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If you live in one of the big cities of the UK, including London, you may be familiar with the long white security vans that speed along our streets in the early morning and evening. Each of them has a few small darkened windows. You probably recognise them as prison vans. Like me, you may have assumed that the people inside were all suspected criminals on their way to court at the beginning of the day, or returning to custody at the end of it. In some cases, this may well be right. In other instances, the truth is rather different. The vans may be full of terrified, crying children. They are children who have been caught up in a system of hidden state brutality that puts us to shame.
The nature of this brutality has been described recently in precise but heartbreaking detail in a report by the Children’s Commissioner for England, Professor Sir Al Aynsley-Green.1 In May 2008 he and a team of seven colleagues including a consultant paediatrician visited Yarl’s Wood Immigration Centre in Bedfordshire, the main centre for families awaiting removal from the UK. It is run by a private security company under contract to the UK Borders Agency. Two thousand children are held in such centres each year, and, on the day of the visit, 54 children were present in Yarl’s Wood. Fourteen were 1 year old or younger, 18 were between 2 and 5 years, and 22 were age 6 or over. Professor Aynsley-Green and his team spoke to over half of these children and many of these parents about the circumstances of their arrest, removal to the centre, and care during detention. They also investigated their healthcare while at the centre, including the arrangements for pregnant and nursing mothers, and their babies …
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