Sent 'home' to a country she has never seen: Beriwan, an innocent victim of Britain's asylum system

Teenager who appealed to David Blunkett to be allowed to stay in Britain is deported with her mother, sisters and brother
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The Independent Online

Everyone involved will have a good excuse to explain why they have washed their hands of Beriwan Ay, the 14-year-old who was deported from Britain yesterday at the behest of the Home Secretary, David Blunkett. She is bound for Turkey, a country she has never set foot in.

Mr Blunkett has every excuse for wanting to be rid of her. After all, she entered this country illegally, in the back of a lorry from Germany four years ago. The judges in the House of Lords last week had every reason, under the Dublin Convention, to rule that Beriwan's mother, Yurdugal Ay, "had no legal right to remain in the UK".

And the German authorities will no doubt be perfectly legally correct if they send the Ay family - Yurdugal, Beriwan and sisters, Newroz, 12, and Medya, seven, and brother Dilowan, 11 - to Turkey.

And yet the whole sorry saga has produced a morass of unhappiness. So much so that it is only possible to conclude that if this is the system working properly then we need a more humane system.

For it has ended with four young children - who were happily ensconced for three years in schools in Gravesend in Kent - being "sent back" to a place they never came from. In the process they have been held behind razor wire under a prison regime, with the whole family living in one cramped room - for longer than any other family of immigration detainees in Britain. Conditions were such that lawyers feared for the mental health of Beriwan's sister Newroz who is suffering from depression and weight loss.

And then, at 5am on Friday, it ended as heartlessly as it had been conducted throughout, when the children were woken by 10 security guards and, without warning, taken on a 10-hour journey to a detention centre near Gatwick airport. Their lawyer says he was not told they were about to be moved, nor where they had been taken to.

From Gatwick, Beriwan made a dramatic last-minute public plea to Mr Blunkett. In an emotionally charged telephone call to a press conference she said she wanted "nothing else" but to stay in Britain. But Beriwan and her family were deported on a flight from Stansted airport to Frankfurt at 10am yesterday morning.

Within hours of their departure from Britain, solicitors were preparing two separate legal actions in a final attempt to prevent the children from being sent to Turkey. The first was an appeal against the Home Office's decision to refuse the children's application for asylum in the UK. The second was a fresh application for asylum to be granted to them in Germany.

Yurdugal Ay and her husband, Salih, are Kurds. They fled Turkey 15 years ago claiming persecution by the military police. They spent 11 years in Germany, where their children were born. The couple made multiple applications for refugee status since arriving in the European Union in 1988. All of them were turned down. The German authorities refused to accept that Kurds are persecuted in Turkey.

When the final application failed, and the German authorities threatened to deport them, they travelled clandestinely in a lorry to Britain in June 1999. The couple said they feared they would be persecuted if returned home - a fear that their supporters say has been underscored by the fact that Salih has disappeared since he was forcibly returned to Turkey. Yurdugal received one phone call from him after he arrived in Turkey but has not heard from him since. She fears for his safety.

The children settled well into school in Gravesend where they quickly learned English and did well academically. The elder two were marked out for university places. It became, Beriwan later said, the place they came to think of as home.

But then the British authorities labelled them "third-country applicants".

Friends in Gravesend expressed dismay at their deportation. Julie Coleman, the family's next-door neighbour, said: "They were brilliant neighbours, a wonderful family. The mother didn't speak much English but she'd try to talk to people; she used to try to interact. She'd sometimes come round with food parcels - stuff that she'd cooked from her own country. Everything was fine, then the next minute the dad got taken away."

Andy Crawford, the chairman of governors at Dover Road school, said: "They were good kids who wanted to learn. They've been dismissed by the system. It's a shame they were dealt with in that way."

Certainly the system was, at the very least, dilatory. The children were in the UK for three years before the authorities moved against them.

"Within six months of arriving in Britain the immigration people knew where we came from and should have sent us back to Germany then," Beriwan said in an interview she gave from detention to The Independent on Sunday. "Instead we were allowed to settle down, make friends and build a life before they took it all away from us."

When Salih was deported in March last year, Yurdugal absconded. The authorities tracked her down and took her to Dungavel Detention Centre in Lanarkshire. The children were taken out of school to go to Scotland with her. And the legal process was set in train, which ended with the family's deportation yesterday.

