Britain's deportee detention system subjects small children to horrific abuse

The BBC's Mark Easton has written a scorching blog-post about the Yarl's Wood detention centre, in which unsuccessful migrants to the UK are detained, including families with young children. Details about Yarl's Wood have come to light after England's Children's Commissioner, Sir Al Aynsley-Green produced a report on the treatment of children there. Many of these children have spent their entire lives in the UK.

Border and Immigration Minister Phil Woolas justifies the inhumane treatment of children by arguing that once their parents have been sent to the substandard, inhumane Yarl's Wood, it would be even more inhumane to separate them from their children.

Another alternative might be to treat all deportees in a humane fashion.

Predictably, the BBC's comment board is filled with anti-immigration bigots who argue that the children should blame their parents for turning them into refugees who sought asylum in the UK.

My father was a refugee, born in a camp in Azerbaijan, to Red Army deserters who used stolen papers to transit Europe after WWII and secure transport on a Displaced Persons boat from Hamburg to Halifax. When I hear people talk blithely about how their society owes nothing to refugees, I try to imagine how they'd feel if they and their children found themselves living in a war-torn disaster-area, a climate-ravaged desolation, the midst of an ethnic cleansing. I wonder if they and their families were the beneficiaries of foreign aid during and after WWII. I wonder if they'd sit idly by and let their children die of malnutrition, be kidnapped and forced into child soldiery, or face mutilation from land-mines because the alternative required telling a lie to the British immigration authorities.

I try not to imagine the people who make that sort of remark stuck in a place like Yarl's Wood, denied their fundamental human rights, their children denied medical care and education -- because I don't think anyone should suffer that way.

Not even xenophobic bigots.

What sort of country sends a dozen uniformed officers to haul innocent sleeping children out of their beds; gives them just a few minutes to pack what belongings they can grab; pushes them into stinking caged vans; drives them for hours while refusing them the chance to go to the lavatory so that they wet themselves and locks them up sometimes for weeks or months without the prospect of release and without adequate health services?...

One boy of 11 told the children's commissioner:

"There was this woman, just shouting, shouting at my sister to get up. She was in bed asleep and she's only five so she was crying and the woman just kept shouting at her. She didn't have to do that. The search was bad. Why did they have to search my sister? She is only five, what is she going to have? They touch you all over and they're rough. It's rude."

The report explains how some children described officers as taking pleasure in the family's distress, including telling them that they were "going back to their own country" and laughing and making fun of them when they showed signs of distress or anxiety.

One child said that an officer had called his mother "stupid" and laughed at her crying and distress, while others were told that it was "tough" if they didn't like the officer's attitude...

What's more, many of the children complained about the lack of "comfort breaks" on the long journeys to detention. This had led to "accidents" in some cases. A chance to go to the lavatory was apparently denied "even when the vans stopped for petrol and, on at least two or three occasions, access to a toilet was denied throughout the whole journey despite urgent requests to stop..."

Children in detention at Yarl's Wood (Thanks, JJ!)


  1. If they wanted comfort, they should have become Orwellian spyware mongers. Damn foreigners, never assimilating to good solid British Custom.

  2. Tough one. You can almost imagine that this represents scare tactics to put prospecive immigrants off coming here.

    This whole scenario has been brought on by what I call ‘Dick Whittington Syndrome’ where people from other [relatively poorer] nations view Britain as being literally paved with gold. Unfortunately what they don’t realise is even UK citizens are having a hard time finding work, our benefits system is overstretched and as it stands people in the UK view immigrants as pests. What the same biggoted groups of citizens haven’t accounted for is how many British parasitic families we have in this country that were born here and continue to reproduce like vermin and suck the sap of the state. A problem in it’s own right.

    Of course this doesn’t exclude treating small children harshly. I just blame their stupid parents for putting them in that position in the first place. Hopes and dreams of living in an overcrowded country in peace as an unwelcome guest are unfortunately rather illogical and preposterous.

    There are so many other [larger!] countries that they could go to without even crossing water, so I don’t really understand their logic. Ignorance, fairy tales and stupidity are perhaps to blame – and I still don’t understand why these people aren’t just deported immediately (as long as they aren’t under threat in their own countries of course) when they are caught.

  3. I always believed that nationalism & racism are essentially the same mindset/meme.

    Some simply define the “superior race” by skin colour, the others by geographical coordinates of birthplace.

