Separating children from parents: A sordid modern practice
The story of hijrah - the migration of the first Muslim community - is known well throughout the Islamic world. The Muslim calendar even begins from this date. What may be less well-known is that some of the people who tried to make this momentous journey were forcibly separated from their children.
One notable story is that of Umm Salamah - a woman who would later become a wife of the Prophet Muhammad (prayers and peace be upon him).
Like most of the the nascent Muslim community facing persecution in Makkah and hopes of a new beginning in Madinah, Umm Salamah and her husband made preparations and set off for the migration. However, they were stopped in their tracks and forced to separate. After tribal intervention, Umm Salamah's husband left with their only child. She was forced to stay behind.
Most right minded people understand that forcible separation of children from their parents is the cruelest of punishments and can only be justified if the child itself is at risk of harm
A year passed before she was freed and allowed to join her family. This is how she described her ordeal:
"From the day when my husband and my son were separated from me, I went out at noon every day to that valley and sat in the spot where this tragedy occurred. I would recall those terrible moments and weep until night fell on me. I continued like this for a year."
Cultural genocide in Canada
Most right-minded people understand that forcible separation of children from their parents is the cruelest of punishments and can only be justified if the child itself is at risk of harm. However, splitting children from their mothers for the purpose of enlightened "education" and indoctrination has been a far more common practice in recent times.
In November 2017, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued an emotional apology for unspeakable crimes committed by the Canadian state against its native population.
Between 1949 and 1979 thousands of indigenous First Nation children were forcibly separated from their families and placed in residential “schools” in Newfoundland and Labrador. The children were sometimes taken at gunpoint and handcuffed and then flown off to schools that were deliberately located at a considerable distance from children’s rural communities.
Some media reports state that school-related deaths of native children exceed 6,000. Details of the deaths were usually not recorded and parents were not informed. Instead, children were buried in unmarked graves. In his apology, with tearful eyes, Trudeau acknowledged the children had suffered “physical, psychological and sexual abuse” and that “all were deprived of the love and the care of their families, of their parents and of their communities.”
Of course, the purpose of these schools was to re-educate and “civilise” the children to becoming better Canadian citizens. The schools were run by churches and funded by the federal government. Their original stated aim was to "kill the Indian in the child".
In 2015, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation - a body established to find the truth behind the abuses of the residential schools - concluded that what happened to the children of First Nation Canadians amounted to cultural genocide. Others have argued that what happened with Canada’s children was actual genocide.
The last residential school run by the Canadian government, Gordon Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, closed in 1996.
Australia's Stolen Generations
In the award-winning film Rabbit Proof Fence, three mixed-race Australian children, 14-year-old Molly, her sister eight-year-old Daisy, and their 10-year-old cousin Gracie (renamed as such by Europeans) are taken from their Aboriginal mothers by white government officials and placed in a fostering centre over 1000 km from their tribal home, in an attempt to “civilise” them by teaching them to be domestic workers.
As the children of mixed unions, they had been raised by their mothers as Aboriginal children, absorbed into families and gifted with the knowledge of how to live off the country’s difficult, arid land. However, such an existence was deemed ‘uncivilised’ by white church and government officials.
Separating families is arguably the most terrifying form of state oppression - and also the most effective, even when threatened, to maintain dominance over populations
The story of these children is well known: between 1910 and 1970 as many as 50,000 children at least were removed from their families so they could be "educated", and "civilised" into a system of dominance that remains intact to this day in Australia.
Known as the Stolen Generations, this deadening blot on Australia’s past is not an isolated event. It is a notable part of the long, sad and staggering history of eugenic experiments wrought on indigenous people, people of colour, or those who ascribe to different belief systems, by successive governments of the day.
Separating families is arguably the most terrifying form of state oppression - and also the most effective, even when threatened, to maintain dominance over populations.
It is no surprise then that is still being done - not only in Australia, whose notorious detention centres violate international law and profit through the separation and abuse of children, but in other countries too: Denmark in its ruthless immigration policy that seeks to “re-educate” Muslim toddlers including forcing them to celebrate Christmas; the United States and now, it appears, more subtly in Britain.
This abuse is facilitated by a fear-driven narrative perpetuated by the media particularly against immigrant people and Muslims, a legislative environment enabling increasingly acute structural discrimination, most notably through the lens of the "war on terror", and - not to be forgotten, though it is often overlooked - the staggering profits to be made from different sectors who play a role in removing, detaining, psychologically assessing and placing children with other families.
