The police were called on the patron saint of children and the imprisoned today, as he tried to deliver Christmas gifts to children at a detention centre.
The inspiration for the modern day Father Christmas, St Nicholas of Myra, was turned away at the gate of the Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre in Bedfordshire when he tried to deliver presents to the children locked up inside for administrative purposes.
Jolly Old St Nick brought with him £300 worth of gifts donated by several London churches for the estimated 35 children currently detained.
Dressed in a red robe, long white beard, and a bishop’s mitre and crook, and accompanied by the Rev Professor Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon Theologian at Westminster Abbey, they hoped to spread some St Nicholastide cheer among the children of migrants detained there.
The atmosphere became rather less jolly when the Home Office authorities who run Yarl’s Wood refused permission for St Nicholas to enter the Centre to distribute the gifts to the children.
Despite the authorities having agreed to accept the gifts, St Nicholas was met at the gates by a group of unidentified security guards who barred his entry and ordered him to leave the area.
They later called the police as St Nicholas blessed the gifts. The gifts were loaded into an unmarked van by staff who refused to provide a name, number or receipt for the gifts. St Nicholas asked one "guard" his name and the man said "write down 'Father Christmas'".
St Nick said, "If this is how visitors are treated, I just shudder to imagine what else transpires inside Yarl's Wood." While police questioned the St Nicholas team, taxis and delivery lorries made their way in and out of the place with many smiling and stopping to greet the Saint and his companions.
In the afternoon, when St Nicholas returned to make a pre-arranged and approved social visit to two families currently detained, they were informed at the gates that their visit had been cancelled. They were handed letters from Dawn Elaine, the Contracts Manager at Yarl’s Wood, informing them that permission had been revoked because of “concerns about your conduct” when the gifts had been deposited that morning.
The action was organised by the St Nicholas Society and CITIZENS for Sanctuary, a coalition of 13 national faith organisations representing 7 million people to promote a Sanctuary Pledge at the 2010 General Election.
Prospective Parliamentary Candidates across the country will be asked to back the Sanctuary Pledge, which includes a commitment to end the detention of children and families for immigration purposes.
“St Nick has never been turned away from anywhere before. So I was extremely disappointed not be able to hand deliver the gifts to the children detained at Yarl’s Wood today. I hope the kids realise that they will be firmly in my prayers on St Nicholas Day when I preach at the Royal Naval College chapel in Greenwich.”
Canon Professor Nicholas Sagovsky said: “This was about bringing a moment of joy to kids locked up in a deplorable situation. I can’t help but contrast the smiles and wonderment on the faces of the children that St Nicholas visited at a local primary school this afternoon, with the sad fate of those kids who will be locked up in Yarl’s Wood over Christmas. People of goodwill must make sure that their prospective MPs sign the Sanctuary Pledge at the next election so that next St Nicholas’s Day there will no longer be innocent children detained here at Yarl’s Wood.”
St Nicholas’ next visit after Yarl’s Wood is on December 5th when he will parade through the streets of Canterbury with Archbishop Rowan Williams.