKBA provided information, on the basis of which a ministerial decision was made affecting the continued detention of children,’ says the report: ‘Although that factual information included reference to the incident leading to this review, there was no evaluation of the impact that this incident had on the propriety of detention.’

Children were failed by the UKBA / Bedfordshire Council arrangements for safeguarding: ‘This Service did not challenge the weaknesses and confusion inherent in the approach of the local authorities and GP,’ says the report. ‘This raises concerns about the effectiveness of these arrangements and suggests the role of the workers within the Service should be reviewed.’

Vulnerable children fell through the gap in regulatory arrangements. ‘. . It appears that no single agency has an adequate overarching responsibility for regulation of services to children in immigration detention,’ says the report.

The report makes stringent and detailed recommendations whose severity highlights the degree and multiplicity of failures of care in this case.

Eg SERCO should:

a) ensure that it can discharge its specific duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children, in a way that is not solely reliant on other agencies, and includes an assessment of a child’s welfare needs and any risks posed to or by that child.

b) review arrangements for joint working with Bedford Borough Council to ensure that there are clear systems for feedback to residents of the IRC detained with children, the outcome of any Bedford Borough Council involvement, including options for taking the matter further if the resident remains dissatisfied.

c) review the form and use of Keeping Children Safe from Harm documents. The review should take account of the Common Assessment Framework.

SERCO Healthcare should ensure that medical practitioners and other health staff providing services at the IRC are aware of their responsibility to ensure they are familiar with and follow local child protection arrangements including the need to consult a paediatric specialist.

END CHILD DETENTION NOW

End of copy.

According to a spokesperson from the charity “Refugee and Migrant Justice”  recent changes in the U.K “Legal Aid” system are putting the lives of up to ten thousand asylum seekers (including hundreds of children) at risk:

“We are facing possible closure as a result of a new system of payment of legal aid whereby payments are only made when stages are closed – which in our case is on average 6 months after work is started and can take up to two years. We are not asking for more money, just prompt payment of what we are due…

…the possible closure of Refugee and Migrant Justice will affect 10 000 asylum seekers in the UK; they will be left without legal representation, and may be forced to return to persecution, torture, and the threat of death. 900 of our clients at the moment are children.

We have been in private touch with the new Ministers but, despite some sympathy in the Home Office from Damian Green have just received a negative response from a junior Ministry of Justice Minister. So we are launching a public campaign.

We managed to get a letter of support out yesterday, signed by various public figures, and hope that this will put some pressure on the government. However, that alone is not enough. We are encouraging people to write to Ken Clarke in protest at our closure; we also want to raise awareness of the situation as widely as possible, in as many different sectors as we can.”

Possible closure of the charity looms: “As a result of a new system of payment of legal aid whereby payments are only made when stages are closed – which in our case is on average 6 months after work is started and can take up to two years”.

“We are not asking for more money” says the charity “just prompt payment of what we are due”.  

Who will be affected: (statement by Refugee and Migrant Justice)

Asylum seekers who have fled their homes and families in fear of persecution or death. Home Office officials often fail to identify asylum seekers in need of protection, including those with additional vulnerabilities, such as victims of torture, rape or trafficking. Thousands of asylum seekers are detained each year having committed no crime. They are given no indication of the length of detention and can be kept for months or years.

Children who have travelled to the U.K with or without their families. Many children are treated as adults by the Home Office. Even those who are accepted as children can face an intimidating culture of disbelief when telling their story and are interviewed without legal representation or an independent adult present. Refugee and Migrant Justice fights to help them secure protection and a real chance of a future. The Government has announced that it will end the detention of children, but many will continue to be detained while it is deciding what alternative arrangements it will put in place.

Victims of trafficking for labour or sexual exploitation. Refugee and Migrant Justice works to make sure victims of trafficking are given the legal protection they deserve and campaign to stop victims of trafficking being prosecuted for ‘crimes’ committed under duress. 

For more information contact Refugee and Migrant Justice. 

Read these blog posts alongside this piece: Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre and the 2010 hunger strike.

Email interview I conducted with a Home Office spokesperson earlier this year, in which Meg Hillier describes her views on the legal assistance available to asylum seekers and their families.

I vowed to post once a week on this blog and have kept it up so far with the exception of last month. Rest assured readers – if you don’t see me here for a while I’m dealing with some other journalistic work generally relevant to the issues at hand.

There appears to be some movement in the coalition agreements as far as the detention of immigrant children is concerned. See these latest reports on the Coalition Agreement to end the detention of immigrant children from the magazine “Children and Young People Now”.

See also: Coalition government urged not to split up asylum-seeking families.

The Cast. Lydia Besong's play "How I became an Asylum Seeker". Photograph by Shaheda Choudhury.

