Continental divide

Do the circumstances of children who arrive in the UK
from Africa make them particularly vulnerable to abuse, asks
Frances Rickford

Would Victoria Climbie‚ have died had she not been
African? Of course, other children have been neglected, tortured
and killed by their parents and carers. But Victoria’s case has
shown how vulnerable her particular circumstances made her, and
raised the question of whether there may be others exposed to
similar risks both of abuse and of systemic failure by welfare
agencies to protect them.

For Modupe Debbie Ariyo, founder and co-ordinator of Africans
Unite Against Child Abuse (Afruca), the answer is undoubtedly that
there are. Ariyo was a witness at the seminar on identification
held by the Laming inquiry in March, and also submitted written
evidence. She believes African children, especially those who are
newly arrived in the country and who are not living with their
parents, are very vulnerable for several reasons. They and their
carers have already faced the trauma of war, economic collapse,
poverty or the fear of it, or violent repression – the reasons for
their migration. They are trying to cope with a very different
culture as well as the pain of separation from their communities
and families, including sometimes their parents and siblings. Like
other newly arrived child migrants, African children often find
themselves in the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods in the UK. Like
Victoria they may speak no English, and even those who do may find
they cannot make themselves understood.

Their carers may not know how to get the child into school, or
to register with a GP – let alone how to get desperately needed
social support. Even more isolated, according to Ariyo, is the
growing number of children brought into the country by asylum
seekers whose own future is uncertain, or trafficked by members of
the extended family or other contacts on false passports in the
hope of gaining an education and better prospects. Ariyo is
especially concerned about this group, which she believes is
growing rapidly. “There has been a lot of work done around children
trafficked into the UK for the purposes of sexual exploitation, but
anecdotal evidence reaching us suggests that a larger number are
being brought in as domestic servants, looking after younger
children and doing housework.” Most of this group are girls over 10
years old, employed by African professionals. According to Ariyo,
the practice is now so widespread that most Africans know someone
who has a domestic servant. “Some may be in school, but I doubt if
any of them get paid and their employers may well be claiming child
benefit for them.”

But even children living in the UK with their natural parents
are more vulnerable to abuse than other children, according to
Ariyo. Africans are as committed to the protection of the rights
and welfare of their children as anyone else, she says – it is
because they want a better life for their children that African
families migrate to the UK. But there is a widespread belief across
Africa that physical punishment is a necessary part of instilling
discipline in children. “While most parents and guardians are able
to maintain the principle of ‘reasonable chastisement’ in dealing
with their wards, we believe that it is possible for children to
become victims of potential abusers who, hiding under the guise of
discipline, are able to inflict untold physical and psychological
harm on the child,” Ariyo told the Laming inquiry.

Nervousness among professionals about being insensitive to
African cultural norms was identified at the Laming inquiry as a
factor in some professionals’ apparent lack of action to protect
Victoria. A UK-based relative of Victoria, Grace Akuba Quansah,
observed at a conference organised by Afruca early this year that
although nurses noted that Victoria stood to attention when her
aunt was present, her social worker Lisa Arthurworrey interpreted
this relationship as a normal reflection of an African cultural
value that attaches great importance to seniority. Debbie Ariyo
challenges the idea that just because physical punishment of
children is common among Africans across the continent, it is
necessarily a part of African “culture” that should be

But she also believes African children in the UK may be more
vulnerable to being excessively punished because the checks that
exist among local communities in Africa are not effective here.
Another witness at the Laming inquiry was Nana Amamoo of the
African Families’ Foundation, which advises African community
groups in the UK. Amamoo explained that in the African context “it
is a moral duty of any adult within the vicinity when an excessive
punishment is taking place to tell the adult that ‘You do not treat
a child like that’.

“Those checks and balances are being lost in the community in
the UK. Everybody is looking to social services and other provider
agencies to step in.”

Ariyo agrees. As well as the impact of external agencies charged
with protecting children, people are also less likely to intervene
because families see much less of each other here in the UK than
they would in their country of origin. “Some children – like
Victoria – may only see anyone outside their own household when
they go to church.”

Amamoo pointed out to the Laming inquiry that the relationship
between statutory agencies and African community members was not
one characterised by trust and good communication, and that in
itself left children more vulnerable. “We should not dismiss
lightly the painful relationship we have as a result of
colonialism.” Hurtful racial stereotypes – that Africans don’t have
love or concern for the welfare of their children – also discourage
them from seeking help from agencies. But even when people do try
to refer a child, or to seek help when they are not coping, they
often cannot get their concern taken seriously, she said. Apart
from any language barriers – and if they don’t speak English they
have little chance of being heard – there is also a sense that
other issues will get in the way, such as immigration status and
eligibility for services.

Amamoo said: “If it was made clear to everybody that all
children are eligible for all services, it doesn’t matter how they
came to be here, it would make things much easier.”

Ariyo also believes most Africans are reluctant to refer a child
to social services, even a trafficked child. This is because they
wouldn’t want to be responsible for the child being deported and
because there is a negative view of social services within African
communities where they are seen as ‘the people who take away your

A Tower Hamlets social worker, Amma Anane-Agyei, recently
organised two workshops on working with black African children and
families, with the help of the Congolese Refugee Women’s
Association and the African Women’s Welfare Group. Anane-Agyei
argued that to work effectively with African families, like any
family, it was necessary to engage them and establish some
commonality with them. This meant developing some specialist skill
and knowledge about African cultures, but also being aware of one’s
own cultural values and assumptions. “The more a worker is aware of
their own cultural values, the more likely they are to be able to
accommodate another person’s cultural values. It will then be
easier to ascertain whether there is an intent to harm or whether
behaviour is as a result of a different set of values and

She described a case of a Congolese family in which a child was
perceived to be possessed by the spirits of bad ancestors – Kindoko
– and to have been responsible for several deaths in the family.
She said that without understanding of the family’s beliefs it
wasn’t possible to engage with the family or effectively help the
child who himself believed he was possessed.

According to official figures collected in the 1990 census there
are about 80,000 African children aged under 16 in the UK, but this
figure is likely to be way wide of the mark, according to Ariyo.
“We believe these children are more likely to be in need and at
risk of abuse than other children in the UK, especially those newly
arrived and not living with their real parents.”

Both Ariyo and Amamoo are campaigning to raise awareness among
members of the African community, to rebuild a sense of collective
responsibility for children’s welfare. But agencies, too, need to
rethink the way they provide services if they are to begin to break
down the systemic barriers that left Victoria Climbie‚

The Challenges of Migration: the Experiences of the African
Child in the UK, is available from Africans Unite Against Child
Abuse, c/o CDD, Unit 6, Canonbury Yard, 190a New North Road, London
N1 7BJ.

The final article in our Child Protection In Focus series will
speculate on the future direction of services after the Laming
inquiry. It will appear in the issue of 25 July. Evidence to the
Laming inquiry can be found at

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