Stop abusing child refugees (says illegal immigrant from Darkest Peru)

Paddington creator and other authors and actors send letter to Downing Street

Robert Verkaik
Monday 14 December 2009 01:00

They are stern words that doubtless come accompanied by a trademark hard stare from Britain's most famous illegal immigrant.

Some 51 years ago, Paddington Bear arrived on these shores after surviving on marmalade as a stowaway from Darkest Peru and was given sanctuary at 32 Windsor Gardens by Mr and Mrs Brown, two paragons of traditional British hospitality towards foreign minors in need of a decent home.

Now the stray bear, who came to Britain accompanied with a note from his ailing aunt asking that he be looked after, is spearheading a campaign – along with more than 60 children's authors and illustrators – to highlight the Government's continued arrest and detention of hundreds of child asylum-seekers in prison-like conditions.

Michael Bond, the creator of the much-loved blow-in from South America, has harnessed Paddington's experience to contrast his good fortune in finding a home in Windsor Gardens – a thriving, inclusive community in west London, with the exception of the Browns' grumpy neighbour, Mr Curry – with the fate of up to 2,000 children who are held each year in detention centres by the UK Border Agency (UKBA).

The poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, Quentin Blake and Philip Pullman, along with the actors Emma Thompson and Colin Firth, are among those who have added their signatures to a letter to the Prime Minister condemning the detention policy and supporting calls by leading doctors for its immediate cessation.

The letter is accompanied by a special message written in the words of Paddington Bear. It said: "Whenever I hear about children from foreign countries being put into detention centres, I think how lucky I am to be living at number 32 Windsor Gardens with such nice people as Mr and Mrs Brown.

"Mrs Bird, who looks after the Browns, says if she had her way she would set the children free and lock up a few politicians in their place to see how they liked it!"

Although the UKBA itself has admitted that there is no evidence that families with young children abscond in significant numbers, the agency arrests and detains between 1,000 and 2,000 asylum-seeking children every year.

David Wood, UKBA director of criminality and detention, told a parliamentary committee in September: "Whilst issues are raised about absconding, that is not our biggest issue. It does happen but it is not terribly easy for a family unit to abscond."

The policy of keeping hundreds of children in secure conditions at immigration removal centres is the subject of increasing concern among health professionals and campaigning groups amid evidence that minors are suffering long-term harm.

Two Anglican priests, one of them dressed as Father Christmas, were this month barred from entering the Yarl's Wood detention centre in Bedfordshire to deliver £300-worth of presents to children which had been donated by several London churches.

The Royal Colleges of Paediatrics and Child Health, alongside two other professional bodies – General Practitioners and Psychiatrists, and the Faculty of Public Health – last week issued a joint statement condemning the Government's detention policy and calling for it to end "without delay".

In October, NHS paediatricians and psychologists reported in the international peer-reviewed journal, Child Abuse & Neglect, that children locked up at Yarl's Wood were "clearly vulnerable, marginalised, and at risk of mental and physical harm as a result of state-sanctioned neglect".

The doctors recorded children's "sexualised behaviour" and older children's tendency to wet their beds and soil themselves, citing the "increased fear due to being suddenly placed in a facility resembling a prison" and the "abrupt loss of home, school, friends and all that was familiar to them".

Nearly 100 MPs have also signed a parliamentary motion put forward by the Labour MP Chris Mullin urging the Government to stop detaining children.

The petition to Mr Brown reads: "As writers and illustrators of books for children, we urge you to stop detaining children whose families have sought asylum in the UK. These children have already had their worlds torn apart and witnessed their parents in turmoil and in stress. No wonder that paediatricians and psychologists report that child detainees are confused, fearful, unable to sleep, suffer headaches, tummy pains and weight loss and exhibit severe emotional and behavioural problems."

The document adds: "The UK Border Agency says that 'treating children with care and compassion is a priority', but it continues with the policy of child detention which has been shown to harm children. The Government must end child detention, now."

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