Matthew Norman: Locking up children shames us

The lasting damage caused at Yarl's Wood is apparently not our problem

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As the decade dwindles to its end and we await the avalanche of reviews, could there be a more heartrending snapshot of Noughties Britain than Father Christmas being turned away by guards at an immigration centre's gates?

Were it fictional, the neo-Dickensian tale of how the Rev James Rosental, clad in white beard and lugging his sack of presents for its child inmates, was denied entry to the infamous Yarl's Wood would be as sickeningly mawkish as the death of Little Nell.

The reality is more profoundly nauseating, this vignette capturing enough that is repulsive and depraved about this country to belong in a time capsule, buried in the naïve hope that a century from now our descendants will unearth it and shake their heads in disbelief that it could have happened at all.

Those guards, for instance, are employees of a private company, Serco, which is thriving regardless of fierce, sustained criticism of its running of Yarl's Wood. Only yesterday, our business pages advised that the share is a buy, such is the urge of Pontius Pilate government to wash its hands and outsource its duties to corporate entities whose sole concern is the share price.

That the police arrived to investigate the vicar's mild protests tells another familiar story in an age when heckling ministers and photographing landmarks are offences under under terrorism legislation. Later that day he was again turned away, his pre-arranged visit cancelled on the grounds that his conduct had given "cause for concern". A group of dignitaries was allowed in a while ago, it should be said, but only to inspect what the Home Office deemed suitably sanitised – a literal whitewash, assuming the new schooling area was freshly painted for the visit. Living quarters and general conditions were closed to them, however, and such secrecy covers this place that we're not even told how many children pass through it each year, let alone how they are treated. But the secrecy and the whitewash, twin guardians of Noughties governmental misdemeanour, allow us to make an educated guess.

What we know is that the children of Yarl's Wood tend to arrive there after being arrested with their parents in dawn raids. Many of us will remember momentarily semi-waking in the middle of the night at the tread of a Santa-impersonating parent delivering the stocking to the end of the bed. Here is an indecently perfect perversion of that Christmas vista. Imagine being five years old and waking in the dark to the sound of immigration officers breaking down the door, and being aggressively bundled into the back of a van.

In 2007, a family from Malawi were taken to Yarl's Wood in that manner, the mother refused time to collect life-sustaining epilepsy medication. She and her husband were HIV positive, while their eight-year-old son was expected to develop the illness too. Only the intervention of an Anglican bishop and the resultant media interest prevented him being sent back to Africa to die alone once his parents had predeceased him.

We have heard much from Mr Tony Blair and his successor about their commitment to eradicating African poverty. Not long ago, Gordon Brown congratulated himself on saving 100,000 African children from fatal malaria. Faced with the estimated 1,000 who annually pass through Yarl's Wood, he cares only about burying them from public attention, as if they were radioactive waste, and hurriedly returning them to the poverty, persecution and malarial hell they fled in the misguided belief that Britain was a civilised nation.

Given the evidence that illegal immigrants and failed asylum-seekers with children seldom abscond, and could be tagged at vastly less expense, what specifically concerns him is yet another Noughties curse ... New Labour's desperation to assuage the vicious nasteries of the right-wing press and those who pepper the phone-ins with "They're illegal immigrants so it's not our problem". There could be no more clinically unchristian a sentiment than this distillation of official government policy. If these children will suffer lasting damage, as all the relevant medical and psychiatric experts insist they will, that apparently is not our problem.

That both PMs who have presided over these internment camps style themselves as devoted followers of Christ's teachings is an irony more than adequately observed in the past, but this point cannot be repeated often or crudely enough: the arrest and detention of children, with all its chilling historical echoes, is an abomination. This is one of those rare moral issues that does not bear debate. There is no "one the one hand ...". It is simply wrong. It would be just as simply wrong if their parents were serial killers rather than desperate, vulnerable people whose only offence has been to take Norman Tebbit's on-yer-bike rallying cry to economic migrants to its extreme.

Nick Clegg, leading the political resistance to repugnant policy yet again while David Cameron tactically chooses silence, writes to Gordon Brown urging him to, "stop the scandal of hundreds of very young children, including toddlers, spending this Christmas locked up behind bars". Mr Brown will do no such thing. Even if Joanna Lumley took up the cause, it would take weeks of bad headlines to compel that neurotic ostrich to raise his head from the sands.

Perhaps the alleged Children's Secretary Ed Balls could promise to abolish this obscenity by next Christmas. No one is more ostentatiously moved by the abuse of the young, after all, than Mr Balls. Only last month he apologised for the maltreatment of children in a foreign land. "I think it is important that we say... this is something that we look back on in shame," he said to those forcibly dispatched to Australia and other former colonies as children. "It is right when we look back and see things which we now know were morally wrong, that we are willing to say sorry... It would never happen today."

Don't look back in anger, Mr Balls. Look sideways in self-disgust. The systematic, state mistreatment of children is happening today, and it's happening under your aegis. Say sorry now, or never say sorry at all. Just make it stop.

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