"There is no case for giving this family residency in Britain," the immigration minister, Beverley Hughes, has said. "I am concerned about these children. They are completely blameless in all this, but they are being used to drag out this case even longer. The fact they have been in detention there for so long is wholly down to what the parents have been doing. They are in custody because their mother refuses to go back to Germany voluntarily."

Yet even if that was true there are questions to be asked about the children's detention. Dungavel was a grim place. There they lived in a single room, 13ft square. "My brother and sisters have suffered a lot in here, their mental health has suffered," said Beriwan. "My sister Newroz doesn't talk or eat and every day gets thinner. Her hair is falling out. I'm behind on my schoolwork because the books we use are for primary school children. This place feels like a prison."

Visitors to Dungavel did not disagree with her judgement. The imposing Victorian building is surrounded by high fences and surveillance cameras. Visitors are fingerprinted and photographed when they arrive and again when they leave. Friends and lawyers are searched for contraband using metal detectors. Conversations are monitored by security staff.

When the family was visited by the Bishop of Paisley, the Right Rev John Mone, president of the Catholic Church's Justice and Peace Commission in Scotland, he described the conditions of the children's detention as "a disgrace".

After the House of Lords' decisions the family's lawyer, Aamer Anwar, lodged a separate asylum application on behalf of the children but the authorities made it clear it would not be heard. "In the Secretary of State's view your threat of yet further judicial proceedings is frankly an abuse of process designed solely to disrupt the lawful removal of the Ay family to Germany," the Treasury Solicitor said.

Mr Anwar was unimpressed. "In the past they said the children were only in detention so they could be near their mother," he said. "On Thursday the children officially became asylum-seekers so the British Government now has an official policy of jailing child asylum-seekers. The manner in which they treated the children is barbaric." He now intends to appeal from Germany on behalf of the children. But the children may be in Turkey before the appeal is heard. German officials are set to make a decision on the family's case today.

The British Government insists that what has happened is just. "The UK Government will provide a haven to those genuinely fleeing persecution if we are the country that is responsible for doing so. But there must be a fair and effective way of ensuring that only those with a right to be here are allowed to stay in the UK."

Even so it's hard to see that justice has been done for Beriwan and her brother and sisters. "They have lost their childhood," said Bishop Mone.

"This shouldn't happen to any children."

IN HER OWN WORDS: FEAR, SHOCK, SORROW

Beriwan Ay, 14, in conversation with her lawyer, Aamer Anwar, at a press conference in a detention centre near Gatwick airport on Monday:

How did you feel? (when you were moved from the detention centre)

I felt very scared, shocked, and very upset.

How do you feel now that you've got 24 hours before the threatened deportation?

I'm very nervous. I don't know what to do. I've been [detained] for one year. I tried my best to stay. I can't go back to Germany. They will deport us to Turkey.

When you came to Britain four years ago, did you think this would happen to you?

No, never. I didn't think about detention centres. I thought that Britain was a democratic country where they looked after children because it's their duty to look after the children, but it's not. It's just disgraceful (crying) staying in a detention centre for one year (voice breaking up). We haven't broken the law.

The Government says Dungavel detention centre is not a prison. What do you think?

They can call it anything, but for me it's a prison. Nobody calls it a detention centre. Everybody calls it prison because it's a prison with fences and barbed wires (voice trembling), where children can't go outside and have their freedom and enjoy themselves. Detention centres are very bad for their mental health ... everything. They can call it anything, but we don't call it a detention centre. We call it a prison.

Do you have a message for the British Government?

My message would be that it's a disgrace to put children in a detention centre and I would say they should stop it immediately. The detention centre should be closed.

Do you have a message for the Government in terms of what's happening to you and your family?

(Sobbing) I've been here for one year in detention centre ... to fight my case ... and listen to me. I can't go back to Germany because they will send me to Turkey. I can't go to Turkey. I'd have to change my name because it's a Kurdish name. There's no education there [for Kurds]. There's persecution.

What do you think may have happened to your father when he was sent back to Turkey?

I don't really know. I think in prison, or something happened to him on the way. In Turkey, there's a lot of problems. People get kidnapped, or killed. I'll never know what happened to my dad.

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