As this blog reaches it’s first anniversary the stories that have been whispering in my ear over the past twelve months are drawn together: 

The Yarl’s Wood hunger strike. The forthcoming election. War and refugee movements. The unsavoury ways in which political parties capitalise on people’s fears about immigration.  A lack of funding for investigative journalism, censorship – and  recurring, stereotypical images of asylum seekers in the press.   

 Attending the “Arise and Shine” woman asylum seekers self-advocacy event in Manchester last week addressed all of these narratives.   

 The play and workshops were billed as a ‘Professional Development Opportunity’.  As a trained teacher in Adult Education as well as a journalist I had  a critical eye on how the event was organised. I was impressed from the start.   

The picture on the left, (copyright Shaheda Choudhury) – shows a cross-section of the audience as viewed from the Zion Centre gallery.   

Amongst the two hundred delegates – I found Sure Start staff, the manager of a hostel for homeless women, at least one NHS manager, members of the police force and the manager of a council unit responsible for child protection. Concrete proof that this event would be  reaching and educating vast sections of the community.   

"How I became an Asylum Seeker". Drama by Lydia Besong. Photograph Shaheda Choudhury.

 Having conducted interviews with hunger strikers at Yarl’s Wood and researched the fast-track asylum process – I found the story depicted through drama was tragically familiar.   

A woman and her family encounter extreme violence and oppression in their country of origin. If she is to save herself and her child the woman is forced to leave. And so she begins to navigate U.K. border control and the asylum system.   

The play is authentic. The actors tentative perhaps – but their performance will surely gain in strength as the cast tour other towns and cities such as Liverpool.    

"Taking the Details" Photograph by Shaheda Choudhury. Drama by Lydia Besong

For me the most telling moment of the play came when the main character reached an immigration detention centre. The actor in the yellow jacket is playing the role of the employee of a private security company in charge of taking the details of what has happened to our detainee.  

At first, I didn’t think this photograph was a particularly good one, simply because the clip board obscures the face of our main character. But then maybe it conveys the essence of the scene. The security officer is asking the woman for her mother’s date and year of birth. The woman says she doesn’t know – says she is too stressed to remember. Not just her face is obscured by the form the officer is filling in. The truth of her story is hidden too.  The audience quickly realises she is in danger of being dehumanised by the process.   

This is the violence of the fast-track asylum process. People are put in a position where it is extremely difficult or impossible for them to share their truth. And this is how our government makes judgements about their future.  

Watching this scene – I put myself in our main character’s shoes for a moment. I realised I don’t even know my own mother’s exact date of birth and would not be able to give that information anyway. How much more difficult would it be to hold things together and communicate clearly in the aftermath of rape, violence and the trauma of being separated from loved ones – in a language which is not your mother tongue?  

Responses to the Play "How I became an Asylum Seeker". Photograph Shaheda Choudhury

 In the hour long workshop that followed the performance we were asked for reactions to the play. You can see some of these in this picture:  

We were also asked to pinpoint how our perceptions had changed as result of watching the performance.  

Each of the workshop groups was attended by a member of the cast.  

In this next photograph I’m discussing perceptions and issues raised. One of our groups included a Sure Start worker.  A lack of child care hits asylum seekers and mothers with children under three particularly hard. Asylum seekers are not entitled the free fifteen hours a week provided by the state that other women living here can access as a matter of course. 

Women spoke of how their independence had been curtailed by the fact that they were not allowed to do paid work. In countries of origin it was not unusual for women to be the bread-winners in their families.  

Some delegates at the workshop had not known about the voucher system for asylum seekers and how it works. Asylum seekers can only use their vouchers at certain stores. They are often asked for I.D. On a practical level this means that each time you go shopping you run the risk that the whole store finds out that you are seeking asylum. Often the assistant holds up their hand and shouts for assistance from the supervisor. Vouchers cannot be used on public transport.  

Workshop. Picture by Shaheda Choudhury. Photograph by Shaheda Choudhury

One of the cast members I spoke to had a child aged one. I know from personal experience how challenging the birth of a child can be for a mother and her family.  

I’ve heard some mums describe this experience as nothing less a “bombshell dropping” on their lives. How strong then, did this brave young woman need to be – who was not only bringing up her child with confidence  – but who was also still dealing with the trauma of the violent situation she had left behind.  

