Nice Brits wouldn’t lock up children who ask for help, would they?

On British government responses to migrant children

One of the pleasures of return migration is catching up on popular culture in the old country. That was my excuse for watching Upstairs Downstairs on BBC iplayer late on Monday night.

I had just returned from the Keswick Film Festival, where the two drawcards were the estimable actor John Hurt, and (at least for me) two films that dealt specifically with the issue of child migration. The Children of Diyarbakir, directed by Miraz Bezar, tells the story of Kurdish dispossession through the eyes of two orphaned children, their parents murdered by Turkish militia. The film ends with the children’s internal migration from the Kurdish region towards Istanbul, presumably to be put to work on the streets. It was a stark reminder that all refugee children have to make a journey, and that the beginning is often very tough indeed.

What a pity then that Britain (and indeed my home country Australia) make the end of the journey tough too, or indeed refuses to allow the children any ending at all. The second film, The Kids Britain Doesn’t Want, was originally screened on Channel 4’s Dispatches. It follows three children who are seeking asylum in Britain. All three have been denied asylum and have experienced multiple detentions. The impact on their mental health, capacity to learn, and emotional security is devastatingly bad.

There are many disturbing aspects to the continuing practice of child detention. The arrogance of both the contracted company and the British border protection agency (which apparently regularly ignore injunctions not to detain, where lawyers have been able to assist the children to gain respite) suggests a contempt for the children and the law itself.

As a new Australian, I am often struck when British friends inform me of the sheer awfulness of the Australian attitude to asylum seekers. Child detention is one proof of that, and child removals are another. It’s good that my friends know about the bad stuff (there is quite a lot of good as well but this is not the time or place), but they also need to acknowledge that there is pretty awful stuff happening here in Britain too.

Which brings me back to Upstairs Downstairs. The episode last week included a segment on the Kinder Transport, the rescue of Jewish children from Nazi Germany and occupied zones by British Jews. It is a good news story for those few children, although they arrive as orphans-in-waiting. But the story told in Upstairs Downstairs was really about British niceness and decency, about doing the right thing.

In 1939 the children, indeed all Jews trying to flee Germany and central Europe, were seen by the British government as ‘economic migrants’. Only a very few visas were allocated. The Kinder Transport was a rare example of decency overcoming policy.

It would be good to report that all the children were well cared for on arrival. According to the Kindertransport Association, some were and some weren’t. In 1940, over-16s were interned as enemy aliens, or deported to the Americas or Australia. So, a hard coming they had of it.

I don’t know whether the Upstairs Downstairs team were making a point about British niceness, or whether they wanted to remind nice Brits that niceness requires leaps of faith, and a flexible mind, and the capacity to connect one story with another. The best place to start is with children. Believe in them, respect them, care for them, and don’t send them to jail when they ask for help.

About the author

Professor Stephanie Hemelryk Donald is currently a Leverhulme Trust Visiting Professor at the Centre for World Cinemas at the University of Leeds. Following a first degree in Chinese at the University of Oxford (1979-83), a Masters in European Politics and Culture at Southamptrton (1991-1992) and a DPhil  on Chinese film at the University of Sussex (1997), she emigrated to Australia, where she has worked ever since.

Her research covers film, the media, and children’s experiences in the Asia-Pacific region, with a particular focus on visual culture. Previous positions held include Professor of Chinese Media Studies at the University of Sydney, and Foundation Dean of Media and Communication at RMIT University, Melbourne. She has recently been awarded a professorial Future Fellowship by the Australian Research Council, which she will take up at the University of New South Wales in May 2012. Recent work is published by Theory, Culture and Society, New Formations, and MIA.