Father Christmas turned away from asylum centre over security concerns
Police were called in to prevent a clergyman dressed as Father Christmas from delivering presents to children at an asylum centre due to fears he posed a security threat.
By Richard Edwards
Published: 11:14AM GMT 13 Dec 2009
The Rev Canon James Rosenthal, dressed in a red robe with a long white beard and holding a bishop's mitre and crook, was refused entry by guards at Yarl's Wood immigration removal centre in Bedfordshire.
After gently protesting that he was not a threat, he started to bless the 300 worth of gifts donated by congregations of several London churches. But after an unedifying stand off, the security guards then called the police on the visitor, who was accompanied by one of Britain's most distinguished clerics.
Mr Rosental, who is the Anglican churchs leading expert on St Nicholas, said he was extremely disappointed that 35 boys and girls at the centre were denied a pre-arranged visit by the patron saint of children and the imprisoned.
“St Nick has never been turned away from anywhere before,” he said. “So I was extremely disappointed not to be able to hand deliver the gifts to the children detained at Yarl's Wood. I hope the kids realise that they will be firmly in my prayers.”
Mr Rosental is writing a formal letter of complaint to the centre about how it handled the visit and the heavy-handed tactics employed by the guards who patrol the perimeter fence.
Serco, a private security company that operates Yarls Wood, referred questions to the Home Office. A spokesman said that only people subject to stringent security checks can be allowed into the detention centre and there can be no exceptions.
But the St Nicholas Society, of which Mr Rosental is patron, said that Serco did not respond to numerous requests before the visit earlier this month to discuss how a handover of presents could be carried out and also refused requests to provide details about the 35 children in the centre so they could receive appropriate presents.
Serco also refused permission for the two clerics to enter the centre to visit two refugee families later the same day, as it had previously agreed. They were handed letters from Dawn Elaine, contracts manager at Yarl's Wood, saying permission had been revoked because of “concerns about your conduct”.
Mr Rosental said: “If this is how visitors are treated, I shudder to imagine what else transpires inside Yarl's Wood.
He was accompanied on the trip earlier this month by the Rev Professor Nicholas Sagovsky, canon theologian at Westminster Abbey.
He 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 St Nicholas visited at a local primary school with the sad fate of those kids who will be locked up in Yarl's Wood over Christmas.”
The presents were eventually loaded into an unmarked van by staff who refused to provide a name, number or receipt for the gifts. Mr Rosental asked one “guard” his name and the man said “write down 'Father Christmas'”.
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