Children's author hears echo of apartheid in UK's 'hostile' treatment of asylum-seekers

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An award-winning novelist said yesterday she could hear an echo of the South African apartheid regime in the way Britain treated its refugees and asylum-seekers.

South African-born Beverley Naidoo has been awarded the Carnegie medal given annually by the Library Association for "an outstanding book for children and young people".

The children's author used her speech at the ceremony in London yesterday to attack politicians and the media for inflaming racial tensions by constantly denigrating asylum-seekers. On arrival in Britain, they were plunged into a world of "public indifference and increasingly overt hostility to their plight, fuelled by the irresponsibility of politicians and media prepared to appeal to the lowest common denominator", she said.

Her award-winning book, The Other Side of Truth, tells the story of a journalist fleeing from persecution in Nigeria to Britain through the eyes of his 12-year-old daughter.

She spent time visiting refugees to research her book. "Four years ago, the so-called 'hotel' for refugees given temporary respite near Heathrow Airport felt like an army barracks," she said. "Now our politicians talk proudly of barracks. Campsfield House, where refugees are held near Oxford, is nothing like a house. It is a prison at the end of a leafy lane." She said asylum-seekers were subjected to constant "little gestures of contempt and humiliation" by those put in charge of them which "rankled as deeply as the confinement".

"Images I saw while researching constantly took me back to South Africa," she said. "The long queue forced to wait outside the gigantic Immigration and Nationality Department at Croydon brought back childhood memories of the Pass Office in Johannesburg." She said the report by Sir Herman Ouseley into Bradford, the scene of riots earlier this week, had shown "just how deeply racialised our society remains".

"Mr Blair and New Labour, you say you are about social change," she added. "Well, I ask you to stop paying lip-service. We need a more reflective and deeper approach." Speaking to The Independent, Ms Naidoo said: "I think some people will have been very surprised having come to this country expecting a place of tolerance.

"There is a tremendous amount of responsibility on the shoulders of politicians to watch their words, because language is powerful. They have a responsibility to think about what are the effects of the words they are using – could they contribute to racist attacks?" She said schools had an important role. "Talking about literature provides a splendid forum for discussion and deepening understanding".

However, the emphasis from the Government was on "literacy not literature". "Literature is only mentioned once in the literacy strategy," she said.

"David Blunkett [the former secretary of state for education] expresses horror at the racism mouthed by young white people. Yet he does not realise how his own prescriptions have reinforced the sidelining of education for social justice. A few lessons in citizenship will not put this right."

Beverley Naidoo was born in 1943 and grew up as a white child in South Africa. She came to England in 1965 after eight weeks' detention in solitary confinement in South Africa. Her first children's novel, Journey to Jo'burg, won awards in the UK and the US but was banned in South Africa until 1991.