Santa Claus banned from visiting locked-up children in UK asylum detention centre

Santa Claus was prevented from giving presents to the imprisoned children of asylum seekers at the notorious Yarl's Wood detention centre by private security guards. Yarl's Wood is a privately run prison whose inmates are UK immigrants who arrived seeking asylum, but whose claims have been denied. They are dragged out of bed in the dead of night and stuck in mesh-windowed vans without their belongings and without the chance to say goodbye to their loved ones, and then detained in terrible conditions that have been decried by human rights advocates, doctors, psychiatrists and other experts. Their "crime" is trying to escape torture, privation, and disaster.

The rent-a-cops at Yarl's Wood told the Anglican church's leading expert on Father Christmas (dressed in a Santa costume) that he couldn't enter the centre to give the children presents. They also blocked the canon theologian at Westminster Abbey. Then they cancelled a later scheduled visit with detained families at the centre.

And the whole mess is on video.

But when the Anglican church's leading expert on Father Christmas, dressed as St Nicholas himself, arrived with one of Britain's most distinguished clerics to distribute presents to children held at the Yarl's Wood immigration removal centre in Bedfordshire, things took a turn straight out of Dickens.

An unedifying standoff developed that saw the security personnel who guard the perimeter fence prevent St Nicholas, the patron saint of children and the imprisoned, from delivering £300 worth of presents donated by congregations of several London churches.

In a red robe and long white beard, clutching a bishop's mitre and crook, St Nick - in real life, the Rev Canon James Rosenthal, a world authority on St Nicholas of Myra, the inspiration for Father Christmas - gently protested that he was not a security threat, but to no avail.

Then as St Nicholas, accompanied by the Rev Professor Nicholas Sagovsky, canon theologian at Westminster Abbey, attempted to bless the gifts, the increasingly angry security guards called the police. The resulting ill-tempered and surreal impasse between church and state was videotaped by asylum seeker support groups and could become an internet viral hit.

Anglican 'Santa' barred from giving gifts to children at detainee centre


  1. Is it bad that the only part of this that surprises me is that we managed to get through an entire story involving children in the UK without some sort of paedo-panic?

  2. Cory, a hat tip to our shared Jewish roots but lets disagree here.
    I as a Jewish parent would prefer not to have the saintly representative of a myth from a different religion (medieval Christianity) visit my child while they were out of my contact and distribute gifts. I am sure plenty of Muslim and other parents would also agree with me. How terrible is it to just dress up in a nice business suit and distribute the gifts an ordinary caring human without the religious mythology.
    Normally I shut my mouth on the minutia of school and state religion as I choose to enroll my kids in Jewish schools, but I hope BB readers are of a higher caliber than to revert to the old ACLU and the Jews ruined Christmas for our public schools routine.
    Now to actually watch the video.

    1. Rebdav,

      I don’t know what to make of your words here. You would refuse a kindness, because of the clothes someone was wearing?

      I’m an antitheist, but I wouldn’t refuse a prayer offered in honesty. I wouldn’t refuse a hannukah gift from you, nor a Ramadan one from someone else.. whether I was in prison or not. And it wouldn’t occur to me that anyone was doing a disservice to my children by trying to lighten there dilemma with a gift (during whatever gift-giving festival they were celebrating), even if I wasn’t there with them.

      How is a secular gift (I presume they weren’t handing out crucifixes or icons) from anyone a conflict-of-religion?

      Or maybe I’m reading you wrong and it isn’t about religion.

      1. Agreed. That’s my attitude as well, as an atheist. Never been the kind to snap “Happy holidays” in response to a jolly “Merry Christmas!”

  3. @2, These kids are locked up with their parents. In the case of the appointment made later in the day, the parents asked for the clerics to visit. No kid would have to see Santa if his or her parent objected.

  4. Nasty place that Yarls wood, but most extrajudicial holding pens in the US and UK seem to be beyond the pale of reason. Wall a normal village and let people stay in apartments, work, learn, and pay reasonable rent until their case is decided. These kids need something, rather many things happy but I think a Christian praying cross hat present man is not exactly what they need.

  5. The video is rather underwhelming. It just shows them being denied access and blessing gifts.

    Sadly, “The resulting ill-tempered and surreal impasse between church and state was videotaped by asylum seeker support groups and could become an internet viral hit.” is not part of this video clip.

  6. Having just seen Silent Night, Deadly Night last night, I have to wonder if they know something we don’t.

  7. So… This is a private facility? Not run by the state? Who wants to sneak out there at 3am one night and free everybody, Great Escape style? Seriously, what have they done wrong besides, as you say, Cory, try to escape from something horrible?

    Seriously, what would be the repercussions of clipping the wire and helping them all out? Would it cause more problems than it would solve? I am at a loss for what to do here.

