Under threat, the sanctuary for Heathrow's migrant children

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The Independent Online

The night before 14-year-old Ahmed Hassan fled Kabul, he awoke to find his father standing over him.

"It was cold and he put a blanket on me. I pretended to be asleep. He was praying, for my happiness and well being. I will never forget that," he said.

The once-respected and affluent Afghan doctor had watched his world destroyed by the Taliban and decided that his second youngest son must get out of the country before he, like so many of his age, was recruited to fight. The following morning he placed him in a car heading for Pakistan where he had paid an agent for a false passport and a flight to the UK. As his father bid him a tearful farewell, the teenager was simply excited, unaware of what lay ahead or that his father would die before they could ever meet again. Seven years later he still has the pen and body spray his father gave him.

The young man is now 21 and is a university student. He speaks with a London accent, sports the spiky hair style of his generation and - after racist abuse following the terror attacks of September 11 in the US - uses a Western-sounding name. His father died two years ago while his mother and sisters remain in Kabul.

Mr Hassan's "corporate parent" for the past seven years has been Hillingdon council, the authority responsible for the countless children and adolescents who arrive at Heathrow each year, permanently severed from their families, terrified of authority and unable to speak the language. Some are pregnant girls who have been raped, others bear the marks of torture or the trauma of having watched their parents killed.

Yesterday the council led a David-and-Goliath court battle against the Government, accusing it of reneging on its responsibility to these vulnerable young people. According to legislation introduced in 2003, Hillingdon, as the children's port of entry, is responsible for their welfare until they finish education or turn 24.

The battle is over funding for those aged 18 to 23 in their care, whose numbers have shot up from 179 in 2003 to 833 last year. The local authority has said that it costs about £198 a week to provide social care, counselling and education as well as partly funding housing for each one. While the Government promised £140 per youngster in 2004, it has retrospectively cut that amount to £100, leaving a shortfall of £5 a year. This has forced severe cuts - more than 100 council job posts have gone with 23 redundancies last year.

They hope that having the world's busiest airport in their borough makes them a special case and a judicial review before the High Court will find in their favour.

Ray Puddifoot, the council's leader, said: "It is pretty shabby treatment from the Government to do this to us. It is unacceptable not to recognise their duty to these people. It is unacceptable that we have to make job cuts in other areas. We are not arguing about our duty to these youngsters. But it is a national duty, not a local one."

At the High Court yesterday, Hillingdon's barrister, James Goudie QC, said that the change in the funding formula in January last year - allowing more authorities to obtain grants even though they were responsible for fewer young people - had led to a cut from £17m to £11m. He argued that it was "unlawful", had "calamitous effects" and inflamed "anti-asylum and anti-immigration sentiments". He asked the court to order the Secretary of State for Education and Skills to increase the funding back to £140 per week.

Paul Brown, for the Government, said that Hillingdon had no legitimate expectation and that the borough had never been promised the rate of £140 per week in the current year. The grants had only been intended to "assist" local authorities and not cover "the entirety" of the costs.

Reserving judgment, Mr Justice Forbes said he hoped to give his decision in the near future.

Asked why the British taxpayer should foot the bill for his upbringing, Ritvan Leknikaj, an earnest young Kosovar, responded: "I have worked really hard. What they have done is invest in me and I am going to pay that back and make a contribution to society."

Unlike most of the children and young people in Hillingdon's care - 1,137 at the moment - Mr Leknikaj arrived by road, thrown out of the back of a lorry, dehydrated and weak after days without food. When a police officer spotted him sleeping rough without even a jacket, the 15-year-old presumed he was in for yet another beating. Unable to speak English, he simply lifted his shirt to show that his back was black from bruising. He turned, his hands clenched, his arms outstretched ready to be handcuffed.

"The policeman ... was shocked. I waited to be handcuffed and he said 'no' and shook his head. He put me in a cell with a mattress and a blanket. It was a freezing October night outside and I was really grateful. Can you imagine when the best thing to happen to you is to be put in a police cell?"

Mr Leknikaj, his mother, father and sister had been among hundreds of Kosovars from a village in Montenegro who fled the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. As they walked over the mountains, they were suddenly arrested and Mr Leknikaj, then just 13, was separated from his family. To this day he has not been able to trace them. It is six years since that cold October night and he is now at university, studying media and film, and works as a volunteer with young people. He says he owes it all to the local social services.

Cathy Bambrough, Hillingdon's acting deputy director of children and family services, said that these young people worked hard and many still suffered from post-traumatic stress. This is all too evident in the way the two young men react to night-time.

For Mr Leknika, slumber took him back to the cells where he was repeatedly assaulted: "I still get nightmares. The only thing I hate is sleep. Sometimes I wish we didn't have to sleep."