Zimbabwean civil rights activist Nellie de Jongh has been speaking to women "behind the wire" at Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre and documenting their lives, the lives of their children, and the conditions under which they are all being kept.
Nellie de Jongh logs her visits and related information on the Web site of the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns (NCADC), and e-mails an account of what she is seeing and hearing to a growing number of people.
The following narrative is based on her e-mails:
July 20, 2006
Aboubacar Bailey Junior was born on April 16, 2006, in Holloway prison. He served his first 79 days there, and then he was transferred to continue his indefinite sentence at Yarl's Wood. To date, he has served 15 days.
His crime, according to immigration law, is the immigration status of his parents.
Baby Aboubacar suffers from a skin condition that keeps him and his mom awake at night. Doctors are not very helpful because Aboubacar is, first and foremost, an illegal immigrant -- even before he can ever be a child.
At Yarl's Wood, babies are not getting enough to eat. They are suffering from loss of appetite and can hardly eat the food they are provided.
Halama, Aboubacar's mother, said he received better care at Holloway prison. There, breast-feeding mothers got an extra liter of milk in a flask for their babies every night. At Yarl's Wood, they are told there is no extra milk for breast-feeding mothers. They are told to drink a lot of water instead.
Halama said she believes the only reason their babies were treated better in prison was because British nationals were also housed there.
"At Immigration Removal centers we are all foreign nationals, that is why they don't care about our babies," Halama said.
Ayodele Micheal Ode was born on April 17, 2006. He, too, was born in prison and lived there for the first 22 days of his life, before being transferred to Yarl's Wood, where he continues to serve his extended prison sentence. What terrible crime did this baby commit to have already served 93 days in two prisons?
Leatitia Kakmeni Pameni was born on Oct. 12, 2003, and Stacy Leuni Singoue, on Feb. 23, 2005. They were both detained on May 11, 2006. To date, the two siblings have served 68 days in detention. Tomorrow, they will be deported to the Central African Republic.
Princess Solomon was born on Oct. 19, 1997, and Promise Solomon, on Jan. 6, 2004. The two sisters and their mother were detained on May 30, 2006. They have served 50 days in detention to date. Promise's identity card has the following information on the back: "This card is to be carried at all times while you are in the centre and handed in when you leave. The card must be produced on request to Officers to obtain access to the centre facilities."
Promise is two and a half years old. How can she comply with the instructions?
Promise is suffering from ill health. She has had nosebleeds for the past few days. According to Meggy, Promise's mother, the doctor has not been helpful and was unable to reassure her about either of her children's poor health. No thorough examination was carried out.
Meggy has resorted to holding Promise in her arms, over her shoulder, while she sleeps, as she has woken up on several occasions to find the child, her clothing, and her bedding covered in blood. Her worst fear is that Promise will choke to death if she lays her down to sleep.
Aliyah Benoni was born on the June 15, 2006, and is the youngest child on my list. Like Ayodele she, too, was born in prison where she served the first 15 days of her life. She was then transferred to Yarl's Wood on July 5, 2006. She continues to serve her indefinite sentence and has done 15 days. At time of writing, she is only 30 days old.
Molly Ssebatta was born on Oct. 5, 2001. She was detained on July 5, 2006 -- at 5:30 a.m. Molly's speech has been affected since detention. She has no appetite and refuses to eat most days. She wants to go back home, and she misses her friends. She had been detained for 15 days.
Adecokundo Taiwo was born on June 20, 2002, and Adeole Taiwo, on Jan. 13, 2005. They have both spent 15 days behind the wire. According to their mother, before they were snatched in one of the Home Office's infamous dawn raids, the two brothers had been to their doctor and were due for a review, as their doctor had said they had an infection. The mother was very distressed by the attitude of the doctors at Yarl's Wood, who have even turned down her request for Paracetomol. Mostly, the brothers want to know when they will be able to go back home, and to school, to do normal things again.
