National register of child refugees may help protect them from abuse

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Thousands of refugee children who arrive in Britain alone after fleeing torture, extreme poverty or persecution will be registered for the first time on a national database launched this week by ministers.

Thousands of refugee children who arrive in Britain alone after fleeing torture, extreme poverty or persecution will be registered for the first time on a national database launched this week by ministers.

On Tuesday, the Government will unveil the National Register of Unaccompanied Children, which will list details of all immigrants under the age of 18 who are separated from both parents and not cared for by an adult.

The move marks a victory for The Independent on Sunday, which has exposed the inadequate protection for refugee children arriving in Britain, many of whom end up alone in bed and breakfast hotels at risk of abuse because they are not properly monitored.

More than 700 unaccompanied children, seeking asylum, arrived in Britain in the first three months of this year, according to the latest figures, compared with 631 who arrived in the UK in the whole of 1996.

In the past five years, more than 15,000 have entered the UK. The majority are thought to have come from Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Serbia and Montenegro. About 8,000 are in the care of over-stretched social services, says the London Asylum Seekers Consortium, which organises the dispersal of asylum-seekers and initiated the setting up of the new register. Unaccompanied children either come to the UK alone or with a trafficker who abandons them at an airport, port or at the immigration service head office in Croydon, south London. Social workers then try to find a foster home for the child ­ a difficult task because in most cases they are without a passport or any documentation, which would provide clues to their background and specific needs.

The British Association of Adoption and Fostering (BAAF) said social workers struggle to find suitable families because of the complex cultural needs of these child refugees. "It's just a high number of children who are going to need care because they come from different cultures and backgrounds," said Selam Kidane of the BAAF. "It becomesmore challenging to find the right sort of foster carers."

The setting up of the new register comes as the Government faces increasing criticism over its treatment of children, especially those who are locked up with parents in immigration detention centres.

A report published last week by human rights group Plan condemned this policy and said immigrant children are not receiving the care they were promised under international human rights conventions. Marie Staunton, the chief executive of Plan, said: "These children should have the same protection as a British child found abandoned on the streets."

Agent took £6,000 fee to transport Mohammad to safety in Britain

Sixteen-year-old Muhammad sits with his social worker, Laura Gomez, in a meeting room at Croydon town hall in south London. Looking young for his 16 years, he seems low and hardly speaks. Until last year, Muhammad had a normal childhood living with his parents in Karachi, Pakistan. The only child was looking forward to attending college after finishing school.

Then one day in December, his mother and father ­ both Shias, a minority in Pakistan ­ disappeared after attending a religious ceremony. Muhammad says his parents were kidnapped but the crime was not reported because his family feared the authorities. His father's business partner and friend arranged for Muhammad to leave the country for his own protection. An agent was paid £6,000.

"He arranged a passport for me and an agent took me here," he says. "The agent did everything. I didn't know the agent. I had no relatives here or anything. I didn't know where I was going." On 27 February this year, they arrived at Heathrow airport where Muhammad cleared immigration after saying he was only staying for four weeks. At Heathrow bus station, the agent disappeared.

Muhammad says: "I waited an hour. I went to the information desk and asked if there was an Asian area nearby. I took the 105 bus to Southall. I had £30. I asked many people for help. A boy helped me. He took me to his home and to a solicitor the next day." He found his way to the Refugee Council, who directed him to the Home Office where he was photographed and social services called. The teenager has been granted leave to remain until his 18th birthday, but is too homesick and has opted to return to Pakistan.

Ms Gomez says: "While other children are focusing on their lives, refugee children find it hard. In many cases, children suffer from torture and in some cases relatives have been murdered in front of them. The families send them to protect them."