Innocent children are being held in detention centres across the UK. These children are not there because they have broken the law. They are in detention because adults have forced them to leave their country of origin, and because adults have decided that the best way to deal with them, once they arrive in a new country, is to put them away. When it comes to the question of liberty, too often it feels like there are separate rules for “them” and “us”.
It is clear that children seeking asylum suffer the same hurt, humiliation, and loss of self-esteem that adults can experience if detained indefinitely in an unfamiliar, isolated and frequently hostile place. However, because they are children they are unable to seek legal action, or take any kind of decision about attempting to change their situation. The government maintains that children are detained with their parents as a way of keeping families together. But surely, if you were considering the best outcome for the children concerned, it would be to attempt to make sure that families seeking asylum are not put into detention centres at all.
The government, however, currently has no duty to prioritise the wellbeing of these children if it interferes with more important matters, like “immigration control” or “matters relating to citizenship”, according to a reservation releasing them from those responsibilities, created when they signed up to the UN convention on the rights of the child in 1991.
This means that they can legitimately treat children who are not British citizens differently from those who are UK citizens when it comes to making sure that they are protected from human rights abuses.
The campaigning organisation Liberty has asked that the government “withdraw its reservation to the convention on the grounds that it is an international embarrassment, it dehumanises migrant children and it is unjustified”.
“Dehumanises” is the right word. It suggests the defusing of a potentially powerful device – in this case the characteristic of being “human”. These children are of course, human, regardless of which passport they hold. When their basic rights are not prioritised, they are dehumanised very effectively.
The language surrounding asylum seekers in the press does the same job with terrifying precision. A couple of years ago, Tony Parsons wrote in the Mirror about how “this country could not wipe the bottom” of the world and provide help to asylum seekers. He said we were “stuck with a Nigerian woman shrieking for a free operation for a dodgy ticker” – a reference to Elizabeth Alabi, a 29-year-old woman in desperate need of a heart transplant.
In the hands of Parsons even a word like “Nigerian” is made to feel so very “other” that it becomes something inhuman, “shrieking” like an animal – a suggested difference of not just race, but almost of species. Two days later, Alabi died, due to said “ticker”. Parsons did not print an apology. She was the mother of three children, on a low priority NHS list in spite of being an extremely high-risk patient, as she was not from a country that had an agreement with the UK. Her visa had run out, and with it, her family’s right to be treated with dignity in the press.
Any society has a duty to protect and give a voice to the children within it, because they are vulnerable. We cannot continue to subject children that enter our country from outside to this debasing language. And we cannot treat children seeking asylum as pawns in the battle for immigration control.
The idea of liberty for me has to transcend nationality and demands that we fulfil our responsibilities as adults – first and foremost to the children around us.