I am amazed at the courage of some of these parents. Most are fighting back in their own way with noncompliance. They get together, have discussions and meetings, and write letters to the authorities. Working with these women/parents has brought home to me just how terrible immigrants are treated in this country. The fact that innocent babies are born in prison and then transferred to immigration detention centers leaves me very angry indeed.
July 22, 2006
Prisca Kifoula and her three children were detained on July 19, 2006.
She said that she was abused physically, verbally, and racially by the officers who picked them up. She was very distressed and started to take off her clothes. The officers covered the top half of her body with her bath mat. She was driven from Huddersfield to Leeds and then to Bedford with her children, who also became very distressed, as their mother was still naked except for the bath mat.
While in Huddersfield, in her home, she said they pushed her head into the sofa and hurt her arms, which are swollen. She said she couldn't even lift her child up or anything else. I have advised her to make a complaint and ask for a copy in writing. Other detainees confirmed that what she was saying was true.
Judith Mtili has asked if a doctor could see her husband because his blood pressure is very high at the moment.
July 24, 2006
Friday morning, July 21: It is 2 a.m. and I cannot get Prisca, her children and the other families behind the wire out of my mind. Sleep seems but a luxury in the midst of so much human suffering which is totally unnecessary. I am exhausted after spending days speaking to other mothers behind the wire. I am feeling really hopeless at the moment. This family's removal date is July 24, 2006. We have two days to try and do something.
We have lost one family. This is the Solomon family. Remember our little two and a half year old I.D. cardholder? Promise Solomon, and her sister Princess Solomon, their mother managed to resist for 50 days with non-compliance. They were served with a removal order after 6 p.m. and removed at 3 a.m. and taken to the airport the day the report on Britain's youngest prisoners was published.
The Home Office won't only bend its own rules a little. It seems to break every single one.
We only found out in the afternoon that they had gone, as sometimes we cannot get through or are not put through to the women behind the wire.
One of the mothers, who related the whole story to me, said Meggy just broke down and really sobbed. She also told me that there was an elderly lady from the Congo who was very distressed and she was crying and taking her clothes off in the hope that they will leave her alone. She was handcuffed naked and taken together with the Solomon family. This I am sure will be forever imprinted on Princess's and Promise's young minds.
Another family was due to be removed on the July 21, at 6 p.m. I spoke to Leatitia and Stacy's mother in the morning and she was really down. Her solicitor I believe was trying really hard as her friend in Glasgow told me. When I tracked them down at Queen's building [PDF] on a call box number, Queen's building, we think is in terminal 4 and it is a holding center before removals.
I believe the family was with immigration officials. The second, third, fourth and fifth time I tried they could not be found. A few people were good enough to offer to look for them, as they seemed to know who I was talking about. By this time it was almost 5 p.m. This is one of the most dynamic mothers who has resisted deportation for 68 days. I hope from the bottom of my heart that she has managed it again. But that is only simply to buy time or as a colleague put it, the Home Office sees it as simply missing the first bus, but right behind it, the other one will be on time.
On July 19 we got a call about a Congolese mother and children who had been detained. The father was not home, which means he was left behind. We hope that will delay the removal. We had been trying to track them down since the calls but only managed to late Friday afternoon. I spoke to Prisca on the phone for about 20 to 30 minutes. She had guards standing outside her door. When I asked her why they were guarding her she told me that she had threatened to kill herself.
I then proceeded to ask her if the Home Office had paid her and her family a pastoral visit, she did not know what I was talking about and I had to break it down for her. Prisca told me Home office officials came to visit them one month before they were snatched and all they asked for was one of the children's birth certificates. When she asked them why they wanted it, they said they just needed to check on something. The document was returned the next time they went to sign.
The next time she heard from the Home Office was the battering of her front door and the police shouting, "Open up! It's the police!" This is every asylum seeker's most dreaded moment that you live and relive. Any loud knock is enough to shatter one's nerves.