  4. This kind of thing makes me seethe with anger. That’s about all I can say without cursing.

  5. You guys remember that movie, “Children of Men?” I didn’t think it would resemble real life so quickly.

  6. I owe nothing to any refugees. If I help one, it is out of compassion, or the hope that someone else would do the same for me were the situations reversed, but not because of some debt.

    We should help these people — it’s our responsibility as humans — but we don’t owe it to them.

  7. Often I’m forced to conclude as Brit who has lived here in the UK all my life that the widespread xenophobia (which worsens every day) is more terrifying than any supposed threat the government or media try to convince me is out to get me.

  8. Sadly it seems there will always be many people who feel that the burden placed on citizens of a country (and there is undoubtedly some sort of burden involved) outweighs the far heavier, far more terrible burdens that weigh on the shoulders of people who have had to flee the most troubled and poverty-stricken corners of the world, simply by virtue of the fact that citizens are citizens, and immigrants are not. The fact that we are all human beings simply seems not to factor into the thinking of so many.

    The immigration system in this country is a failure at practically every stage. From border maintenance right through to deportation, or service provision for people awarded right of residence, government agencies seem to fail in virtually all their stated aims.

    The limbo that asylum seekers are forced to live in is unacceptable. The readiness with which the UK Border Agency is willing to deport people back to situations that threaten their life and limb is shameful. The unwillingness of many British people to look upon newcomers to this country as fellow human beings sickens me, to be honest.

    Heaven forbid the UK should have to accommodate numbers of refugees in the manner that Chad, Uganda, Syria, Yemen, Benin, Guinea or a host of other countries do. It seems it’s far too easy to simply cut ourselves off from the problems of the rest of the world.

  9. @Redrichie

    Nice to read something heart-warming for a change, even if it is a little old.

    This is one of those issues that makes it so clear why the two main parties in the UK, Labour and the Conservatives, are not so different. Their motivations are different (one Socialist, one Capitalist), but the end result is the same, an urge to control, enforce, and save the good things in life for “their people” (the “Working” and “Middle/Upper” classes respectively), to the exclusion of the genuinely needy.

    The Police and other government agencies are no less authoritarian (probably more so) under Labour than they were under the Torys. We’ve just swapped the miners for middle-class anti-capitalists and green campaigners (re the raids on direct action environmental groups).

  10. Actually, it’s worth remembering whenever you hear some toenail wittering on about how there are “too many” asylum seekers in the UK that actually, the countries that have to take the greatest numbers of refugees tend to be the ones that border the countries affected by whatever it is that causes people to flee. The poorest countries. Countries far less able than the UK to support scared, hungry and vulnerable people.

  11. CORY! – Every day you report on how 1984 it’s becoming there. When are you going to get the hell out of there? When it’s 1983?

  12. @#5
    I think it’d be arguing semantics of phrase, but maybe ‘required’ for owe and ‘recommended’ for ‘responsible’ would work just fine.
    I suppose we are only ‘recommended’ to treat our humankind with respect, much like it is ‘recommended’ that we wear goggles while sawing. But you can’t get mad and start crying and demonizing when something comes and takes out your eye.

    “…or the hope that someone else would do the same for me were the situations reversed…” I’d say that’s a debited transaction. To be respectful to someone is to take out an insurance policy. They don’t have to follow it, sure, but it’s better than nothing.

    Lives aren’t worth any percentage of my income.*
    (*please allow comment to dry)

  13. However you feel about immigration and deportation, there is absolutely no justification for bullying children, nor denying anyone basic needs like sanitary facilities.

  14. I suspect the page may have been Boinged; it won’t load.

    But Google pointed me toward the Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre, which lists, along with their phone numbers and visitation policy, the fact that YWIRC is run by Serco, what appears to be a private contracting firm that “works with governments around the world to help protect their citizens from a range of evolving threats and challenges” and manages, among other things, the UK’s nuclear weapons.

  15. #13- makes one think just how messed up the countries they comes from are.

    But then listen to someone like Somalian – Born rapper K’naan when he discusses his home country…

  16. How revolting.

    The report is a year old – any update?

    I read when studying a book called “the Red Pullover” (french). The point about society came home during that. If we’re altruistic, we share generously and protect those that need it from the goodness of our souls. But we’re more likely to do it if there appears to be benefit to ourselves – i.e. we all queue nicely because if we don’t, arguments and fights erupt.

    So if we all made sure the forces that be treated these people respectfully, none of them, particularly the children, would suffer, beyond being required to leave the country (and given the nature of our borders, really why should they!?)