Some of the issues raised. Picture by Shaheda Choudhury

Of the two hundred so so delegates that attended the conference – I was the only person displaying  press I.D. Why? This is a significant question, especially in a city like Manchester, where there are literally thousands of journalists, reporters, photographers and film-makers.
We know that editors and managers of newspapers are cutting back on travel expenses and training costs.
I mention all this as part of my virtual ‘feedback form’ for WAST and GAP the organisations who organised this event. I really hope that you’ll steam ahead with this important work – and succeed in getting more journos and perhaps the NUJ and even the entertainment union (BECTU) on board.
 Popular misconceptions about how journalists work (and how their work is funded) are directly relevant to the issues at hand. When I said I was a “journalist” the taxi driver who dropped me off at the Zion Centre asked me for a  “diamond ring”. Perhaps he’d been reading too many celebrity magazines. I didn’t tell him that in fact I wasn’t getting paid for attending the WAST event or indeed, for writing this blog post. And that’s part of the problem. Funding for quality journalism.
Managers of newspapers are increasingly curtailing the frequency with which reporters are sent out to the field and covering such events is often left to intrepid freelancers like me. We can be fairly certain a lack of access to professional development opportunities like this affects the quality of reporting in the long run.
 Immigration and asylum issues can be  complicated. If your boss says they can’t afford to send you to an event, you cannot be there in person and have to use the telephone and the internet – there’s a danger that your information will be second-hand.

Women Asylum Seekers Together. Picture by Shaheda Choudhury

Members of the media, the unions and the voluntary sector should be working together to counteract dangerous and misleading stereotypes through training. This type of event is really needed.
I’ll leave you with a few pointers about some really handy leaflets I picked up at the event.
The first one is called: “”Mobiles, money and mayhem. The Facts and Fibs about Asylum – a witty pop-it-in-your-pocket-guide” available from www.refugee-action.org.uk who will come and give a free talk if your organisation fancies finding out a bit more about asylum in the U.K. This page debunks the myth: “All asylum seekers are blowing their benefit on leather jackets”.

Mobiles, Money and Mayhem. The facts (and fibs) about Asylum. Picture by Frances Laing. Publication by refugee-action.org.uk

In reality “Because asylum seekers are not allowed to work they’re given basic  financial support to live on. In Britain if you’re a single person aged 25 or over and on Income Support you’re entitled to get £57.45 a week. But if you’re an asylum seeker in Britain you get 30% less than that. You get £40.22 a week. Which you’d probably want to spend on some of life’s essentials, like say, food rather than blowing it all on a leather jacket…
All asylum seekers come into the country with clothes on their back, and maybe those sporting a leather jacket got it from a market in Kabul rather than at the January sales…”
 

"WAST recommendations for good practice for agencies working with women asylum seekers". Picture by Frances Laing

The last picture in this blog post features a booklet of interest to many of us. The WAST recommendations for good practice for agencies working with women asylum seekers. Ideal reading material for Gordon Brown or Phil Woolas the immigration Minister…   

“Women’s Asylum News” Issue 88, published by the Refugee Women’s Resource Project tells us: 
 ” A culture change in the asylum system is urgently needed to ensure that women asylum seekers receive a comparable standard of treatment to women settled in the U.K. in similar situations”. 
 
Since the Women’s Asylum Charter was published in June 2008 at asylum Aid’s AGM the UKBA Chief Inspector stated that:
“gender will be a golden thread running through his inspections”.
 
Something tells me we’ve got a long way to go. Arise and Shine seemed a brilliant way to kick-start the culture change that is so desperately needed.
Useful websites:
The WAST and GAP event was funded by North West Together We Can.
The play “How I became an Asylum Seeker” was written by Lydia Besong and directed by Magdalen Bartlett. The event is being filmed for a DVD which will become part of an awareness training pack.
 

In this VisionOntv video – released on YouTube just eight hours ago – representatives of the organisation “London No Borders” and SOAS detainee support group give eye witness accounts of conditions at Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre. They have been visiting each week and explain how important it is to support a strike and how this strike and previous strikes have changed government policy and contracts.

London No Borders website can be found at this link:

London No Borders

Yarl’s Wood detained baby for 100 days according to a report due to a report published tomorrow and quoted in “The Guardian” newspaper today.

Chief Inspector of Prisons Anne Owers said:

“”What was particularly troubling was that decisions to detain, and to maintain detention of, children and families did not appear to be fully informed by considerations of the welfare of children, nor could their detention be said to be either exceptional or necessary,” she says.

 See this link for more: Yarl’s Wood detained baby for 100 days

and this BBC report http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/beds/bucks/herts/8583601.stm

“It is now also clear that Meg Hiller’s scathing letter to MPs was not the result of an investigation but a product of the same culture of disbelief and contempt that permeates the whole system of immigration detention.” (Public Interest Lawyers)

See this link: Human Rights Lawyers lodge legal action over abuse claims.

Tuesday 16th. March, 2010
To: Mr. John Lyon
Officer of the Parliamentary Commission for Standards
House of Commons
SW1A OAA

Dear Sir,

We should like to make a joint citizen’s complaint regarding the content of a letter sent by Meg Hillier to all M.P’s. We feel Meg Hillier has misled our elected representatives in this matter and would like to point out the following statement in Meg Hillier’s letter in particular as a cause for concern:

“I should make it clear that detention is only used when people have refused to leave the country voluntarily despite support being offered for them to do so, and we have to enforce that removal. Detention is a vital tool in the removal of failed asylum seekers, ex-foreign national prisoners and others whose application to stay have been fully considered by the UK borders agency and the independent courts, BUT HAVE FAILED”.

