'You are living like an adult way before your time, and it's very difficult'

Dritan Sadiku sits alone in his tiny one-bedroom bedsit above a pizzeria in a rundown suburb of north London. The room is decorated sparsely - a single bed is pushed against the wall behind an armchair, and old newspapers litter the small table. The teenage Kosovan lives here alone on benefits of £23 a week.

Dritan explains in broken English how he first arrived in Britain nearly two years ago, as a 15-year-old seeking asylum from the brutal conflict in his homeland. He is just one of thousands of unaccompanied children seeking refuge in this country according to figures released by Home Secretary David Blunkett. The Independent on Sunday has spoken to teenagers who have been through the system.

One of them, Doulat Shah Halimi, fled Afghanistan at the age of 16, eventually smuggling himself aboard a cross-Channel ferry by clinging to the bottom of a lorry with his face covered in blood. Now 18, Doulat told us how he was forced to sleep in a car when he arrived in the UK, washing in public swimming pools. After contacting social services, he was put up in a cramped room at a Barking bed and breakfast.

"In a way, you are living like an adult way before your time and it's a very difficult situation to be in," Doulat said. "I did depend on my case worker, but I would tell him problems and nothing happened."

Another child, Lee, was just 13 when he fled the conflict in his native Somalia that had claimed the lives of both his parents. Unable to speak a word of English, he made it to Heathrow airport, and was subsequently placed at a hostel in Croydon, Surrey. Lee, now 22, was forced to share a bathroom with eight other teenage boys and girls, and suffered severe bullying at a local school.

"I was missing my family and the people were all different from me and not settled," said Lee. "There were people from all different countries living with me and we had to try to learn how to talk to each other. We developed a little bit of sign language as a way to express our emotions."

It's a story that is all too recognisable to youngsters like Dritan. The schoolboy, whose parents are missing in Kosovo presumed dead, has been left to fend for himself in this country, like countless others. Dritan has had to learn to become an adult very quickly.

Dritan had just celebrated his 15th birthday when he returned to his home in Peja, Kosovo, one day to find his house destroyed and his parents gone. With no money, no remaining family and scant few possessions, the teenager found himself lost, afraid and totally alone in a war-zone.

Dritan, who has just turned 17, knew his best chance of survival was to escape from Peja and seek asylum in another country. He exchanged his father's car - still parked on the street near the remains of their home - to buy passage on a lorry bound for England.

The journey took four days. As soon as it arrived in Britain, the lorry made straight for London.

Dritan, who spoke no English, was passed into social services care. Having nowhere else to put him, they sent him to a small hotel in Finsbury Park, north London, where he was to live on his own. A social worker would visit Dritan once a week, but otherwise the 15-year-old was left to his own devices.

Three months later, the bewildered youngster was moved on again - to the bedsit in nearby Stroud Green, where he still lives.

Dritan's English is improving, and he is now attending a secondary school, but the youngster is still completely alone. His social workers, he says, haven't been to visit him for more than eight months, although Dritan does go to see them once a fortnight at their offices in Waltham Green. Despite this, Dritan concentrated on teaching himself the language. He enrolled at Quintin Kynaston secondary school in St John's Wood last October.

"It was difficult at first," he says. "I had to learn cooking and cleaning and how to look after myself - I had to become an adult very young."

Dritan's school has 200 asylum-seekers among its 1,100 pupils, and focuses heavily on teaching English as an additional language.

The school's refugee and asylum-seeker co-ordinator, Pauline Leviss, said that Dritan's case was sadly symptomatic of many others.

"The way these children are treated is terrible," said Ms Leviss, herself the daughter of a refugee from Nazi Germany. "It's not morally right. These children have been through some exceptionally traumatic experiences After all, they're only children. I think it's very shabby treatment, placing already vulnerable young people in an even more vulnerable situation. It's something the Government should have a serious look at."