    However – out of sight, out of mind. And all too often, that’s where kids are. So people are comfortable turning a blind eye. And as a consequence, these people suffer psychological trauma. Great, well done everyone.

    Serco is a plc, which obviously answers to shareholders. That’s problematic when dealing with sensitised people.

    So please don’t just read – but act to make this change.

  17. “There was this woman, just shouting, shouting at my sister to get up. She was in bed asleep and she’s only five so she was crying and the woman just kept shouting at her. She didn’t have to do that. The search was bad. Why did they have to search my sister? She is only five, what is she going to have? They touch you all over and they’re rough. It’s rude.”

    If this is true, not and isolated incident, and not prosecuted, I’d say it has reached the level of Crimes Against Humanity.

  18. What’s really odd about people who object to immigrants and refugees is that, almost across the board, more open immigration standards help the countries that integrate diverse populations into their citizenry.

    By inviting new ideas and cultures, we stimulate the economy, arts and education. When people who are oppressed elsewhere can find religious, political, gender and race tolerance, they’ll be boosters and raise their kids to respect an open, pluralistic, democratic society.

    The best antidote to totalitarianism of any kind is the word, “Welcome.”

  19. Gosh, the UK sounds like a horrible, totalitarian place you should probably flee from. Where will you go next? And how long before it becomes just like the place you left?

    When will people notices the connection between high population pressure, no shared community, and unpleasant forms of government? I’d love to save ’em all, but you’re not going to import a few tens or hundreds of millions of desperate, impoverished people and maintain a healthy society and a good government.

    Killing the goose that lays the golden eggs is a bad idea, even if you’re doing it out of a sense of charity for your fellow man.

  20. I thought BB was the sort of place where we made fun of “think of the children” appeals and ridiculed “this is the greatest crime ever; consequently, we must torture people” arguments, but I suppose hypocrisy is what makes us human, even the transhumanists among us.

  21. @23 the point of living in the home of modern parliament is that we aspire to represent the highest point of humanity.

    I went to Hong Kong pre changeover, and talk about population pressure. But everyone lived relatively harmoniously. Action at the fringes, but the point of the society we live in is that we actually dig into that when we find out – we want to treat people well universally. Young, old, rich, poor.

    Who’s talking about importing? We’re talking about protecting the few who are caught in the judicial process from abuse, abuse of the childrem, and abuse of their fundamental human rights. UNHRC and all that, wot.

    The point of action is that we stem the awful change, and maybe prevent it, and even, change things for the better.

    Just remember – this is happening to children. Picture your own kids being submitted to this. I for one would definitely be on the line of physical engagement.

  22. Thinking of the children is the same as thinking of the future. Which we do in spades ’round these parts.

  23. I know how awful it is that children are being treated this way – it makes me want to curse and shout. But the adults should be treated in a decent and humane manner too and not just if there are children there. Humanity is a migrant group. Migration is one of the ways we progress.

    What can I do to help?

  24. @27: I am pleasantly surprised that you make the connection. I had the impression that most commenters hated children and the crass, selfish people who give birth to them, crowding the planet with consumers who eat too much of too many things that we disapprove of, and thought of the future only insofar as it might bring about our Immortal Robot Spaceman Spiff fantasies.

  25. How about “punch a racist” day?

    Also, you get to kick someone in the knackers if they start a sentence thusly:

    “I’m not racist but….”

  26. I am still waiting on someone who will addresss dhasenan’s comment that the refugees are owed nothing. I agree.

    “When I hear people talk blithely about how their society owes nothing to refugees, I try to imagine how they’d feel…”

    Cory – you are absolutely right in that I would beg, borrow and steal if I were in the same situation. However, I would never feel entitled to a house, food, or clothing when I arrived at a foreign land. These refugee parents rolled the dice to leave their lands of no food and lots of land minds with their children. Their kids now have food and aren’t losing their legs. Were they expecting to arrive in Paradise?

  27. children have small hands, can’t it be explained to the staff that that makes them valuable for polishing the insides of shell casings?

  28. Sleze, you say that you would “beg, borrow and steal” which would make you a beggar and a thief. 2 Professions which are generally “not popular.” (You may also get labeled a sponger.) You say that that’s what you’d do in the situation, and expect nothing else. Thing is, you’d be a cowed human being; you’d lose any self-respect you still had, you’d certainly have none from the surrounding community.

    Therefore, surely it’s more dignified on the part of society to, firstly, have refugees treated with dignity and respect, given enough that they can feel safe and settled, and then be allowed to work and contribute to society and become a part of it? Don’t forget that it’s very easy to put barriers in front of the dispossessed. Some intentional, some less so, but the effect is the same.