In this statement to parliament Meg implies that all the people in Yarl’s Wood have failed in their court cases. This is misleading. Not just for Members of Parliament – but for the general public. In the second letter attached – (see references in the second letter attached and addressed to Frances Laing) Meg Hillier openly admits that Verna Joseph for example ‘won’ her case in January. Despite the fact that the Home Office is appealing on Verna’s case – Verna is therefore not someone who has “failed” in the courts as Meg Hillier seeks to imply.

Put simply we believe someone who has won their appeal at tribunal cannot accurately be described as having failed in the courts. We believe Verna is not the only detainee in this situation and that Meg’s statement to parliament is therefore simply untrue. We feel our elected representatives have a particular duty to provide the general public with accurate information. As citizens and in the current climate, we feel it is very important to guard against perpetuating stereotypes of this nature. We thank you for considering this matter.

Yours faithfully,
Frances Laing
p.p. Joan Meredith.

Updates on the Yarl’s Wood hunger strike and the fast track asylum process.

Letter from Meg Hillier at the Home Office. Dated 11th. March. Received today. Picture by Frances Laing. To see the full text of the letter click on the image. Page 1 of 2.

New Labour want to be seen as tough on immigration. They think this allows them to be dishonest . Of course – it doesn’t. In an article for “The Friend” the international Quaker journal published in last week’s  print edition  – I wrote:

“With the launch of Early Day Motion 919 in support of Yarl’s Wood hunger strikers this struggle for truth and justice has reached parliament. In a backlash – Meg Hillier Junior Minister in the Home Office wrote to every M.P. claiming the media were “misreporting”…

…I believe Hillier’s letter was dishonest.”

I queried Meg’s statements for a second time via David Hanson at the Ministry of Justice (see previous posts). In her original letter to all M.Ps and parliament – Meg wrote:

“I should make it clear that detention is only used when people have refused to leave the country voluntarily despite support being offered for them to do so, an dwe have to enforce that removal. Detention is a vital tool in the removal of failed asylum seekers, ex-foreign national prisoners and others whose application to stay have been fully considered by the UK borders agency and the independent courts, BUT HAVE FAILED. The cases of those in detention continue to be examined, however individual detainees frequently prolong detention and removal with the use of judicial reviews or obstructive behaviour”.

In her statements to parliament Meg implies that all the people in Yarl’s Wood have failed in their court cases. This is misleading. Not just for our Members of Parliament – but for the general public – how many people know enough about immigration detention systems to fully understand the implications and background to this? If journalists are good for anything we are supposed to support education for true democracy…so I’m going to try to explain this to you all in plain english:

In the letter I received from the Home Office today Meg Hillier openly admits that Verna Joseph ‘won’ her case in January.

Despite the fact that the Home Office is appealing on Verna’s case – Verna is not someone who has failed in the courts as Meg Hillier has claimed. Put simply SOMEONE WHO HAS WON THEIR APPEAL AT TRIBUNAL IS NOT SOMEONE WHO HAS ‘FAILED IN THE COURTS’.
I believe that Verna is not the only detainee in this situation.

I stand by the comment piece published in “The Friend”. With her letter to all M.P’s Meg Hillier is misleading parliament itself. Verna is just one example of a detainee who has not FAILED in the courts. Meg’s statement to parliament is therefore simply untrue.

The grave humanitarian and political problem we have is this: New Labour want to be seen as tough on immigration. They think this allows them to be dishonest . Of course – it doesn’t.

Meg’s original letter to M.P’s is published on the U.K. Borders Agency website. Read it here.

To read the full text of Meg’s letter to me – enlarge the images.

Page Two of Meg Hillier’s letter. Received today.

See the following  comment by  Hugh Muir  published in the Guardian today:

“There will be no whitewash in the White House, said Tricky Dicky Nixon; and since then we have learned to take official denials at face value. So when ministers say – despite detailed claims to the contrary – that there are no women on hunger strike at the pleasure palace that is the Yarl’s Wood detention centre (prop: Labour event sponsors Serco), all our concerns are immediately put to rest. And when we learn that the ministerial board on deaths in custody is meeting on Thursday, and just happens to have on the agenda the whys and wherefores of force feeding of hunger strikers, one sees how ministers can be plagued by sorry coincidence or aided by good fortune”.

See this link:

A link to Diane Abott’s article in the Guardian today: The Real Distress at Yarl’s Wood. Diane refers to Meg Hillier’s recent letter. She writes she visited Yarl’s Wood herself and raised concerns  in 2007.

See also: Yarl’s Wood the Legal Challenge