Alone and not home

needs to wake up to the fact that London bears the brunt of caring for
unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. Anabel Unity Sale reports.

was 15 when she and her younger sister arrived at Heathrow airport last June.
They were fleeing tribal warfare in Nigeria. Eecholey had witnessed the torture
and murder of her parents in their home. Fearing for their safety, a family
friend smuggled the sisters out of the country and handed them to a courier.

courier abandoned the girls in Heathrow’s arrivals hall. Eecholey and her
sister were frightened and bewildered when immigration officers approached
them. After being interviewed, they were collected by a social worker from
Hillingdon Council’s children’s asylum team. The sisters now live together with
foster carers in west London. Eecholey receives regular help from the borough’s
social services department to overcome her traumatic experiences.

the Children Act 1989, asylum-seeking children with no other means of support,
like Eecholey and her sister, are the responsibility of their council’s social
services department. Asylum seekers aged 18 and over and accompanied minors are
supported by the Home Office’s National Asylum Support Service and dispersed
across the UK.

asylum-seeking minors aged 15 and under are considered to be looked-after
children under section 20 of the Children Act. Those aged 16 and 17, under
section 17 of the same act, live more independently with support from social

the end of 2001, London’s 33 boroughs were caring for a total of 4,196
unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. The majority, 3,209, were aged 16 and 17
and 987 were aged 15 and under.1

caters for the largest number of unaccompanied children in the capital. In
December 2001 it was caring for 556 minors, 479 of whom were aged 16 and 17 and
77 of whom were aged 15 and under. Around 90 of the unaccompanied children were
aged under 16 when they first arrived in the borough.

provides unaccompanied asylum-seeking children aged 15 and under with
culturally-appropriate foster care placements and 16- and 17-year-olds with a
variety of supported accommodation.

council provides housing, education, health care and English language services
to all of its lone asylum-seeking minors. It also addresses their mental health
needs because of their distressing experiences.

head of children services Steve Liddicott believes London, and the south east,
have high numbers of unaccompanied minors because of the numerous airports and
seaports in the region. 

says young asylum seekers get to London via a “series of well established
routes”, by flying in or being smuggled in. If an adult courier is travelling
with the child they desert them at the soonest opportunity to avoid taking any
responsibility for them.

Brangwyn, head of health and social care at the Association of London
Government, says unaccompanied asylum children often come to London because of
its diverse population and the high number of asylum seekers already living

reason, Liddicott believes, is because they think they will have a reasonable
chance of making a claim for asylum and be supported through the process.

Dennis, the Refugee Council’s policy adviser for unaccompanied refugee
children, warns that asylum-seeking children who are travelling alone are at
risk from abuse. “They are obviously at risk in terms of being exploited by
other people while they are on their journey or when they get here,” she says.

says although most journeys to London are planned by an adult in the child’s
home country, the child is still in danger: “Whoever arranges the journey for
the child in the country of origin is placing a great deal of trust in the courier.
And children who are smuggled in are at risk because of the way they are

an unaccompanied minor arrives in London the support they need from social
services has to take into account their experiences, says Croydon Council
divisional director of children services Delroy Pomell. He explains: “An
asylum-seeking child is from a different region of the world and needs
culturally-sensitive services. Their race, cultural and linguistic needs must
be attended to.”

the end of last year Croydon was supporting 312 unaccompanied minors, 174 of
whom were aged 16 and 17. Pomell says depending on their age the borough places
them in residential care or foster care, complete with the necessary support.
Croydon also works with the Medical Foundation and the child and adolescent
mental health team to provide services to victims of conflict.

need help with more than just dealing with their past and in many cases, Denis
says, this means extra help in adjusting to living in a new country. “Some children
may not have seen a white person or have experienced racism before. We have
heard cases of children being bullied because they are asylum seekers, and not
because of the colour of their skin.”

some London boroughs like Hillingdon and Croydon take their statutory
responsibility for unaccompanied minors seriously, that is not the case for all
councils in the capital according to Kate Stanley, research officer for the
charity Save the Children.

interviewed 125 young asylum seekers and 13 local authorities across the
country for the Cold Comfort: Young Separated Refugees in England
report, which was published last October.2

found that it was common practice  among
some London councils to place older unaccompanied minors in accommodation out
of their area, sometimes as far away as the north east. It is a practice she
describes as “scandalous” because the young asylum seekers’ needs are not being
met adequately. “Some local authorities take the approach that unaccompanied
asylum-seeking children are children first and foremost. Others consider them
to be a burden and treat them as asylum seekers, where the focus is on
controlling them and limiting what they can do,” she says.

asylum-seeking minors are clearly high on the Home Office’s financial agenda.
It increased the unaccompanied asylum seeker children special grant, which
councils can apply for to cover support costs, to £85m in 2001/2002 from £52m
in 1999/2000.

authorities with more than 100 unaccompanied minors are able to claim up to
£575 per week back from the government for those aged 15 and under, and up to
£300 per week back for 16- and 17-year-olds. Councils with less than 100
unaccompanied children can claim up to £400 back per week for those aged 15 and
under and £200 per week for 16- and 17-year-olds. Local authorities can only
claim the special grant retrospectively.

says this makes funding unaccompanied minors services difficult. “It would be
good to have the fund in advance rather then retrospectively,” he says.

Greater London Authority spokesperson believes the grant is simply not enough.
“These children are particularly vulnerable but the grant from central
government to local authorities has failed to match even the sometimes less
than adequate investment in these children’s housing, education and training
needs,” she says.

says the grant does not cover the thousands of pounds a week a council spends
on providing appropriate services to asylum-seeking children. He says: “We are
asking the government to reimburse the full costs of our services full stop.”

adds that having a co-ordinated system for supporting unaccompanied children
across the London, and the UK, would also improve the way councils provide
services for them.

backs having a national strategy, but says councils must provide appropriate
services regardless. She urges local and central government and the sector to
put the needs of all asylum-seeker children first. “Every time a policy is
introduced we need to think how it is going to affect young asylum seekers.
While they may be a small group overall, they are a significant group.”

Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children Pan London Data, Association of
London Government, 2001

Kate Stanley, Cold Comfort: Young Separated Refugees in England, Save
the Children, 2001

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