The language of the "war on terror” has been used by both despots and democrats across the globe to hone in on Islamic beliefs and practices. In the West, Muslims face unprecedented discrimination in the streets, in the media and in legislation. In other places Muslims have been incarcerated en masse, tortured, ethnically cleansed and killed in the name of “fighting terrorism”.
One of the more disturbing tactics used to purge Muslims of their basic values and beliefs is the use of re-education internment camps by the Chinese government against Muslim Uighurs in East Turkestan, China.
In these camps, where eyewitnesses have reported reported torture, rape and extrajudicial killings, Uighurs are imprisoned without trial and forced to renounce their religion and swear allegiance to the Communist party. Uighurs say they have been imprisoned for praying, reading the Quran or just speaking to someone abroad.
One of the more disturbing tactics used to purge Muslims of their basic values and beliefs is the use of re-education internment camps by the Chinese government against Muslim Uighurs in East Turkestan, China
Recent reports describe shocking accounts of how up to one million adults have been sent for re-education in internment camps designed to inculcate ethnic Muslim Uighurs with “Chinese values”.
The children of the internees are effectively left without parents and sent to be rehoused in orphanages where they are systematically divested of their parent’s religion and culture. They are forced to learn Mandarin and punished for speaking in their native tongue.
The Chinese government says this is all necessary in order to prevent terrorism, separatism and to nurture that of- repeated but highly ironic phrase we hear often in the UK, “community cohesion”.
The Chinese government does not use the term "orphanages". Instead, these holding centres for children are known as “welfare centres” and “protection centres”. The state argues children in these institutions are taught “civilised living habits.” Echoes of Australia’s appalling treatment of its aboriginal "Stolen Generation" seem to have fallen on deaf ears. But, communist China is far from the only child-snatching culprit in the 21st century.
In the space of two weeks, between mid-April to May, more than 2,500 children (and one anonymous government official is reported to have said as many as 11,500) from Central America who had come to the United States across the border, were removed from their families at the border and placed in euphemistically named “government holding facilities”.
These “facilities”, it was later revealed, corralled the children into enclosures that resembled cages - wire meshed on the top and sides so that children could not climb out, in which mattresses lay side by side. Even the right-wing website Breitbart struggled linguistically to describe these facilities, settling finally, obliquely, on the phrase “chain-link partitions”.
Casa Padre, the largest government-contracted migrant youth shelter, located in Brownsville, Texas, is located in a former Walmart Supercenter. This facility - which houses only boys - features murals espousing American “freedom” and featuring portraits of Obama and Trump, and bright American flags, next to which one ambiguous slogan proclaimed: “Sometimes by losing a battle you find a new way to win the war."
One might be forgiven for assuming that these young boys were being groomed on arrival for service in the US military.
These shocking stories acknowledge that the numbers of lost children are growing, as the lens of the media turns to other things
And the terrible and heavy question remains: where are all the girls? One New Yorker investigation tells how “Helen”, a five year old girl, was made to sign a document relinquishing all of her rights, in between classes where she drew symbols of the United States, including the Statue of Liberty.
These shocking stories acknowledge that the numbers of lost children are growing, as the lens of the media turns to other things. US officials in June cited the figure of children in US government custody likely being as high as 30,000 by August.
The path of these children from the cages at the border is unclear. Location of detainees is determined through a computerised system run by the notorious Immigration and Customs Enforcement ICE). But when you click through to the Detainee Location page it says that children under the age of 18 cannot be located. There is also growing confusion and the usual political mudslinging at the expense of pressing issues at hand over who should be taking responsibility of reuniting children with their families: the state or the charity sector, with neither stepping in with any definitive measures so far. In fact, many have decried that there is actually no government mechanism in place to facilitate reunions.
Prevent on separating families
In today’s world where charities must encounter differing belief systems, the desire to dominate or suppress these systems is no longer appropriate or justified, and was really never so.
Of course, Britain is not doing what Canada, Australia and China have done but, the pattern of attempting to force separation for the purpose of re-education is a disturbing one. The veneer of doing good by separating children from their families is wrapped in the language of “safeguarding”, and in this way it fits perfectly the historical paradigm.
This is evidenced clearly and startlingly by CAGE’s latest report, Separating Families: How Prevent Seeks the Removal of Children. The report features robust academic research alongside testimonies from parents who have faced the prospect of having their children removed, or have been threatened with their removal.