When Prisca opened the door, the Home Office bullies bulldozed their way in, with such force, eight or ten of them, two women who immediately went up to the children to try to keep them calm while the home bullies were laying in on Prisca. What can anyone expect a mother who is half-asleep to do? All I would be thinking of is protecting my children in any way I can.
She said as she was trying to resist them an Asian and a white man were insulting her, calling her all sorts of names. They even told her she came to sell herself in this country.
She said they physically, verbally and racially abused her. She was so distraught she took off her clothes begging them to spare her and her children's lives. Prisca was handcuffed naked and to insult her even further these Home Office thugs took her bath mat and used it to cover just her top half. She said her children were brought in; to sit next to their handcuffed naked mother.
The Home Office thugs drove them from Huddersfield to Leeds and then all the way to Yarl's Wood still naked with a just bath mat covering only her top half. This appears to be what Home Office must resort to meet their 5-year target: strip mothers, parents and their children of all pride and dignity. One wonders what else they will be resorting to towards the end of their unreasonable target if they are doing this in the first year.
Prisca said her children cried most of the way to Yarl's Wood. When she arrived she complained about the abuse she and her children had suffered. Her hands were swollen and still are. I have had confirmation of this from two other parents.
Prisca said, "I can not even pick up my youngest child to try to comfort him as my arms are too painful."
All she was given was paracetamol, the Yarl's Wood wonder drug that is a cure for every detainee's illness.
She said that the one man who was on duty when she arrived was very helpful and appeared to be kind but she has not seen him again since. She says she is so depressed and cannot stop crying. The children are so traumatized that even when she cries when they are sleep, they all wake up and start crying too.
She says, "I just can't take this it would be better if they kill me or I die."
I know I keep saying women or mothers, but believe you me there are some fathers too, one of these fathers has been in Yarl's Wood for 20 plus months, he has amazing strength and is so good natured. I tease him endlessly about being the veteran detainee. He has a great sense of humor. When I am feeling really down after taking down a few stories, our veteran detainee keeps a smile on my face. We even manage to have a laugh. He is my translator and right hand man. It's really touching how he runs around getting the new arrivals settled in and counseling them in his own way. When I am really worried about someone, my veteran brother says, "Don't worry, sister. I will go and talk to them and sort everything out."
Two pregnant mothers who gave birth in prison were arrested on arrival as they were traveling on false documents, both were trying to get to Canada before they were detained, despite claiming asylum they were still imprisoned, when they and their babies had served their prison sentence they then started serving their indefinite immigration sentences, one mother said she has only been for her first interview and is waiting for her appeal hearing. I can only relate these stories as they are given to me. I have a good relationship with most of these parents and I have no reason to disbelieve them.
July 27, 2006
The parents of 16 families incarcerated in Yarl's Wood IRC have refused their morning meal, they have also refused to send their children to either the school or the nursery.
I have just spoken to some of the parents refusing food and they are saying they can no longer take life behind the wire. Their main concern is their children. They want to know what crimes their children have committed to be incarcerated indefinitely.
These parents came together to discuss the issue of the detention of their children yesterday evening and decided within the hour that they should make their feelings public and that a hunger strike would be the best way to emphasize the plight of their children. Starting at breakfast time this morning they have refused to eat.
One parent said for those of us who have been granted judicial review, we are still being held as the Home Office has said they would like to make more enquires. This parent went on further to say that: "It is like they have put us in a small box, with the intention of forcing us to go back to our countries which are not safe."
"As I am on medication that I need to take with food I have stopped taking any medication. We are tired of being treated less than human beings. The ill treatment of our wives and children must stop. They deserve to be treated with human dignity."
One of the mothers said she saw three staff holding and questioning a little boy about why he was not going to school.
Another said: "We want the Home Office to hear us and free us, I don't understand how some people are freed without bail and some have to obtain bail."
After reading Anne Owers's report on Yarl's Wood, which was published yesterday, I am not surprised that the parents have taken action.
