Esmé Madill: End the inhumanity of child detention

We detain 2,000 ayslum-seeking children each year in awful conditions

While Ali waited for the van to take him to join his parents in Yarl's Wood Detention Centre, my daughters helped me pack a bag of toys for his long journey. He was desperate for his mum. He's two years old. He stopped crying only when he slept. My girls kept asking why I couldn't stop him going to prison.

Our government detains 2,000 asylum-seeking children every year in conditions known to harm their mental and physical health. The Children's Commissioner, Sir Al Aynsley-Green, has urged the authorities to stop. Doctors reporting in the journal Child Abuse & Neglect say children in detention suffer from confusion, fear, sleep problems, headaches, abdominal pain, severe emotional and behavioural problems. They found one 20-month breastfeeding baby in Yarl's Wood who had been separated from her mother for three weeks. Stress caused older children to wet their beds and soil their pants.

"Treating children with care and compassion is a priority", said David Wood of the Government's Border Agency, dismissing the doctors' research as "limited" and "three years old". Ali's adventure suggests the doctors' research is bang up to date. He got out in July after more than three weeks refusing food and losing weight, clinging to his mum, terrified by the screams of families being dragged off to Heathrow.

Eighteen months after release, one four-year-old turns rigid if she sees someone in uniform. It takes her back to the dawn raid, the long drive to Yarl's Wood where her chronic health problems spiralled out of control and she spent weeks crying and begging to go home. Like Ali, she has been granted asylum. There was never any need or reason to detain them.

Why does our government persist in locking children up? Families with children are extremely unlikely to abscond. Other countries have more humane arrangements, allowing families to stay together in the community while their cases are decided or, in the case of failed asylum seekers, before their return. Here, these families are hidden – in detention centres, behind barbed wire, out of sight. The dawn raid, the sudden van journey with total strangers, men in uniform, no time to pack toys or books, call friends or tell their teachers they won't be on that school trip, it's all hard to believe.

With friends I've started the campaign, End Child Detention Now. Two MPs, Chris Mullin and Peter Bottomley, have tabled an Early Day Motion calling upon the Government to stop detaining asylum seeking children. Since last Monday, 39 MPs have signed it.

We've set up a petition at Hundreds of people have signed it already, including Emma Thompson, Kamila Shamsie and Colin and Livia Firth. Bishops have volunteered to ask questions in the Lords to keep up the pressure on the Government. We won't stop until child detention stops. No child should be locked up for seeking sanctuary: not your child, or anyone else's.