Removals through Prevent are based on the state’s faulty definition of “extremism” or perceived “signs of radicalisation”. The words “extremism” and “radicalisation” are rapidly becoming part of the new colonial lexicon heralded by the "War on Terror", and yet they have little factual substance despite wielding much emotive - and increasingly judicial - weight.
Britain is not doing what Canada, Australia and China have done but, the pattern of attempting to force separation for the purpose of re-education is a disturbing one
While nobody can deny that the need to address political violence is pressing, the counter-extremism sector dodges the key issues - British foreign policy, a two-tier justice system at home - and instead relies on faulty and scientifically unsound methods of evaluating belief and behaviour under the broad umbrella of “extremism” and “radicalisation”.
As is evidenced in the report, “extremism” in the eyes of Prevent includes a set of beliefs and behaviours deemed unacceptable by the government. This includes opposition to the key issues mentioned previously, as well as practices that are characteristic of normative Islamic belief.
In one of CAGE’s testimonies, a father whose daughter was removed tells of her foster family refusing to let her associate with Muslims, denying her Islamic literature and encouraging her to change her dress and eating habits to emulate an un-Islamic culture. “They are trying to take the Islam out of our children,” he said.
A giant step backwards
We must pause here to say that in the rare cases of actual child abuse, certainly there must be systems in place to find children better homes. However, invoking such drastic measures based on unreliable, and at times political notions of what is correct belief and what is not, can do deep generational damage to children and communities.
It will also damage the crucial social services sector itself, since it will lose credibility and simply be seen as the tool of a police state. This is why the report is very important, and must be considered carefully by those who care about the future of this country.
It is also worth stating that in Iraq, Iraqi government and Kurdish forces are holding British families, among other nationalities, who are suspected Islamic State group (IS) supporters. They are keeping thousands of women and children in custody in both Syria and Iraq, but they do not separate children from their mothers. This even includes those who have been convicted of memberships of IS.
These were women who either chose to take their children into IS territory or gave birth to children in their "caliphate". Separating children from their mothers, even for those most affected by violence, seems a step too far.
Surely, there are lessons that governments need to learn.
In Rabbit Proof Fence, the three girls who are taken from their Aboriginal mothers, saddened and puzzled by institutional existence, escape from the centre and embark on an incredible journey across the country. Braving the beating sun, wild animals and near-starvation, they follow the fence across swathes of desert land because they know it will lead them back home to their mothers, and their birth families.
After completing a harrowing journey of three months and 1500km, the state is so astounded by their resilience, faith and love for one another and their mothers, that they leave them be.
The film, a metaphorical triumph for the right of children to be raised by their birth families, is based on the real-life account published in a book of the same name and written by Doris Pilkington Garimara (born Nugi Garimara), who narrated the story of her mother "Molly Craig", her sister, Daisy, and cousin Gracie whose resistance lives on in their remarkable story.
Like the other mothers and fathers who tell their stories to those who will listen, when aired, their words fly like eagles with such simple beauty and strength that it is no wonder the powerful seek to silence them.
It is a fitting closing then, to pause and consider the words of one mother who triumphed over the state’s attempts to remove her children:
"There’s really absolutely nothing to prove the 'signs of radicalisation'. 'Signs of radicalisation' simply don’t exist. There’s no characteristic that you can spot to determine who is dangerous and who isn’t. But for them, number one is that you are Muslim, that you pray five times a day, and you have grievances.
"If my children were to grow up, pierce their bodies, put tattoos all over themselves and worship Satan, that won’t cause an intervention - but if my daughter wears hijab, and my son grows a beard and wears a thobe, that is a cause for concern
"I always try to safeguard their Islamic identity and I remain very unapologetic about that. For my kids, it didn’t really impact them on their Islamic side, because – a lot of people withdraw their kids from Quran classes, or Westernise their dress for the court – but I didn’t do that. I didn’t want to change the way I am or the way my kids were. I want them to see us for what we are. It is a means of educating them, and I wasn’t going to pretend.”
This is not only because preserving the family unit is necessary for a healthy society. It is because mercy to children through preserving the mother-child bond whenever possible and humanely viable is a way to remove the darkness from our own hearts - in a manner fitting to that sacred quality of mercy.
- Moazzam Begg is a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, author of Enemy Combatant and outreach director for UK-based campaigning organisation CAGE. Follow him on twitter: @Moazzam_Begg
- Karen Jayes is currently the spokesperson for CAGE Africa, a branch of CAGE advocacy group in the UK
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.