International Day of the Girl! SPOTLIGHT: Pinar Aksu

October 11th, 2017 is International Day of the Girl! This year we celebrate by spotlighting the leadership of Pinar Aksu, a former refugee child who has lived in Scotland for the past 16 years. After being detained in Yarlswood immigration removal centre for 2 months, she continued to campaign and speak about detention. Pinar completed an undergraduate degree in community development and a Masters degree in human rights and international politics. She works as project coordinator, facilitator and is involved with several campaigning groups supporting asylum and refugee rights, promoting integration and opposing racism and detention. Pinar is involved in using theatre, workshops, grassroots organisations and community campaigning as methods to raise awareness about asylum, refugee and immigration related issues.

She recently shared critical testimony at DMC Prague, an international conference on child detention held by the Council of Europe. Please read below!

My name is Pinar Aksu, I was born in Turkey but when I was 8 years old my family started seeking asylum in the UK. The year was 2001 and my family was one of the many who got moved from London to Scotland as part of the dispersal programme. As asylum seekers, life was not easy for us. You were not allowed to work, receiving just £36​ per week to try to live on.

There were many other barriers: you can only go to school, when it comes to college you can study to certain levels and cannot get higher qualification. You cannot attend university because you will be counted as an international student and charged very high fees. Every day​ was a struggle during these years, but then things got worse.

The UK Home Office started detaining a lot of families – including mine. My parents, my 2 siblings and I were detained for over 2 months in an immigration removal centre called Dungavel in rural Scotland and then in Yarlswood in England. I describe Yarlswood and Dungavel as a prison – I don’t see any difference between a detention centre and a prison. We did not know when we will be out as more families arrived each day.

We were treated as criminals​. Governments may use different words to make these policies sound acceptable, however it is the same as I was being deprived of my liberty without cause. Our rights as citizens were taken away. As a child at the time, I saw many things that no child should see.

I saw violence as families resisted being returned to the dangers of their homeland against their wishes. I even saw people committing suicide as they gave up hope and felt that was the only option left for them to escape. The UK has no time limit on detention, so no one knew when they would be out which made it difficult to have hope. We were not criminals, we did nothing wrong, but even criminals in prison know when they will get out.

It was challenging times for myself and for my family. It is forgotten that people seeking safety are not just numbers or a case file: they are human beings with experiences.

My family was one of the lucky few who were released from the detention centre. And soon after received our Leave to Remain papers which is the refugee status. This was due to our friends and activists by organising grassroots campaigning, support from politicians and support from the community which allowed us to come out from detention. The hard work of local campaigning groups such as Glasgow Campaign to Welcome Refugees, The Unity Centre, Right to Remain and many more were able to save many children, families and individuals from detention and removal centres across Scotland and England.

Now I live in Scotland and I have completed my masters in Human Rights and International Politics. I continue to work with and for the people who seek safety in Scotland. There are still 13 immigration detention and removal centres across the UK which are controlled by prison services and private sector companies – such as Serco and G4S. I campaign for the closure of Dungavel removal centre in Scotland, and provided evidence to end child detention for campaigning groups and for the Scottish government.

In Scotland in 2010, it was announced that the detention of children at Dungavel would be ended. This was a remarkable success as it showed what a single-issue campaign can achieve – here we saw a united community, with trade unions, politicians and the broader public working to make things better for children.

When I look back at my experience, it is clear that our first experience of seeking asylum was far better than the time I spent in detention. I have now learnt that the first program I was involved in is the kind that many experts call an ‘alternative to detention’ – allowing for people to live in the community while they wait for their migration status to be clarified. The work that everyone is doing at different capacity to make alternatives to detention available across Europe is important, especially as even short periods in detention can have horrible, long lasting impacts on child health and development.

Sadly, child detention still occurs across the UK despite this promise in 2010 when an alternative centre was built, called Cedars. Unfortunately it is expected that child detention will rise in the UK in 2018, with the recent closure of Cedars, and children being transferred to Tinsley House Adult detention centre. No child should be in detention – but if they are being detained, it is obviously better that significant efforts are put in place to make a facility safe for children, rather than putting them in a prison for adults.

One important strategy to help end child detention is to engage with the local people, building connections and organising meetings, multicultural and community events and marches to welcome refugees such as the annual UN Anti-Racism Day which helps to create a platform to understand one another. These types of events help to educate and connect people so they know there is no ‘them and us’, there is only us humans – one human race. Engagement relies on dialogue and understanding, and campaigns at local and national level must have elements that dispel myths about migrants and refugees, and work equally to empower refugees and migrants and show the positive role that we play in the community.

Alternatives to detention – were children can live in house with their family, has been shown to enable people to meet their basic needs, it costs less, allows them to get support and it is more humane. We must ensure that alternatives to detention are exactly this, and not alternative forms of detention. For me, and many of the worlds leading UN Experts, a person should not be detained for seeking safety and refuge in another country, let alone a child. It is a very basic human right not to be tortured or treated inhumanely and not be discriminated based on race, colour, religion and birth place.

The following are my recommendations for alternatives to detention:

Firstly, it is important to create local and national campaigns and networks of support which provide true stories to reflect the human side of the process of seeking asylum. I was involved with the “living library” Event at the Council of Europe, coordinated by The Global Campaign to End Child detention. Parliamentarians could “borrow” me or other experts in the living library for a 10 minute conversation. It added a human face to the situation, beyond dry statistics and reports. It created discussion, dialogue and understanding, which was a great way to start the 3 year Parliamentary Campaign to End Child Immigration Detention.

Secondly, it is important to have a strategy to engage politicians and all of the arms of a government system. It is important to show the human cost of policies, but it is also important that political will is built. Sometimes these two can be challenging to do at the same time, with politicians defending the ethics of their current position. We must understand how we can use the current political environment to build government engagement.

Thirdly, child rights organisations need to do more by consistently using evidence and international instruments such as the Human Rights treaties, the CRC, Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT) and the refugee convention. It is important to use the legal instruments as a tool for the country to change its policy. The Global Compacts present an opportunity for us to hold our governments to account. The commitments they have made in the NY Declaration to work towards ending child detention could be nothing more if we do not find a way to motivate them implement international legal standards.

In my opinion, no child no person should ever be detained. What is needed most and what is needed now is action, action to change policy and end child detention. Action to end wars and poverty that force people to become refugees. Using methods such as age assessment, and detention will only traumatise the child causing longer damage to a child’s development. We need to end child detention and take action to stop suffering of children fleeing war, especially knowing that at the moment there are 10,000 children missing in EU is horrendous. In the UK, the immigration and the asylum system needs to go through major reforms starting with a 28 day time limit and working towards essentially ending detention.

Thanks to all organisers for listening to my voice and experience.