Refugee Experiences

Locked up for being a teenage refugee

Natasha Walter on the shocking story of Meltem Avcil

I first met Meltem Avcil four months ago. It was a dull day when I visited Yarl's Wood, the detention centre for immigrants near Bedford, a sprawling barrack-like building with coils of barbed wire on its walls. I have visited detention centres before, and I now run a charity called Women for Refugee Women, so I have heard many sad stories from asylum seekers. Yet there was something about Meltem's situation that struck me with intolerable force; it has lived with me every day since.

Meltem is a 14-year-old girl whose ambition is to be a doctor, and whose manner is that of a number of British teenagers, with her immaculate eye make up and perfectly straightend hair. Most asylum seekers understandably prefer to keep their heads down rather than speak out, yet when I met Meltem in the impersonal visitor's room, she looked exhausted but unbowed. "Iwant to to tell people what is happening to us," she said, biting her lip, but meeting my eye directly.

Yarl's Wood is, without doubt, a prison. Visitors are body searched, there is CCTV everywhere, locked doors and guards. At that first meeting, Meltem and her mother had been there for more than two months. They were to spend more than 80 days locked up. "We went for bail five times," Meltem told me. "The last time the judge said that there isn't any evidence that I don't like being in Yarl's Wood, and she can't just let me out for no reason."

Our political establishment has been convulsed by a debate about whether suspected terrorists can be detained for 28 or 42 days without charge. How is it, then, that this young girl, who no one has suggested has ever committed any crime, gets more than 80 days with no outcry? Organisations from the UN High Commission for Refugees to Save the Children have protested against this policy of the indefinite detention of child asylum seekers, on the grounds of pure pragmatism as well as human rights - it makes no practical sense to lock up 2,000 children every year when there is no evidence that families with children are at risk of disappearing from the immigration authorities.

Meltem and her mother Cennet came from Turkey originally, where their family were targeted as Kurds. On our first meeting I asked Meltem how Cennet - a quiet, fragile woman of 32 - was coping. She explained that her mother's ear was injured, "and she isn't well … in herself." As we were leaving, Meltem gave me a letter she had written to the European Court of Human Rights on behalf of her mother, whose English is poor. Sitting on the train on the way back to London, I read the story behind the bad ear. "When I arrived at the police station," said the letter, talking of what happened in Turkey, "they tied my eyes with a black cloth and they started hitting me and saying, 'where is your husband?' When they hit my ear I fainted and blood came out of it. One morning at 6 o'clock four Turkish soldiers came to our house and my daughter was sleeping. They travelled me to a forest that wasn't far away from our village. And when we was in the forest they started doing unsuitable stuff to me. After they did these ugly things they left me alone and I had to walk all the way back to the village."

Asylum law states that people should be given refugee status if they are at risk of serious harm due to their ethnic, religious or political background. Given that Cennet has objective evidence of her experiences, why should there be an issue? The problem is that she and her daughter came to the UK through Germany. That means that, even though they have spent six years waiting for the Home Office to make a decision on their case, the government may still return them to Germany, a completely foreign country for both of them, and from where they will almost certainly be deported to Turkey.

What struck me as I read the letter was that Cennet had been locked up despite Home Office guidelines that survivors of torture should not be detained. There was also the fact that Meltem had had to write the letter, working through the dark areas of her mother's past, word by anguished word. For many children who pass through the asylum system, the greatest burden they have to carry is the vulnerability of their parents. In Yarl's Wood, children have to get used to hearing the screams of other inmates dragged from their rooms to the airport, they have to translate for their parents when they talk about rape in forests and beatings in dark prisons.

While Meltem was in detention she met two other girls in similar situations: Anna, from the Caucasus, and Jasmine, from Cameroon. Anna, who feels that her home is in Wales, and is as Welsh as you can imagine, seems much younger than her 13 years, while Jasmine is a more confident, energetic girl who has lived in the UK for five years. Anna's mother had experienced abuse by police because of her religious beliefs; Jasmine's mother had been imprisoned for her husband's political activities, but neither had been granted asylum - their persecution was not seen as sufficiently grave to warrant refugee status. Both girls, like Meltem, had experienced the sudden trauma of a dawn raid ripping them from places they knew as home.

With Anna and Jasmine, Meltem could be a teenager again. "We talk sometimes about what we've gone through," she said. "But we also talk about what we'll do if we get out, how we're going to have a big party and invite all our friends." The day I came to Yarl's Wood I was with the actor Juliet Stevenson, who wanted to see for herself what was going on in detention centres. It was Anna, looking out of the window, who told Meltem that a famous actress had arrived, remembering Juliet from her role in Bend It Like Beckham. "Don't be silly," Meltem said, "why would a film star come here?"

I later heard that Meltem had started to self-harm while in Yarl's Wood, and soon after I met her, she and her mother were given removal directions for Germany. They were woken at 3am in Yarl's Wood and put into a van. On the way to Heathrow the escorts threatened Meltem, "If you refuse to go on the plane, we'll put handcuffs on you and tie your feet. Tell your mum what I said." Meltem told her mother, who was crying uncontrollably. Once they reached the airport, Meltem says the escorts attacked her mother, pushed her to the floor and hit her in the face with handcuffs so that she was bruised and cut, then handcuffed her, and dragged her on to the plane. They twisted Meltem's hands to make her follow.

Because of the disturbance their attempted deportation was causing, Meltem and Cennet were finally taken off the plane and back to Yarl's Wood. The trauma was telling on Meltem so much that her supporters managed to get her into Bedford hospital for psychiatric assessment. Soon afterwards, she was released from detention, as were Anna and Jasmine after campaigns from their supporters and new efforts by lawyers. She is still not home in Doncaster, however, but in an "induction centre" (halfway between detention and freedom) in Kent.

Since our first meeting with Meltem, Juliet Stevenson and I have worked the girls' stories into a stage format. For the first show, earlier this month, Anna, Meltem and Jasmine came to watch. All three girls' asylum cases are still undecided, and they know perfectly well that any day there could be another knock on the door, another journey in a caged van, another struggle on the steps of an aeroplane. "People said it upset them," Meltem told me, after the performance. "But it was only two hours for them; for me, it was months and months and it hasn't ended"

· Motherland is at the Young Vic, London SE1 tomorrow at 3pm and 7.30pm; proceeds to Women for Refugee Women and the Yarl's Wood Befrienders; Helena Kennedy QC and Helen Bamber OBE will speak after the performances.

The Article is taken from The Guardian, Friday the 14th of March 2008,,2265371,00.html

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License