Asylum seeking in Britain is not new. Pre-war, many Germans fled
here from fascism. Yet, on the outbreak of war, numbers of them
were interned and badly treated. Eleanor Rathbone, the MP who led
the campaign for family allowances, was one of the few public
figures to care about the internees and one recalled how, in the
pouring rain, she told them “you are not forgotten”.
A major difference today is that many legal asylum seekers are
black and so subject to even more hostility than the pre-war
Germans. It is not just the adults who suffer, so do their
Writing of asylum seekers, Terry Philpot explains that there are no
exact figures for their children “because only the primary
applicant is counted… It must be almost certain that the chances
are that some children will be privately fostered.”1 It
appears that some legal asylum seekers place their children with
white foster carers because of their cramped accommodation or their
long working hours.
This is confirmed by the health visitor Bev Clarke, who says: “I
have had asylum seekers, awaiting their cases to be heard and
wanting to work, wishing to have their children privately
Even less is known about the children of illegal asylum seekers or
immigrants, of whom, according to Afruca (Africans Unite Against
Child Abuse), there is a growing number. The parents have no legal
status, no benefits. They may move around the country to avoid
detection. And what of the children? If they remain with their
parents, they are likely to be in dire poverty and often on the
move. But their parents also may opt to put them with private
foster carers so that they are more free to earn an income.
Obviously, illegal asylum seekers want no contact with statutory
officials and hence do not notify social services department that
the children have been placed with strangers.
The vulnerability of children from abroad is not confined to those
brought into this country by their parents. Others, particularly
from Africa, arrive without parents en route to relatives or
friends. Usually they are sent in order to protect them from
adverse political and economic conditions. Such children can easily
In my study of private fostering, I met a woman, born in Sierra
Leone, who was given by her parents to a teacher. The teacher took
her to Britain and placed her with foster carers and she never saw
the teacher or her parents again. Within the private foster home
she was sexually abused.
The Home Office focuses on the “threat” of asylum seekers,
regarding them as an economic drain on Britain’s resources. The
child welfare world, by contrast, must be most concerned about the
plight of children whose arrival in this country lands them in
social, economic and emotional insecurity. Some children of legal
asylum seekers are known to local authorities who, with limited
resources, struggle to provide them with education and care. Most
at risk are those whose existence is unknown and who may be put
with adults, including private foster carers, of whom the
authorities have no knowledge.
What can be done? The private fostering lobby is calling for a
register of private foster carers. However, if both birth parents
and carers collude in ignoring the local authority there would be
little chance of the children being placed with registered carers.
It follows that the Department of Health should finance a massive
awareness campaign so that doctors, nurses, day care staff,
teachers, neighbours and others likely to come across black
children newly taken in by white adults, are ready to notify the
local authorities of their presence.
More radically, New Labour should declare an amnesty for all
illegal asylum seekers so that they can be spared the fear of
immediate removal and will not feel compelled to hide their
children. Obviously, the government must attempt to deter criminals
and terrorists but, in general, I believe it should welcome
economic and political migrants. I live in an area where schools
are closing for lack of pupils while thousands of empty flats have
been demolished. Chancellor Gordon Brown points to the number of
unfilled job vacancies and former Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock
argues that our ageing population needs new blood. Throughout the
past century, incomers proved a source of economic strength to
Britain and they could do so again.
As Eleanor Rathbone did, we should be saying to them and their
children “You are not forgotten”.
1 T Philpot, A Very Private Practice,
Baaf Adoption and Fostering, 2001
2 B Holman, The Unknown Fostering, Russell
Bob Holman is the author of Champions for Children,
Policy Press, 2001 and The Unknown Fostering, Russell House,