    Also, rebdav, putting a wall around a village full of people the state doesn’t like – erm, I think some people tried that before early in the 20th century, and it didn’t work very well. No walls. No trials. Just let them in! It worked pretty well for the US at the turn of the 20th century.

    I’m sorry if I’m rambling, but this is really upsetting to me. I was going to quote the Lazarus poem, but after reading it again in full, I’m now a bit teary-eyed and more than a little angry, hopefully the rest of you can be, too:

    The New Colossus

    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!”

  8. God, did Britain just watch V for Vendetta and Children of Men and think “Holy crap, look what we’ve been missing out on!!”

  9. Viral happens when we are amazed, amused or want to applaud. Maybe if he’d fallen on his saintly ass, the presents went flying, and he caught them all?

  10. rebdav, Chrismas has a very secular side and Santa Claus is part of that. None of the Santas I saw as a child ever tried to tell me about Jesus or asked me if I was a Christian. There are many Hindus and Jewish people who celebrate Christmas, although they celebrate in a different way than Christians do.

    They’re having a guy in a Santa costume visit the kids and give them presents, not baptizing them.

    1. Mitch, did you miss this part of the story; the Anglican church’s leading expert on Father Christmas, dressed as St Nicholas himself, arrived with one of Britain’s most distinguished clerics?

      Sure in the US Santa is generally considered a secular figure, but does that sound secular to you?

      I was going to make a similar point as rebdav, that as an immigration center, how likely is it that the children were all christian, but Cory answered that.

      1. Yes, I did notice that there were clerics involved, JamesPadraicR.
        I recall from my moderate mainstream protestant upbringing that clerics frequently did good deeds without any proselytizing being involved. I seriously doubt that these guys are trying to force the Anglican faith on anyone.

        1. I’m sure you’re right that they weren’t forcing conversion. I have no problem with them doing good deeds, assuming they do them year round, not just based on the time of year.

          It’s just that as a Jew living in a town that is home to many national/international evangelical orgs I’ve seen exceptions, and can’t help questioning things like this. One church here has had a habit of converting kids without parental consent, in one case almost literal ‘drive-by baptisms’ where someone claiming to be from the church drove around in a van near an elementary school trying to get kids to come with him to be baptized.

  11. So what if there was a cleric with a St. Nick? Not every minister who seeks to provide comfort to the imprisoned also seeks to proselytize. There _is_ a little bit of a mandate there. You know… “as you do to the least of these, you do also to me.” That thing.

    I’ll tell you what, speaking as a Christian… if I were imprisoned in a foreign land and someone — anyone — of another faith (or of no faith) wished to visit me and bring me comfort, I’d certainly welcome it. That bit of humanity would do wonders for my morale.

    1. There’s very little in this story that doesn’t make me want to go cry in the corner. The detained children haven’t done anything wrong. Detaining them in a facility that is likely better suited to housing hardened criminals borders on criminal in and of itself. Then to deny the children a tiny bit of comfort from a stranger at a time of year that nearly all world religions have some sort of celebration truly belongs in a Dickens novel. It doesn’t matter what flavor of cleric brought presents for the children. It was a humanitarian gesture that would have gone a long way toward helping those children understand that not everyone in the UK is a power-mad ogre.

      If there are any BB readers in the UK who are bothered by this story, please contact your MP. There has to be some measure of accountability over this, and other privately run detention facilities.

  12. Rebdav, if children were subjected to such and such conditions, I would certainly allow a little light of kindness and hope from strangers to slip thru.

  13. The first thing is, despite whether you agree that failed asylum seekers and their children should be held in detention or not, this is in essence a secure establishment. Did the bishop and his bag of presents make a prior appointment or arrangement with the detention centre (which are run like prisons, by private companies, like some of the English prison service) or did they just show up dressed as santa?

    If they just showed up it’s almost inevitable that they’d be refused entry.

  14. The problem is the detention, not the silly bit of theater that they’re using to get media attention. Pretending that the children’s lives are being blighted by the lack of specially-blessed presents distracts attention from the genuine problems of immigration and child detainees. Next year I suppose that the firm will employ their very own Santa and a cleric to “bless” the presents, and everyone will say “Look! It’s no so bad after all.”

  15. I call shenanigans:

    “The two groups say that Serco refused requests to provide details about the 35 children in the centre so they could receive appropriate presents. They complain that the company did not respond to numerous requests to discuss how a handover of presents could be carried out if St Nicholas was prevented from entering during his visit this month.”

    But! See (also on Coral CDN), dated nearly two weeks BEFORE this stunt:

    “The Home Office authorities who run Yarl’s Wood have refused permission for St Nicholas to enter the Centre to distribute the gifts to the children so it should be interesting.”

  16. Could someone provide me with information on the general process for Asylum seekers in England. I assume it’s vaguely along these lines

    1- Arrive claiming asylum
    2- Put into some kind of parole system (no idea what happens here, clarification would be great)
    3- Asylum is either granted a) or denied b)

    4a) – Asylum seeker is given a visa and can start working etc?