Yarl's Wood has seen many hunger strikes since it opened and I doubt this will be the last one.
July 28, 2006 [Listen to podcast]
The hunger strike by the parents of children detained at Yarl's Wood is still solid this morning.
One of the mothers I have just spoken to says that none of the parents took their children to breakfast this morning and will probably keep their children away from lunch and supper.
Children in detention are the forgotten children, often snatched before dawn and imprisoned indefinitely. Somewhere this side of the wire are friends and teachers all wondering what has happened to these children and their parents.
Since last Thursday, the following has happened:
Aboubacar Bailey Junior made bail yesterday after 100 days in detention
Brothers Adecokundo Taiwo and Adeole Taiwo are still in detention. The children's health, welfare and lack of appetite are an ongoing concern for mom, who suffers with joint pains and depression. She says all she was ever given was paracetomol. The children still want to know when they can go back home to their friends and school.
Aliyah, our youngest little detainee, is still doing time. She was born on June 15, 2006. She has also just spent a day in hospital because of constipation. Her mom said it is because of the poor diet. She is a breast-feeding mom and she says she is terrified to stop breast-feeding.
Her mother has concerns about hygiene issues at Yarl's Wood IRC.
When I asked mom about where the baby was born, she said she was rushed to hospital from prison and then taken back to prison four hours after Aliyah was born. She said she has no family or friends in the U.K. as she was detained while in transit to Canada to join her sister. She was imprisoned for carrying false documents. Despite seeking asylum and being refused she said she has only used up her one appeal, "but it appears they would like to keep me here indefinitely. No second appeal date has been set."
Leatitia, Stacy, Princess, and Promise have been deported. I don't know if all these children had received their anti-malarials before being put on the plane. If not their lives will be in danger, as they will have no natural immunity against malaria, Africa's biggest killer of children. Their removal makes me very, very angry.
I have spoken to all the parents and questioned them about pastoral visits, not one of them knew what I was talking about.
Pastoral visits are part of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate's family removals policy to prepare families for removal. Pastoral visits provide for the gathering of information regarding the circumstances of the family concerned and ensure that important issues such as medical or special needs are taken into account when deciding on arrest, detention, transportation and/or removal.
Africa seems to be the Home Office's flavor of the month for deportees at present.
One of the main medical needs of children, pregnant mothers, and adults being returned to any country in Africa, especially sub-Saharan Africa, is immunization against malaria. The Home Office, to the best of my knowledge, does not inform the families of the need for anti-malarials. In order for most families to get the anti-malarials, they have to take out or threaten to take out injunction orders against the Home Office.
Anne Owers published her report on Yarl's Wood on Wednesday of this week. I personally feel she has understated the facts. The people she talked about in her report and the people I have talked to over the last fortnight, could be interchanged. Nothing has improved that I can see and I personally feel things have got worse. There is definitely a lack of "duty of care" towards the children and parents currently incarcerated in Yarl's Wood IRC.
Aug 1, 2006
Six parents at Yarl's Wood IRC are still on hunger strike.
I have been speaking to them daily and have noticed their voices are getting weaker and they have told me that they feel very ill.
When I asked how long they intend to continue, they said until the Home Office comes and talks to them.
Baby Aliyah has just spent another day in hospital as she's had a high temperature since Friday. Her mom's fears for Aliyah's well-being have been doubled by the outbreak of chicken pox at the center. They have a bail hearing on Friday. Hope they get free.
Molly Sebbatta is four and a half years old and she's now spent 26 days in detention. She is suffering. Her mom, Agnes, says Molly's speech is deteriorating and she is bed-wetting, which never happened at home. She has also started wetting herself during the day. This family too has had two removal directions and are still being detained.
One family who have been detained since early July is made up of a father, a mother (both refusing food) and two daughters. They have had removal directions set twice. The dates have come and gone and they are still being detained. They applied for bail and were refused because the adjudicator said he could not release them since removal directions had been set.
