Children of asylum-seekers are being born in British jails and then locked up in detention centres - a practice condemned as a "scandal" by campaigners.
The babies deprived of their liberty include infants only a few weeks old, incarcerated since birth because their parents’ immigration claims have been rejected by officials.
There are no official statistics on how many foreign national children have been born "behind bars", but they are among about 2,000 detained every year under immigration laws. Experts warn these children are at risk of physical and mental illness as a result of being locked up.
More than 100 MPs, the the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Ann Owers, and the children’s commissioner, Professor Al Aynsley-Green, are calling for alternatives to locking up these youngsters, who suffer distress, anxiety and intimidation in detention.
These "forgotten" children include baby Aliyah Benoni, who has spent all 46 days of her short life behind bars. Her mother gave birth in a British jail, and now "home" is an immigration detention centre surrounded by razor wire.
Aliyah’s "crime" is to be the daughter of an immigrant who came to this country seeking refuge and who officials say she has no right to be here. Her mother, Mia, 32, whose political activist husband is imprisoned in Uganda, gave birth flanked by two prison officers and was handcuffed during labour. She says : "They are heartless to keep us locked up like thi. It is cruel to treat children like prisoners."
Aliyah is one of 26 children being held at Yarl’s Wood, a removal centre in Bedfordshire. More than 20 have been there for more than 14 days despite a government pledge that the cases of children held for long periods would be reviewed by ministers.
Sixteen families are on hunger strike at the centre in protest at the Government’s policy of detaining children, which legal experts say contravenes international child-protection guidelines.
The number of children being detained with their families has risen dramatically over the past few years although there is no evidence that they are an absconding risk. The latest figures show that 540 children were released from detention centres in the last quarter of 2005 - an increase of nearly 20 per cent on the previous three months - and nearly a third had been detained for more than a week.
Children detained in Britain are excluded from UN standards on children’s rights, which means they cannot access proper support. They often lose weight, refuse to eat, cannot sleep, and suffer from skin and breathing problems. They are subject to routine searches, denied proper schooling, and are not properly monitored by social workers.
Save the Children, the Refugee Council and Bail for Immigration Detainees have launched a special campaign, No Place for a Child, which calls for alternatives to child detention, including bail, attending reporting centres and accommodation in the community supervised by welfare officials.
Last week, Ms Owers called for an overhaul of child detention after a damning inspection report of Yarl’s Wood, which included harrowing accounts from children of their experience of detention. They talked of an "intimidatory environment" and said they feared they would be killed. Others said they had been handcuffed in transit.Ms Owers said children should only be detained in "exceptional circumstances".
Nellie de Jongh, who has investigated the plight of children in Yarl’s Wood, said that many of these youngsters have never known freedom apart from trips to hospital. "These are forgotten children whose only crime is their parentage," said Ms de Jongh, who volunteers for the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns. "We must end the practice of detaining these children."