Identifying children at risk who arrive from abroad via the UK’s airports has long been a problem for the authorities.
For the past three months, the immigration service and the Metropolitan Police’s Paladin team, which was set up to tackle child trafficking, have been trialling a system to spot vulnerable children, by tracking flights from Jamaica.
The Kingston Pilot, which ended last week, was designed to test how airlines, the police and immigration officers could work together to share information and monitor all children, especially those who are unaccompanied.
One flight from Kingston lands at Heathrow every day, carrying 40 to 70 children. Officers from the Paladin team, with co-operation from airlines, have eight hours to carry out checks on passengers travelling with children from the island to Heathrow, as well as those they may be meeting at the airport.
Detective inspector Gordon Valentine, who heads the Paladin team, says: “We want to reach the stage where they [vulnerable children] do not even board the plane.”
Jamaica was chosen as the pilot country because of its limited number of routes into the UK; airlines fly only to Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester airports. Jamaican nationals require visas to come to the UK, which means those travelling from the island must provide details of where they will be staying and with whom.
The immigration service says it would be much more difficult to monitor children from, say, Nigeria, because flights from its main city. Lagos, arrive all over the UK.
Valentine says the Kingston Pilot will be evaluated to see whether it could be rolled out to areas of “greater concern”.
Airlines have a crucial role to play in making the process work. A spokesperson for the immigration service says they have been cooperative, despite initial concerns that check-in staff could be targeted by criminal gangs as a result.
They were also concerned that the work could cause queues and were keen that their involvement should cause minimal disruption to passengers.
By providing specialist training to airline staff involved in the pilot and a dedicated telephone line for queries, the project team were able to get their co-operation.
Valentine says Paladin has not dealt with lots of children about whom there are concerns.
“We have had one incident where a seven-year-old child was not travelling with parents, and we carried out checks on the person who was meeting the child who turned out to be involved with drugs, prostitution and guns.
“The child was then taken into care by Hillingdon social services and was later placed with relations.”
Social services have a major role to play in carrying out the work, adds Valentine. “We need a social worker on our team because they can help us study behaviour. You are interviewing a child who has come off a very long flight so their behaviour may not be normal because they are tired.
“A social worker can help assess the attachment between the adult and the child.”