  29. #4: I was going to comment that England must be just copying the Children of Men script into law. V for Vendetta also, sadly.

    #24: ‘Think of the children’ arguments are usually bogus straw man arguments thrown up to muscle something through that’s not related to kids at all. ‘Oh noes, we’ve got to stop child porn’ often turns into ‘well, the only way is to put filters on everyone’s computer and monitor all their data and mount video cameras in their eyes so we can see what they do.’ ‘Saving the children’ becomes the bogus excuse to install a totalitarian nightmare state.

    But in this case, where kids are being treated worse than animals and having their lives ruined, thinking of them is perfectly valid and totally called for.

  30. The whole immigration issue is a straw-man argument – the real issue is direct state control of human movement. I was born in my country 41 years ago. My government cannot deport me without a lot of hassle and they currently have no political reason to do so. Doesn’t mean they can’t, just that they probably won’t. In order to maintain their power to do so they create so-called ‘illegal immigrants’. These people whose mother’s did not give birth to them in my country, are subject to all sorts of inhuman treatment (loss of homes, loss of families, detention without representation, physical abuse) just so my government can keep the power to move people at will.
    By simply reclassifying (through creeping classification) who is ‘illegal’ the government can move anyone it wants anytime it wants, for any reason it wants.
    There are no such things as illegal immigrants — just people who weren’t born here.

  31. @29: I can’t pretend to speak for the majority of the commetariat, but I’ve never thought of BB as anti-kid in any regard. Anti-harmful patterns of consumption, yes, but never anti-kid or anti-reproduction. (And not anti-consumption in general, either, what with the posting of cool stuff for us to buy.) When we do get to the Immortal Robot Spaceman Spiff era, I fully expect to see user-generated video here of baby ‘bots taking their clunky first steps through the gardens of tower farms pollinated by tiny aerial drones.

  32. When will people learn that they didn’t earn their place in a country? Accident of birth gives them no more right to be a country than anyone else?

    I can only presume that many people believe that God put them in their country because they were favored by Him, that they have an essentialist believe that they are defined by their Americaness, or Brittishness, instead of recognizing that they were born over one spot of soil instead of another by chance alone.

  33. What’s really odd about people who object to immigrants and refugees is that,

    … barring a very small number of people in a small area of southern Africa we are all immigrants.

    Just because it happened a few years ago doesn’t change that fact.

  34. Cory, thanks for keeping this discussion alive! Your voice carries a long long way in this beautifully connected world, and your impact is significant.

    We’ll be the ones watching the watchers… all of us.

  35. @33 There are a number of organisations set up to help asylum seekers, both by campaigning for improvements to government policy and by providing practical help for individuals. is a big one; you could also try searching to see if there’s one in your local area you could get involved with.

  36. I remember Phil Woolas, he was a long-haired third-year philosophy student at Manchester when I was a first year student, though I didn’t know him personally. And he became head of the Student’s Union.

    According to Wikipedia he started out in student politics in the Anti-Nazi League… I think part of his current purpose in making the Labour government sound tough on immigration/asylum/refugee/border control is to head off White Van Man racism and especially a resurgent Nazi-inspired-but-trying-to-look-respectable British National Party, who are strong in the part of the country he represents and may even win a European parliamentary seat in May.

    Not that that justifies violently traumatising children and their parents, or making them live in horrible conditions. The poor conditions may well be to send a message to dissuade others; the traumatising of children is probably not government policy but the personal choice of the officers involved.

    As for owing refugees anything… well, maybe we don’t “owe” the current or future bunches of refugees anything in particular, but past lots we definitely do. My favourite film-makers, for instance, are Powell and Pressburger, who in some ways are very British even though Pressburger was a Hungarian Jewish refugee from the Nazis, who was a designated Enemy Alien even while making P&P’s best films during the war (such as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, which I saw last night in a cinema). Pressburger’s grandson Kevin MacDonald is continuing the work; his State of Play is out now.

    It is noticeable how many of the celebs on the “Who Do You Think You Are” genealogy programme have antecedents who were refugees from some place or other… even someone like Stephen Fry, who appears of thoroughly English stock back 1,500 years (since the English themselves immigrated from Germany), was to be found wandering round the emptied Jewish area in Slovakia his maternal grandparents were from.

