On Sunday night (Mothers’ Day), my mum and I went to see Motherland, the most moving piece of political theatre I’ve ever seen. Directed by Juliet Stevenson, the piece was intended to be a one-off: Stevenson spoke at the beginning of how she and fellow actors Harriet Walter and Paola Dionisotti (and co-creator Natasha Walter) had expected to play to “60 people at most”. The packed Young Vic audience, which included theatrical intelligensia Alan Rickman and Corin Redgrave (a lifelong activist with sister Vanessa, with particular interest in Romani rights), as well as playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker, ended the evening in a standing ovation, and Motherland will happen again on 15th March. Anyone who cares about asylum rights, or simply the rights of women and children, should be there.

The government has an exemption on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (a “universally agreed set of non-negociable standards”) with regard to asylum seekers. The human rights of asylum seekers’ children do not matter. THE LABOUR GOVERNMENT DELIBERATELY WROTE THIS IN SO THEY WOULD NOT HAVE TO CARE ABOUT THESE CHILDREN. Oh dear, were those allcaps? Every year, 2000 children living in the UK are locked up without having committed any crime. They can have been living in the UK for years, attending school, speaking English and making British friends. They often feel and identify as British. They may even have been born here, but as the children of (sometimes failed) asylum seekers, they can be forced out of their beds at dawn, shoved into a van and driven for hours to one of three detention centres, where they live behind barbed wire and in the presence of security guards. These three centres are Dungavel House in Lanarkshire, Tinsley House near Gatwick airport, and Yarl’s Wood, the largest of the centres, near Bedford. It is on Yarl’s Wood that Motherland focuses.

How can we live in a world where the response to these women and children – victims of rape and torture, women who have been driven from their homelands – how can we live in a world where the response to them, in our fat spoilt privileged country, is anything other than I’m so sorry this has happened to you, come in and sit down and tell us how to help (or even, my god, thank you for believing in Britain and that you’ll be safe here, it’s a faith we don’t deserve)? What is wrong with us that we cannot see that this is the ONLY safe, legitimate, reasonable, sane, moral response to these women and their children?

The evening told the stories of five families, interspersed with voiceovers telling the stories of more women, from Cameroon; from Nigeria; from Uganda. Cennet Avcil (Stevenson) brought her daughter Meltem (Rosalind Brody) and younger son to England from Turkey. She had been raped repeatedly by her husband’s political opponents. After several years in Swansea (during which time her husband left her), she and her children were arrested at dawn by Yarl’s Wood detention officers, and imprisoned. In Yarl’s Wood, Meltem formed a bond with Jasmine, the daughter of Celeste. Also in Yarl’s Wood was Janipher Maseko (Noma Dumezweni), who came from Uganda with her daughter. She became pregnant with another child, born 14 months later; her daughter was removed from her and taken into care while her mother was in labour. She was detained at first without her children, while still breastfeeding. For THREE DAYS, this woman was left in a police cell with no shower, no change of clothes, and no idea where her children were. Her befriender, Morgan Gallagher (Dionisotti) described how Maseko had endured the following —

  • Police officers refused to give her sanitary towels despite her heavy bleeding from the birth. She sat in a pool of blood while being interviewed.
  • Her breasts were excruciatingly painful; she was told to take drugs to dry up her milk.
  • Uncertainty as to where her children were; refusal on the part of the authorities to give her a pump that would allow her to lactate. When Gallagher brought her an electrical pump, she was not allowed to use it. When Gallagher returned with a hand pump, they were only allowed to meet in a room full of cameras and two-way mirrors, despite both women having to bear their breasts to practise using the pump. Gallagher and her two-year-old son were BOTH body searched before being allowed into the camp.
  • The developmental difficulties of her children (returned to her in Yarl’s Wood): her baby son was suffering from skin contact deprivation, while her toddler daughter became depressed and withdrawn.
  • Like many asylum seekers, Janipher received insufficent legal representation. Many law firms have stopped providing legal aid because it just isn’t lucrative anymore.
Speakers during the evening included Helena Kennedy QC, Helen Bamber, and two women called Angela and Trudie (not their real names). Both were beautiful Ugandan women, well-dressed and devastatingly articulate. Both were mothers, and both were asylum seekers.

