Page last updated at 01:37 GMT, Thursday, 10 December 2009

'My child still has nightmares'

A door being locked at Yarl's Wood

Senior doctors are calling for an immediate end to the detention of children in immigration removal centres, saying their health is being put at risk.

One family describes how their time in Bedfordshire's Yarl's Wood detention centre earlier this year has affected them.

"It's very, very horrible, getting children from their beds, banging on the door, early in the morning. It's a really bad experience," says Stephen Ssentongo, 35, who fled from persecution in Uganda in 1998.

The social worker met his wife in the UK and their two children were born here.

The family was suddenly taken into detention in February, when the authorities discovered he had been given fake residency documents by a solicitor, who has since been prosecuted.

"It was very embarrassing when they came, early in the morning.

"All the neighbours came out and didn't know what was taking place, it was when there had been terrorist arrests in the area and the officials looked like police officers," he said.


The family spent three-and-a-half months in detention, with most of the time spent at Yarl's Wood. Their sons Ibrahim, four, and Imran, one, suffered mentally and physically, Mr Ssentongo says.

The range of food available at the centre was one problem. The baby was used to eating a certain powdered milk, which Yarl's Wood did not have.

"They don't have facilities for different types of food. He lost 1.5kg in a very short time because he wasn't used to eating other food," Mr Ssentongo said.

There was a lot of sickness in the centre, with new people arriving every day, often bringing in illnesses from their communities.

Every time he sees people putting on black and white he asks whether they will take us back to detention

"The children used to have colds every single day, high temperatures, from breathing in different germs. They got a sickness bug, time and again they would be throwing up, had diarrhoea," he said.

"There was no continuity with doctors. You would see a different doctor every time and they would spend 20 minutes reading your file, every time."

The nature of life in the institution, with inspections and food queues, was very disruptive to family life.

"They would count us four times a day. The first time would be very early in the morning, when the children would be asleep. They would bang on the door, when we were sleeping," he said.


Mr Ssentongo's elder son had been attending school before they were put in detention.

"They have got a school in there, but they put a four-year-old in a classroom with 12 and 13-year-olds, that's what they call a school in there.

"My son would say he wanted to go back to his school and see his friends. He wanted his old bedroom. He could remember the life he used to have. Time and again he would say this."

And some mental trauma has remained with Ibrahim, Mr Ssentongo says.

"Every time he sees people putting on black and white he asks whether they will take us back to detention. Because the people who took us away and the warders wore that - he was really affected by it.

"He has nightmares about detention."

When they came out the family had lost everything - the flat they were renting had gone along with everything in it.

They are now surviving on basic benefits while their applications to remain in the UK are processed.

His wife has had to have counselling since they were released, as the experience brought back traumatic memories of what had happened to her in Uganda before she fled.

"It's not a good experience at all," Mr Ssentongo said.

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