Ministers were accused of an "appalling" breach of human rights yesterday after immigration officials seized the children of two Afghani refugees without warning.
The row erupted after staff at Harmondsworth detention centre near Heathrow held the four-year-old boy and his six-year-old sister when they arrived to see their parents, Farid and Feriba Ahmadi, for an apparently routine family visit on Friday night.
The couple were already at the centre of a bitterly contested deportation case after the mosque they were sheltering in, near Stourbridge, West Midlands, was raided by riot police three weeks ago.
After a flurry of legal moves overnight, a judge ruled yesterday that the Home Office could continue to hold the children at Harmondsworth, after ministers appealed against another judge's ruling late on Friday night that they should be released.
Their mother, Mrs Ahmadi, said her children were bewildered and frightened. "They are unhappy, they are always crying," she said in a radio interview from Harmondsworth. "They ask me: 'why we are here, what is this prison?' They are so afraid."
The local MP, John McDonnell, predicted that the Home Office would deport the family to Germany, their first destination in Europe, as early as tomorrow morning to avoid further legal challenges delaying their departure. The family's supporters had lodged an application to have the children, already being looked after by family friends before their parents were seized in the mosque, made wards of court. But that case has yet to be heard.
Mr McDonnell made urgent representations to the Home Office minister Beverley Hughes yesterday, asking for their release. Supported by a Muslim community leader, Dr Zaki Badawi, Mr McDonnell claimed the decision to seize the children was inhumane and unjustified.
"I find it appalling," he said. "As far as I can see, it's an abuse of the system because the children went on a normal family visit yesterday. I think they were deceived. I think it's a case of entrapment."
The family's immigration lawyer, Pierre Makhlouf, said he was seriously concerned about the mental health of both Mr and Mrs Ahmadi, who were showing signs of post-traumatic stress.
A Home Office spokeswoman said that it was in the best interest of the children to be "reunited" with their parents, and that they were being held in dedicated family quarters. "Detention remains an unfortunate but essential element in effective immigration control," she said.Reuse content