The scandal of Britain's asylum children

Bradley is only nine months old but he was sent to a detention centre and treated like a prisoner. Every year thousands of youngsters are locked up, while others are abandoned to live alone in bedsits. This is the story of what Britain does to refugee children

Thousands of traumatised children who seek asylum in the UK are being left to fend for themselves in bed and breakfast hotels or bedsits, The Independent on Sunday can reveal. Younger children, including babies, are also being kept in detention centres.

At any one time around 300 juveniles, some as young as 13, are living alone in bed and breakfast accommodation, according to new figures contained in Commons written answers. The figures, released by the Home Office, show that one in eight children who have fled persecution and come to Britain alone end up living in bedsits with little support from social services.

There has been a dramatic rise in the number of child immigrants coming to the UK. In 2002, 5,945 children aged 17 and under sought asylum in the UK compared with just 631 in 1996. Children's charities say there are now more than 6,000 unaccompanied refugee children in the care of social services departments in England, including around 4,000 in London alone. They say that in the course of a year thousands pass through B&Bs, hotels and hostels.

A typical example is Dritan Sadiku, who was 15 when he found his house in Peja, Kosovo, destroyed and his parents missing. Fearing they were dead, he travelled by truck to England. Now he lives alone in a bedsit in north London, on £23 a week. He says his social worker has not visited him at home for more than eight months.

Some children spend significant parts of their early years in immigration detention centres, where critics say they are deprived of proper schooling and are allowed little exercise.

Bradley Denascimento, a nine-month-old baby, spent seven weeks living with his parents in the Oakington detention centre in Cambridgeshire and at Harmondsworth near Heathrow. The baby, whose family fled political persecution in Angola, developed medical problems in the centre. The family has been released on bail pending an appeal against deportation. His father, Paolo, warned that if conditions did not improve, a baby would die in detention.

Last month, the IoS highlighted the plight of the Ay family. Fourteen-year-old Beriwan Ay, her sisters and brother have spent more than 10 months living with their mother at Dungavel detention centre, in Scotland. They are still waiting for a date for their asylum appeal hearing.

Campaigners are calling on the Government to improve welfare provision for young people who end up alone in bed and breakfast accommodation. They argue they should be treated as "at risk" under child protection laws rather than just "in need".

A report for Save the Children found that services for refugees separated from their families were often fragmented and sometimes non-existent. Terry Smith, of the Refugee Council, said: "The feeling is that they are streetwise and can look after themselves but behind the figures there is a child."

A poll tomorrow, published to coincide with Refugee Week, shows that British youngsters are less sympathetic towards refugees than the rest of the public. The Liberal Democrat spokesman on children, Paul Burstow, said there was a "shocking" lack of support for "some of the most vulnerable children on earth".

The Home Office said it immediately refers unaccompanied children to social services and, under the Children Act 1980, they are put into local authority care. "Our paramount duty at the Home Office, when we deal with unaccompanied minors, is to provide them with care and support, ensuring that all their needs are met," a spokesman said.

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