Deborah Orr: Welcome to Britain, where blameless children are placed under lock and key

The children share their mother's punishment, and they take it badly
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She is cheaply but elegantly dressed, well groomed, comfortably conversant in idiomatic English and is defending herself. There are few people in the courtroom where her appeal is being heard, because this is a special court, modest in its scope, predictable in its workings, and pretty much remorseless in its pursuit of its goal - not justice, but expulsion.

The woman before us, a graduate in English and a qualified accountant, is being held in Yarl's Wood Detention Centre, Bedfordshire, pending the outcome of a judicial review of her asylum case. A British couple is willing to stand bail for her so that she can await her fate in relative freedom. The Home Office opposes her request.

She arrived in Britain in early 2003, having fled from a former Soviet republic. She was accompanied by a familiar story. She says she was a member of the opposition and had been detained and abused by the police for her political beliefs. After her release, she says, she and her family continued to be victimised and threatened. So she left.

Her claim for asylum was immediately refused. She has no proof, after all, either of her political affiliations or of her ill-treatment. Even if she did it would make no difference. Since she flew here from a neighbouring state, it has been decided that she can be flown back there. She has no choice but to confirm that there is no theoretical reason why she should not be deported to this neighbouring state.

Nevertheless, she continues doggedly to resist deportation, on a couple of occasions actually confounding the demands of British law while virtually on the airport runway. That's why she's ended up in a detention centre. Her actions, says the law of the land, are prima facie evidence of her failure to respect British immigration law. She's under lock and key, because of her wish to live in Britain, caught in the negative feedback loop of British asylum bureaucracy. There are a number of reasons why she can't stay in Britain. But fiendishly, one of the main ones now is because she wants to.

There is plenty of evidence, at this hearing, of the Kafkaesque nature of the hearings. The tiresomely exacting demands of justice that clog the proper courts, are not wanted here. No proof has to be offered when an accusation is made. No excuses have to be accepted.

One of the reasons why this woman is under detention is because during a 74-day period, during which she fended for herself, she failed to make her daily report to the immigration office at Beckett House, London Bridge, 15 times. She goes through the dates she is accused of missing: five of them were Sundays and the centre was not open. On one, she explains, she offered a sick note from her doctor who had arranged a scan for her suspected ovarian cancer. Five dates are under dispute but on another four, she admits, she did not turn up quite willfully. What could she do, she asks, when her children were spiking frightening fevers, delirious with flu? She could not leave her children to make the long daily journey when they were so ill.

There is no sign of the woman's two daughters in the courtroom, even though a successful appeal would mean freedom - of a sort - for them as well. Yet the children share their mother's punishment and they take it badly. A doctor's note confirms that the young daughter, nine, has been suffering from a painful nervous rash, called urticaria, The elder, 17, has completely withdrawn. She suffers from depression and self-harms. For 18 months, until she was detained, she had been seeing a psychiatrist. She doesn't any more. In fact, she sees very few people at all and very few people see her.

A casual observer, idly watching the coming-into-being of Britain's network of asylum detention centres, might have got the wrong end of the stick. There have been a number of protests against the sites and it could look as if there were a groundswell of revulsion against them. That, of course, would be wrong. On the contrary, the protests came only because people want very much to have no inkling of where these places are or what is happening in them. Nobody wants a detention centre on their doorstep, because pretty much everyone simply wants the problem to disappear. It is precisely this desire, that has brought the detention centres into being.

What we have to ask though, is whether we can turn an eye so blind that it does not see that blameless children are being incarcerated in Britain - and in some numbers. A report from Save The Children estimates that around 2,000 children are detained with their families every year for the purpose of immigration control, with the length of detention varying considerably from seven days to 268. Half of all the 32 cases looked at in depth by the charity had been detained for 28 days or more.

This, shamefully, is in blatant contravention of international standards relating to the treatment of children and prisoners set by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the UN High Commission for Refugees. These place the needs of children above the requirements of international law. Here, in the courtrooms of our detention centres, Britain does the opposite.

It was of no legal consequence that our stubborn friend had two sick daughters in detention with her. The judge did as the system required and still dismissed her claim for bail. He believed there was too great a risk of their mother absconding, in her desperation to escape the country of her birth, for the children to be removed from incarceration.

It might be said that it is the mother herself who is abusing her children by putting them through such a gruelling folly. The same might be said of Manuel Bravo, who hanged himself in Yarl's Wood last year, before his son's eyes, rather than return with his boy to Angola. By killing himself he made an unaccompanied minor of his son, and gained for him exceptional leave to remain.

What are we to say to these people, who believe such suffering is worthwhile in the pursuit of a life in Britain? Maybe just that we are not so different to the repressive, unfair societies that they are fleeing - as far as they are concerned anyway.

Save The Children, in coalition with the Refugee Council and Bail for Immigration Detainees, calls for a modest derogation from this firm line and asks that asylum-seeking children should be treated as children first and foremost, with their needs and interests represented by Britain's children's commissioners. It calls for detention for children to be stopped - and a system of incentivised compliance based on that adopted by the United States. The charity has many sensible ideas about how Britain could pull back from this excess it has fallen into, whereby we turn our eyes away as innocent children are imprisoned. There is no need at all for us to do this, and we must stop it.