As I will be visiting some of the parents for the next two days, I phoned the booking office at Yarl's Wood and was told that there was an outbreak of chicken pox and I could come at my own risk. When I enquired from a good number of parents about the outbreak, some had been told about it but others heard about it from me for the first time.
NHS Direct says chicken pox is a highly contagious virus, with an incubation period of 15 to 20 days. Chickenpox is most contagious the day before the rash appears and until the blisters are all dry and crusted over (usually about five days). If you have chickenpox you should avoid contact with pregnant women who have not had chickenpox, newborn babies and people with a low immune system -- for example, those with cancer or advanced H.I.V. -- as these people can't fight infection as well as those with a healthy immune system.
As a result of the outbreak Yarl's Wood will not receive any new detainees until August 21.
I have just spoken to Mia and she says the reason she and Aliyah have not been released is due to accommodation and the fact that she does not have an address to go to in the U.K. She has said besides her befriender, there is no one else she knows.
The other mothers who were in the same situation with her have since been released and put in hostels.
She is very concerned about Aliyah's well being. Aliyah spent a day in hospital last week and then yesterday she spent another day in hospital due to a cold. Mia is concerned about the outbreak of chicken pox and the effect it could have on her baby who is only five weeks old.
She has said her solicitor has applied, on her behalf, for accommodation from the National Asylum Support Service. She has tried endlessly to get in touch with her solicitor but has not been able to get through to her. She is not sure if the solicitor is away or not.
September 8, 2006
When children behind the wire start to call Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre "home," it clearly shows that their perception of living in Yarl's Wood is that they have lived there a long time.
Six-year-old Molly Ssebatta spent six weeks in detention with her mother.
Three attempts to remove them failed. On getting back to Yarl's Wood the third time, Molly said to her mum: "We are home."
Molly's mother said the family was released after the resident social worker's intervention. In the Family Welfare Assessment Weekly Review, the social worker wrote that Molly continues to show, signs of increasing institutionalization.
Sisters Annarose, Joanne and their parents Judith and Juslain were released on Aug. 3, from Yarl's Wood IRC.
They went back to their home in Dudley where they had been snatched from only to find that they were no longer tenants and the house had been boarded up.
The Refugee Council found them emergency accommodation in Birmingham, which was one room.
When I first spoke to Judith after their release she said to me: "Can you hear how happy the children are?"
"Free at last," Judith said. "Even though the four of us are still living in one room since our release, it is better than that prison Yarl's Wood."
Annarose, the eldest is still suffering because of her experiences of detention. I regularly meet with the family, and we have to be careful about mentioning the Home Office and Yarl's Wood as she becomes very distressed.
Joanne is just a toddler, a mere two and half years old. What is most disturbing is that every time she sees a policeman, traffic warden or anyone in security uniform or if the word "search" is mentioned, she lifts up her arms to be body-searched as this was the norm at Yarl's Wood, where body-searches on the girl child and mothers are carried out by both male and female officers.
Another thing that Joan does regularly is, when she hears a phone ring she shouts out, "244." When she picks up the phone she says, "244," which was the family's room, pager and I.D. number to obtain meals, and receive phone calls and other services.
I have witnessed some of Joanne's behaviors and it's enough to make me weep.
How can such things happen in what is supposed to be a civilized society?
I have just been speaking to Judith and Juslain who have told me they are being dispersed again, this time to Cardiff.
For Annarose to start another school she needs her birth certificate. The family went to Annarose's old school on the hope of getting a copy.
Judith said when Annarose heard that they were going to Dudley, she was so excited as she thought she would be going back to her old school to be with her friends.
When mom told her that it was only to fetch her birth certificate, she said to her mother: "Please let me go back to my old school."
Can you imagine what it must be like to a nine-year-old who loved her school, teacher and friends to go back to a school she can never again attend?
This article was first published on OhmyNews International.