How to speak of these women? Angela was at pains to stress that she had come from a good family; she had had a wonderful childhood. She was, she said, her father’s princess – not the sort of person who “ever expected to beg for anything”. But her father had political enemies, and one evening those enemies arrived at their home, to beat the father and rape the daughter, holding his head so that he was forced to watch. She spoke clearly and confidently as she described her father’s experiences; his imprisonment, and how it forced her to seek help from a neighbour, a family friend who took her into his home. “This was,” she said, “the second rapist that I encountered”. She too was in Yarl’s Wood after coming to this country. Her university, thank God, enrolled her despite her uncertain asylum status, and she graduates this summer. What struck me above all was how much she smiled, laughing and raising her fist in a self-mocking gesture of triumph when she mentioned the completion of her criminology degree. She looked into the audience’s eyes, and her voice never faltered. “We have dreams, like you,” she said, “and those dreams have not died. We have the same desires and the same wishes, but where is the opportunity?”. It wasn’t a plea or a complaint, it was a challenge.

Trudi’s story was almost more harrowing. Her father had tried to force her into marriage with a man from the Sebei culture, practitioners of female circumcision. Trudi’s refusal led her father to start beating, imprisoning and ultimately raping her. Her first child is her father’s, and her father tried to kill the child. Her maternal aunt sheltered mother and daughter; her father subsequently burnt down the house. Her aunt somehow managed to find the money to fly Trudi and her daughter to England.

Her asylum claim was refused when she was 18. She appealed, but before the appeal was over, Home Office men arrived at dawn. By now she had a baby son as well, sick with asthma. She was arrested and spent six weeks in Yarl’s Wood, where she became suicidal (who’s surprised), terrified for her family’s future. Her mental health remained poor during her six months on the streets after being released; at the start of 2006, she was detained again. Her children were taken into foster care, and she was told she’d see them again when she was deported. Ten days later, she was at Gatwick, handcuffed and screaming, physically assaulted by escorts who pushed on her head and back. Her children saw everything.

Trudi still doesn’t know why she wasn’t deported that day, but she was dragged off the flight and spent another four months in Yarl’s Wood before being released.

Get involved

The evening was hosted by Women For Refugee Women. If you too are appalled by the detention of children and the plight of women asylum seekers in the UK (for which I can only add “read: if you have a shred of common decency in you”), feel free to do, read, visit and contemplate any of the following. You can do things. You can do them now.

  • SIGN THIS petition, to be taken to Harriet Harman, “Minister for Women and Equality”:

    We call on the UK govenment to ensure that the persecution women face, including rape, honour crimes and female genital mutilation, is taken seriously in asylum claims; we call on the government not to make destitute, detain or deport women who are at risk of gender-related persecution.

  • WRITE TO THE HOME SECRETARY. Jacqui Smith (she’s a woman, she’s a woman, what’s the matter with her) can be reached at the following address: Rt Hon Jacqui Smith MP, Secretary of State for the Home Office, 3rd Floor, Peel Building, 2 Marsham Street, London SW1.
  • BE A BEFRIENDER. Befrienders like Morgan Gallagher visit women and children in detention. Find a list of Befrienders’ Groups at
  • DONATE time, money or resources to groups which support asylum seekers. Requested goods include toys, clothes, toiletries and non-perishable foods. The following groups exist in London:
  • SUPPORT any of the following organisations working to challenge immigration detention;
    • Refugee Women’s Resource Project @ Asylum Aid [providing support, protection and security for women asylum seekers, since 2000]
    • Bail for Immigration Detainees [independent charity working to challenge detentions in removal centres and prisons]
    • Medical Justice [network of doctors and asylum seekers with two aims. ONE: to end the poor healthcare of detainees, and TWO: to end the detention of torture survivors]

The survivors
Meltem, Celeste, Anna, Jasmine and the other women portrayed onstage were all in the audience, and at the end of the evening they joined Stevenson, Walter, Dionisotti and Dumezweni onstage. The Helen Bamber Foundation music group played on drums and guitars; I saw Walter’s eyes fill with tears as she stood silently on one side of the stage. Bamber was one of the first people to enter Bergen-Belsen in 1945; I wonder what parallels she draws now.

MOTHERLAND will happen again at the Young Vic on 15th March. Tickets are £10, free to asylum seekers. Seating is unreserved. Tube stop: Southwark.

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