  37. This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
    This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
    This other Eden, demi-paradise,
    This fortress built by Nature for herself
    Against infection and the hand of war,
    This happy breed of men, this little world,
    This precious stone set in the silver sea,
    Which serves it in the office of a wall
    Or as a moat defensive to a house,
    Against the envy of less happier lands,–
    This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

  38. @42 – Well the governing body that controls how we treat people (through control of taxed resources) DOES give more rights to people born on certain soil than to those who aren’t. That fact is where CITIZENS derive a sense of entitlement.

    @43 – We’re mostly all sons and daughters of immigrants here in the US. But I can derive from the work ethic of my parents and grandparents that my recent ancestry does not include people demanding handouts from the government.

  39. @GuidoDavid:

    Sure! :P If only I had a book to sign for you, I would. (I’m working on one. It has robots in it. I’ll let you know how that goes.)

  40. Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

    With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

    Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

    A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

    Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

    Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

    Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

    The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

    “Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

    With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

    Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

    The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

    Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

    I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

  41. I wonder what the feelings about immigration are of immigrants who have been allowed to stay.

    Once they are in, do they want to close the doors behind them?

  42. @54

    Absolutely not. As an immigrant myself (though not a refugee), I understand both how nerve-wracking the process is, and how very worthwhile. I am grateful to be living in my new country, and would extend the opportunity to live here to others if I were able. I love this place. I think others would love it, too. And I think that they often have skills, experiences, and perspectives to offer that would only make this place a better one.

    However, all immigrant sentiment is not the same. Each immigration story is different. I’m sure that there are others who feel differently from me, who would prefer a closed-border policy. But among the immigrants I have met, I have yet to hear such an opinion.

  43. Since I became a Canadian last week (under the newly amended law regarding children born abroad to Canadian parent(s)) I am calling for closing the border to immigrants. My senior/other country (USA) is rapidly being overwhelmed, so I will move to Vancouver and start working on the fence to keep people like me out. I mean, people like I was two weeks ago…

  44. We are all citizens of this planet, and between 30th and 50th cousins. Time we started acting like family.
    Thanks Corey, for posting this.

  45. Our very own Guantanamo Bay. How apropos.

    See, US? That’s the difference between us and you. *Everyone* knows you have a secret prison where you abuse people.

  46. This doesn’t sound as much like a question of law as much as a question of those who are attracted to enforcing that law. I ran into a guy awhile back who was going through one of these community college programs for training Homeland Security people. He really wanted a job with the TSA so he would be able to search people. He really liked the idea of going through peoples’ baggage at an airport. I don’t know much about UK asylum laws, but I know a little about people who just like to inflict terror on the weak (bullying is too kind a word, call it what it is). I’m guessing that the MMPI isn’t part of the screening process for either the TSA or UK immigration cops.

  47. Takuan @52

    ..And then we’ll get rich by exploiting your cheap labor and forever after preach to the world of our greatness while carefully hiding our underbelly.

    Or better yet, don’t even come here – we’ll build factories in YOUR country that pay just enough to kill off any local industry; then we get to profit from you without having our blessed towns sullied with your presence.

    And when we find an even poorer country with even more corrupt officials we’ll move there instead and leave you to pick up the pieces. Or perhaps you’ll try to move to the US, where you’ll get a welcoming middle finger and a gun barrel showing you the way out.

    Then again, we do got all those dirty toilets and no-one to clean them – hell, maybe we will let you stay.

    Of course, you’ll have the good taste not to tell anyone I spoke to you.

  48. What a heart-rending account. I marvel that Cory can post this story, but still support the UK government with his tax dollars. It seems to me that if he really cared about this, he’d vote with his dollars (pounds). It seems to me that if he really cared about this, he’d move himself and his tax money back to Canada and live with sub-par Internet access.

    I feel this way every time I see Cory post something about the Orwellian society that the UK is.

  49. Shame on those workers and/or the infrastructure that would push them to use such blatant bullying on those in a position of vulnerability – in particular children. They traumatize and victimize children/people to what purpose? Its unacceptable behavior.

    This is a very sad thing to learn of! I am amazed at how many posts seem to miss the entire point of what is occurring at the centre! Its not about “not owing detainees”, or immigrants looking for “streets of gold” or “people in UK suffering for work”. Its about abusive behavior being perpetrated against those in no position to defend themselves.

    Treating people like this serves no purpose, but the egos of the abusers: they should be getting training and counseling support, as this cannot be an easy job they have to do. If they cannot learn to be respectful of their charges, replace them. I am shocked that there is no accountability for this. Animals in this situation would receive a much quicker call to action…

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