    4b) – Asylum seeker is ‘arrested’ [for lack of a better word] and taken to a secure facility until they can be deported??

  17. I assume it’s vaguely along these lines

    That would be too much to hope for; any chance of decent treatment or reasonable behaviour appears to have gone the way of the Dodo.

    Not that I can understand the reasons why anyone would try to go to UK for asylum these days; I was born and grew up there and I’m not in any hurry to return. The place has quite simply gone insane. We see occasional reports on BB from the Daily Fail and laugh/cry over them but it seems to be a worryingly accurate rendition of the mood of the place.

    1. O.K. so if what I’m suggesting is too much to hope for what is the rough outline?

      In Australia it basically goes

      1 – Arrive in Australia claiming asylum
      2 – Get locked up for up to 1 year (the 1 year limit was put in place by the current Government, before than in Howards years there was no maximum).
      3 – Asylum is granted or you are deported.

      Step 4 used to be that you were charged for your time being locked up. This too was recently stopped (Thankfully Mr. Rudd has made some semi-humane amendments to the old Mandatory Detention Laws).

  18. Basically I’m not going to be bothered by any observance of Christmas unless it’s combined with forbidding observance of Hanukah or Eid al-Fitr.

  19. If Santa doesn’t get his visa papers in order he’s going to end up seeing the children on the evening of the 24th whether he wants to or not.

  20. They were just scoping out the joint, hatching a plan. I look forward to the next headline: “Santa Claus Frees Captive Children!”

  21. Yes to everyone upthread who wondered how many Xtian kids there actually are in said detention center. Wonder how some of the local imans feel about what they no doubt see as aggressive proselytizing. Guess it doesn’t help one’s asylum appeal case a whole lot to start ranting about killing the infidels, though.

    FWIW, I find the general Presumption of Universal Christianity being shown here somewhat nauseating. You can give kids gifts without a member of the clergy around.

  22. Who are the ones to go out of there way to offer some peace and joy to the kids? Anyone is welcome to try, but here are two men who made the effort.

    Lay off the hyper-anti-religion attitude and save it for the proselytizing ones. Here are two folks just trying to make life a little less miserable for some kids.

    But, if it makes you happy to read between the lines with respect to their motives (going beyond the reporting into mind-reading), well, I feel bad that you are so calloused.

    “It started out as a well-intentioned attempt to bring festive cheer to some of society’s most neglected members – the hundreds of children who each year are caught up in the UK’s asylum system.”

  23. Hi, since you referred to me by name, I thought I’d comment. First of all, shame on the private security firm! Coal for each and every guard!

    My legal name is Santa Claus, and I’m a full-time volunteer advocate for the 2 million children in the U.S. annually who are abused, neglected, exploited, abandoned, homeless, and institutionalized through no fault of their own.

    I’m also a Christian Monk, as St. Nicholas was many centuries ago and believe that Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Christ, not the crass, commercial, secular spectacle it has become in many places, and the the greatest gift one can give is love, not presents.

    I hope that your readers will visit TheSantaClausFoundation dot org and learn about the plight of these millions of vulnerable children in dire straits.

    Blessings to all, Santa Claus

  24. There’s really no way of knowing whether any proselytizing was planned without being there. Could have been- we don’t know. Now, I realise that sometimes participation in another faith’s custom is considered inappropriate by religious people, but I think those people should deal with their reservations individually, since plenty of others might welcome the dialogue.

    If a faith’s tradition decrees it should perform an unconditionally kind deed during a certain season, such as bringing gifts to children, I think it would be a shame not to welcome it. We see so much conflict arise because of religion, why stifle the gestures that can bring us all together? We can’t isolate ourselves from people who believe in things we don’t believe in, better we learn to communicate with them. This doesn’t at all mean we have to compromise our own faith.

  25. England being only nominally Anglican these days, I feel pretty safe assuming that this cleric was in fact religious… but Anglicanism being what IT is (I’m an American Episcopalian; we’re a lot alike), I feel just as safe in saying that he wasn’t even going to MENTION Jesus.

    I think it’d be a nice gesture for this fellow to go seek out friendly folk of the cloth of a bunch of religions likely to be espoused by the imprisoned, ask them to bring their own gifts (or split up those already collected – not much time!) and if they wish, to dress in costumes traditional to their faiths, and return, opening their bags for inspection, etc., etc. A nice ecumenical… um, winter solstice. Good Yule!

    (A pagan friend of mine sends us a Good Yule card every year, often with pictures of his family’s annual burning-paper-wish-boat-launching. They like sending their wishes for the new year into water, earth, and air via fire; I like sending mine to God via pretty mainstream Christian prayer. Ecumenism is great!)

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