Helping unaccompanied asylum seeking children arriving at Heathrow Airport

Anabel Unity Sale meets the social workers who support young asylum seekers who turn up at Heathrow alone and afraid

You are 14, alone and scared. Your aeroplane has just touched down at Heathrow. The doors open and you have no idea what to do in this unknown place, thousands of miles from the home you were forced to leave.

This is where Hillingdon Council’s asylum service steps in. With the world’s busiest international airport lying within its boundaries, the local authority has developed an expertise in dealing with unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and trafficked minors.

At any one time, the council looks after more than 1,000 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children under its corporate parenting responsibilities. For every 100 children from the indigenous population it looks after, it is also responsible for providing 62 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children with accommodation, educational services and disability support.

Standby team

Hillingdon’s asylum service operates from a nondescript building in the corner of a business park in Uxbridge. Its 100-strong staff are divided into teams looking after all new referrals, children under 16, 16 to 18-year-olds and those over 18 in transition.

Last October, the council established a new team within the asylum service to ensure that all unaccompanied minors are assessed by a qualified and experienced social worker regardless of what time they arrive at Heathrow. Backed by a £400,000 annual Home Office grant for the next three years, Hillingdon created the standby team which operates from 5pm until 8am Monday to Friday and over weekends. Staffed by qualified social workers trained in age assessment and safeguarding issues, an average of six professionals are on call during each shift working on a monthly rota.

Paula Neil has been manager of Hillingdon’s asylum service for three years and has worked with asylum-seeking children throughout her 14 years at the borough. When the Home Office invited local authorities with main ports of entry to bid for more funding to improve their work with unaccompanied minors Neil seized the chance to establish an out-of-hours team.

“We wanted to augment our intake team’s practice and emergency duty team’s practice into a new, standby team because often a young person arrives at Heathrow at the end of the working day, night or the weekend,” she says.


When an unaccompanied minor arrives at the airport immigration officials conduct their own assessment to identify whether they have been trafficked or are an unaccompanied asylum seeker. After this they phone Hillingdon’s asylum service.

Social worker Seipone Hlahane risk-assesses the minors at Heathrow. Originally from South Africa, she moved to the UK in 2001 to join Hillingdon as a senior social worker and is now on the intake team. She works intensively with unaccompanied minors for three months on average and has an allocated caseload of 10 young people.

Many of the children she meets are traumatised by the experiences that led them to the UK, and may have been exploited during their journey. Hlahane must gain their trust. She says: “I explain to them in a way they can understand that now they can eat well, sleep well, get an education and we will help them through immigration.”

Relationships with immigration services

The average age of her clients is 14 but she recently worked with an eight-year-old. She says the children respond quickly to the reassurance. “They tell me they feel safe, that they slept well, and that this never happened in their own country.”

The impact of the standby team, which deals with 20-30 referrals a month, has been noted by Hillingdon. It can respond to the initial needs of unaccompanied minors much faster and ensure they receive the necessary services.

For Neil one benefit has been improved relationships with immigration services. She chairs quarterly meetings with immigration and asylum service staff at Heathrow’s five terminals to discuss concerns and issues.

“If there is something we aren’t happy about we can talk to them,” she says. “It’s important for both sides to understand the other’s role and responsibilities and work together in the interests of unaccompanied children.”

What works

● See the young person as a child first and foremost.

● Be aware of any factors that may lead to the young person having high emotional needs.

● Develop a dialogue with immigration staff so you can work productively together.

● Ensure all those working with an unaccompanied minor in social services and immigration are aware of the duties they have and the processes followed.

● Arrange for social workers to attend orientation at the local port of entry so they understand what a young person experiences.

Essential information on unaccompanied asylum-seeking children

This article is published in the 28 August edition of Community Care under the headline Rough Rides and Soft Landings

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