How the Government turned the children of refugees into second-class citizens

Within a decade we could be like Australia, shooting at boatloads of asylum-seekers

Like most 10-year old kids, Kolonzo loves Beckham and Bratz (but only the male dolls, he insists very seriously). But Kolonzo isn't like most kids. He still can't go to sleep in the dark; most nights he insists on sharing with his mother. He almost always wets the bed. "On a good night," his mother Sadia tells me, "he won't wake up screaming."

Sadia and Kolonzo - who live near me - arrived in Britain three years ago as asylum-seekers from the Somalian civil war. For their first six months in London, Kolonzo insisted on barricading their bedroom door with heavy furniture before he got into bed. When he is stressed out, he hides in a cupboard - as he was forced to when his father was killed in Somalia - with enough food and water to last for days.

Almost unnoticed in the press, the British government is about to make things even worse for young asylum-seekers like Kolonzo. The Children Bill is currently at the Committee Stage in the House of Commons. In most respects, it is a terrific piece of legislation. In the wake of the Victoria Climbie scandal, the Government was determined to make sure that every agency working with children is now trained to watch out for signs of abuse, and to guarantee the safety and welfare of children. Scores of smart ideas proposed by children's charities are finally being integrated into law. As Margaret Hodge, the Children's Minister, explains, "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reform services so that all children - especially the most vulnerable - are safe and protected."

Except "all children - especially the most vulnerable" is, in this legislation, a category that excludes the children of asylum-seekers. You thought all children were equal? You thought this was a country that offered protection to kids whatever their origins?

No more. The Children Bill puts obligations on all sorts of agencies - from the police to NHS Trusts to young offenders' institutes - to make sure they guarantee basic protections to children. Simple stuff: ensuring they aren't being starved or beaten or bored to death. But three big agencies are left out: immigration officers, the "reception centres" that lock up asylum-seekers on their arrival, and the National Asylum Support Service.

Police officers are going to be trained to watch out for abuse and trauma in children. They are going to be legally required to check for it. Immigration officers are not. Reception centre workers are not. Workers with the National Asylum Support Service - who monitor asylum-seekers living in the community - are not. They are busy people and it won't be part of their job description, never mind a legal requirement.

Sounds minor? Nancy Kelley, chair of the Refugee Children's Consortium, explains the practical effects of this decision: "If you have a child coming through immigration who is being trafficked, the officers may not notice. They certainly won't be trained or obliged to watch out for it. Or if a child is coming through immigration who is severely traumatised - as so many asylum-seekers' children are - the immigration officer will not be trained to contact mental health services and make sure the child is getting the treatment he or she needs. Nor will the reception centre workers, who are often detaining these children for months on end. Asylum-seekers' children will be second-class citizens, denied the basic protection we give our own kids. It's a recipe for neglect."

How did we get here? How did we get to a point where children who have been dragged half way across the world, children whose parents are dead, tortured or terrified, are being given less protection than other kids?

It is happening because our media deliberately stokes and enlarges public fears - often with blatant lies - and our politicians cower before them. What this approach to underage refugees reveals is a deceit underlying our national debate about asylum. The relentless demonisers of refugees - the Littlejohns and the Dacres - always insert a neat escape clause into their arguments. "Oh no, we don't have anything against genuine asylum-seekers," they protest, "it's only the bogus ones - the scheming crooks - that we dislike."

Well, children are unbogus and unscheming. They cannot be blamed for anything. So where are these self-proclaimed supporters of genuine asylum rights now? They are still accusing the Government of being "too soft."

The main political parties - with the honourable exceptions of the Liberal Democrats and the Greens - have been engaged in a decade-long playground brawl to see who can please the newspaper bullies by kicking asylum-seekers hardest.

The Tories' plans to send all asylum-seekers to "a remote island" seem to have collapsed under the weight of their own implausibility. The party has, however, managed to find a shiny new policy. Last week, Michael Howard described the murder of his grandmother in the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz. In the same speech, he declared that he would make Britain the first democratic country to withdraw from the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees that was formulated in the wake of the Second World War. It's not hard to figure out what would happen next: other major countries would withdraw and the international system for protecting refugees like Howard's family would come crashing down. Howard smiled and nodded at the applause.

But there is no comfort for Labour supporters in Tony Blair's record on this issue. On Blair's watch, the detention of asylum-seekers and the slashing of benefits has intensified.

It's time to fight back. The asylum-haters and their newspapers shriek their ignorant views at every opportunity. Independent readers know the truth, but usually we look the other way and assume there is nothing we can do.

It only takes a few people to make a big difference. Only last month, there was a major victory for defenders of asylum-seekers. For seven years, children had been locked up at the notorious holding centre for asylum-seekers in Dungavel, Lanarkshire, despite the manifest disgust of inspectors. Thanks to a group of ordinary citizens who wouldn't shut up and wouldn't accept the jailing of innocent children in Britain, the "family rooms" are now empty.

If you don't act - if at some point you don't say, "This is too much. This is not how I want my country to behave" - then Britain will continue to spiral further and further into asylum-abuse. Within a decade, we could be like Australia, shooting at boats filled with asylum-seekers approaching their coast and jailing them in such vicious camps that they sew their own mouths shut in protest. This might sound far-fetched - but would you have believed just a few years ago that the children of asylum-seekers could be officially reduced to second-class citizens when it comes to child protection?

We can make the Children's Bill the final insult to asylum-seekers. We can stop this now. There is still one month before the Bill is finally passed; there is time to amend. Call your MP on 0207 219 3000. Demand an amendment covering all the agencies that deal with the children of refugees. The people who slander and attack refugees and their children aren't going to shut up. Are you?

j.hari@yahoo.co.uk

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